‘Reality Mining’ in a Real Social Network

6 08 2008

“Reality Mining” is a new form of research that employs real data, such as cell phone use, to learn about trends that might otherwise be overlooked.  The method seems to be particularly effective in dispelling the myths of conventional wisdom.

It also reveals the gap between reality and virtual reality. MIT student Benjamin Waber used the technique to study social patterns among a group of workers. Instead of asking people about their social habits, Waber outfitted each employee with an electronic monitor that tracked the location and duration of all their conversations.

Waber’s results, as documented in Wired magazine, show that social networks in the real world function differently from social networks in cyberspace; sometimes the two are diametrically opposed.

On the Web, the best way to solve a problem is to engage an extensive network; the person who provides information, advice, or answers is often someone you know only vaguely — a weak link.

In the face-to-face world, though, Waber says, groups are more productive when the team members know each other well, sharing extremely strong links. That’s because face-to-face teamwork requires intimacy, he says, and “when you’re among friends you can really capitalize on preexisting protocols” — nods, grunts, in-jokes — for talking and listening.

The research also gave Waber strong insight into how information flows through the company. Waber found that one person in each network serves as a super-connector, getting news out to the team. Not surprisingly, that person is almost never the manager. It’s usually the person working below the radar who’s getting the real stuff done.

Of course, the knock on reality mining is the obvious infringement of privacy, which will only increase as the method grows and continues showing imperssive results. But according to MIT researcher Nathan Eagle, the key is finding ways to use the information that serve the common good. 

“Right now practically the only use for it is for law enforcement to use it to investigate crimes and put people in jail,” he says. “I just think it can be put to better use to deliver services that are interesting or that help people.”


Social Networks for Grownups

1 11 2007

Facebook, Myspace, and LinkedIn get all the press when it comes to online social networks. But according to an article in Fast Company by David Teten and Scott Allen, those sites are new to the game and have far fewer users than good ole’ Yahoo and Google Groups that operate through basic emails. In fact, Yahoo Groups alone accounts for 108 million users in 8.7 million groups – more than twice the 50 million members of Facebook.

The problem, they say, is that people get so turned off by all the notifications, alerts, and random news items they receive through the groups that they end up blocking all the good stuff that goes with it.  

Many people have told us that they have turned off notifications from these groups because they were getting too many emails. But this is a lot like not using the telephone because too many telemarketers call you. Eighty-four percent of American Internet users have used the Internet to interact with a group — more than those that have used the Internet to read news, search for health information, or buy something. Online groups are where your peers are; they are the “social networks” for grownups.

The solution is fairly simple: consolidate your inboxes.

Teten and Allen then give a step-by-step clinic on creating filtering folders to help us get the good stuff faster. They also make a key point about online group involvement. It isn’t important to be very active in the groups, but when you do get involved, make sure to add value to the group by accessing your particular expertise or your business.

But even without the useful tips on consolidating the information, Teten and Allen are right about online groups. There really is action there we don’t think about in discussions of Web 2.0. But these groups have a lot to offer in a setting that many people naturally relate to and know how to use.

The groups I know tend to develop elements of community simply because the same people interact with one another on a regular basis and get to know each other, at least on the email level. Each group has people who are extremely active, people who seen to be completely inactive, and people we wish weren’t active at all (but almost always seem to be among the most active).  

Because these groups coalesce around people with common goals, or at least common interests, they present opporunities to spread information to the “base” – the people most likely to accept the information and possibly spread it themselves. The stronger an idea stands within its base of support, the deeper it penetrates into the collective.  

While Facebook may be growing beyond all measure and new groups continue to spring up and offer all types of new opportunities, its important to remember where we can count on finding people we most want to reach. And nothing has displaced the simple email affinity group from its status as our greatest connector.