My two-and-a-half years ‘away’ from Facebook

On 30 June 2014, I effectively stopped using my Facebook profile, with no personal posts during the subsequent two-and-a-half years. At the time, I wrote a rant about my reasons for doing so – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to Facebook anymore” – a wordplay on Peter Finch’s famous scene from the movie Network. So, have I been missing much? And is it time to come back?


No posts

Not really for the first question, and kind of for the second. Since I locked down my personal profile and friend settings, I’ve had about 70 friend requests and 40 to 50 items that I’ve been tagged in for timeline review. I’ve still needed to login to Facebook occasionally for administering various pages, while also writing posts under the guise of those page profiles.


I’ve made just two comments with my personal profile during the past 30 months, one to gain access to an educational course and the other to thank the providers for doing so. However, in the future, I do want to interact more with communities (pages, groups, etc.) related to my interests, both professional and personal.


The overlapping worlds of work and family / Images from

I realise that my main gripe with Facebook has been the overlapping universes of work and family contacts. I remember Blaine Cook talking about this in 2009, when he likened the platform to being stuck in a big room with your parents, your boss, your sports team, your current and past partners, your colleagues, your family, and more.


So as a fix for this, I’ve started disconnecting from my 50 or so (extended) family contacts (sorry all!) while keeping my other 570 contacts, to make a clearer separation between work and family online. This still allows me to make use of Facebook for marketing, information seeking, promotion and other interactions, but avoids the uncomfortableness I’ve always felt with the platform, which I mainly used for cross-posting work-related stuff from Twitter anyway. At least my family all have my phone number if they still want to/need to get me!

Reinforcing Ideological Walls with Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm


In a recent academic paper from Facebook, researchers described how their news feed algorithm is presenting users with content that is related to their ideological standpoint, and removes some “cross-cutting content” from sources they are less likely to agree with. (Cross-cutting content are stories that are more likely to have been shared by those who are strongly committed to a different ideology than you.) The paper has raised concerns about the role that algorithms play in the kind of content that Facebook users are being exposed to.

One general issue with the algorithms that control the selection and display of content in our social network news feeds is that we do not actually know what else these algorithms are selecting our stories based on, or how widespread their effects are. For example, we had the experiment carried out by Facebook in 2012 and published last year where they manipulated the display of happy and sad stories to 150,000 users to see if they would in turn share happy or sad content. It may have been an isolated test, but the attitude behind carrying out such a study did cause me to stop using my own Facebook personal profile.

Some argue that an algorithmic ranking is much the same as an editor choosing what we see in a newspaper: most people would know when they pick up a certain newspaper that they are going to see stories aligning to the ideology of that newspaper and its readers. However, an editor can also decide on any one day that it is in the interests of a newspaper’s readers to see a more diverse range of news stories around an important breaking topic.

In terms of social networks and how algorithms work on sites like Facebook, there is often an assumption of neutrality, and many would think that they are being shown the same types of content as other people would see from their own sets of friends. That is, everyone would see a balanced set of content items overall, perhaps reordered based on “Likes” but not so much on one’s own profile characteristics (apart maybe for the ads on the sidebar which a lot of people realise are tailored). This was apparent after the aforementioned emotion manipulation study, when a lot of people stated that they didn’t realise that the Facebook news feed was filtered at all.

Most social networks (and also non-social services such as search) are trying to personalise your content and make it more relevant, creating the so-called “Filter Bubble” as a result, so in this respect Facebook is similar to many other platforms. What you click on determines what you will see, although the researchers in this paper seem to make a distinction between the news feed selection algorithm and user choices as if they were semi-independent yet similar factors: in fact, one actually drives the other.

As regards other findings from this study, some of the results made sense, albeit with a sample group that had issues in terms of its selection. What the researchers called “hard content” – national or world news and politics – was very polarised in terms of how it is shared: liberals shared stories from liberal news sources, conservatives from conservative sources. Also, placement of stories in the news feed has a significant effect on clickthrough rates (no surprise there).

In terms of the numbers, self-identified conservatives are being shown 5% less cross-cutting hard news compared to self-identified liberals who are being shown 8% less (who does that anger more?!), and also conservatives are clicking on about 30% of the cross-cutting hard news that they are being shown in their feed compared to the liberals at 20%. I would have guessed the reverse.

The problem revealed by this study is that some social networks are now effectively increasing political polarisation, accelerated by algorithms such as the one from Facebook that curates your news feed for you. These news feed algorithms can be changed to suit different conditions, but no one knows how much they are changing over time, if at all. Right now, all we know is that these algorithms are increasing a user’s selective exposure to news, before the user can decide what to select themselves.

Such news selectivity is generally accepted as being counter to democracy. The reinforcement of ideological walls outlined here may be part of a social network’s future plan for content consumption but it is not a plan we have to go along with.

I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to Facebook anymore!

Image inspired by Peter Finch in Network.

There have been a number of things about Facebook’s treatment of its users that have irked me over the years, from its cavalier attitude towards privacy to its attempts to “use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising”. However, the latest debacle over its experimental manipulation of what a person sees in order to determine the effect on a user’s behaviour has pushed me to consider my future as a Facebook user, or rather, my future as a non-user of Facebook.

I can only imagine the furore that would have ensued amongst users if I had decided to control the posts being displayed on the popular After Hours forum on in my admin heyday by applying sentiment analysis or emotion detection algorithms and then hiding or promoting some posts to certain users, while measuring the resulting changes in subsequent posts. As an academic, I am sure I could have produced an interesting and possibly highly-cited research paper on this, but I could not know in advance that my tinkering wouldn’t have a drastic effect on the real-world behaviours of individual users exposed to the more negative posts.

(My colleagues at DERI, now Insight at NUI Galway, have created a system to examine the health of online communities, providing observations at a macro and micro level. Along with tools like the Text Analysis API from Irish-based AYLIEN, these insights into clusters, user roles, topics and content could be used to help administrators direct the future development of a community, but in a transparent manner and not after the fact).

While I couldn’t say that I am a power user of Facebook (most of my content is propagated from Twitter), I have made a significant investment in the platform, both in terms of time and money. I bought my username from a namesake, have run various targeted ad campaigns, and I’ve acquired a diverse 600-plus-strong network made up of a mixture of family, friends, colleagues and peers. I’ve been a member since the end of June 2007, so breaking up after seven years is hard to do… I also know a bunch of people who work at Facebook, both here in Ireland and in the US – they’re nice people, not evil corporate drones. However, it doesn’t change the fact that at times the company has displayed really poor judgement, and it has alienated a lot of people this week to the point of leaving the website.

Quitting from Facebook isn’t straightforward. There are two options: delete (permanently) and deactivate (temporarily, for as long as you want). You can find the deactivate option fairly easily through the Settings menu, but they deliberately make it difficult for users to actually go through with it, either by applying psychological pressure around supposed soon-to-be abandoned friends or because of a user’s administrative ties to created pages or applications.

For me, they failed in the former, because by showing me photos of a bunch of influential users in my network with captions like “X will miss you”, they probably chose the people least likely to worry about my insignificant ramblings. Will Pat Phelan, Patrick Collison or Donncha Ó Caoimh really miss (or even remember) my posts about Lego or how Galway is the best place to be for tech? No, Facebook, they probably won’t: they’re too busy rolling out fantastic products of their own to millions of users.

They tripped me up somewhat in the latter. I was the only admin for three out of my 10-15 Facebook pages, so I had to manually add some backup admins for those before I could deactivate. When it came to the nine or ten Facebook applications I had created, it told me that I had to add a new owner to each or delete the application before I deactivated. To be honest, I suspected that many of them were unused but I bailed out at this step as I didn’t have the willpower (or perhaps the courage) to delete them.

Before I started the deactivation process, I realised that the primary reason that I wanted to hold on to my Facebook account at all was so that I could administer various official or community pages when necessary. Deactivating my account would make it difficult to do this any more, without creating a dummy account in its place. So what was the alternative?

I decided that I could still choose to not make any new posts, to turn off access to future posts, to not allow others to post to my timeline, and to restrict new friend requests so that my account would be all but dormant. I also turned off the Facebook Platform, which disables third-party apps (like Twitter integration) and stops them from auto-posting content or doing other stuff to your account. You can also turn off access to all historical posts, but the system warns you that access can only be turned back on again on a post-by-post basis (a bit time consuming if you change your mind!). Facebook only lets you go so far with some of the privacy or access limits: some can be changed to “Only Me”, but many are at the “Friends of Friends” or “Friends” level.

It isn’t easy to port your content to another platform: Facebook does have a facility to download your content, which is straightforward and emails you a link to download a HTML dump that can be easily browsed offline. It doesn’t conform to data portability or interoperability standards, but a ScraperWiki script or something similar could achieve that pretty quickly. You can also add a trusted contact who can assist you with access to your account if you lose it, but you need to add at least three people, and I could only think of one.

On the plus side, by keeping my account active but dormant, I can still use my profile image and cover photo to make a statement. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to Facebook anymore!”, “Follow me instead at”, or “Go use Google+/Diaspora*/[insert platform name here] instead…”

I haven’t done that just yet, but I have effectively disconnected from Facebook, removed the app from my home screen, changed my password to something that I can’t easily remember, and logged out all of my active Facebook sessions on other devices. How long will I last, and how long do you think you could last? Do you want to make tomorrow, July 4th, your “Independence from Facebook Day”?

You can listen to us discuss the Facebook news feed experiment in the latest Technology Voice Show.

An Interview with Andy Carvin – Twitter as an Open Source Newsroom

Last September Fergal Gallagher was able to interview Andy Carvin just before he gave his talk at the Truth in News Symposium held at Dublin City University. We have transcribed the audio from his interview and the original recording is available at the bottom of this page.

Fergal Gallagher: I am here with Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist and NPR, National Public Radio. (NB: Andy has since moved to First Look Media.) We are at the DCU media conference. Andy hasn’t spoken yet but his name has already come up quite a lot for the way he uses social media to cover stories. Maybe you could talk about what you do.

Andy Carvin: My primary job at NPR, essentially, is to experiment with new ways of reporting. Especially when it comes to collaborative reporting with the public…Over the years I have done a variety of experiments on Twitter… but during the Arab Spring things really came together because we reached a critical mass of people who were using social media in certain parts of the world and were willing to serve as eye-witnesses to these events.

…I use my Twitter account, essentially as an open source newsroom. Rather than being a newswire service where I am constantly saying, “This has happened. This hasn’t happened.” blah, blah, blah, blah, I am asking people, “What do you know about this? Have you heard about this? Was there actually a chemical attack yesterday? Are there any videos yet? How do we know those videos aren’t from somewhere else?”

And so my Twitter followers will work with me to investigate certain things that we think are interesting. Often, the stuff we do are ideas they come up with. So, for example, during the Arab Spring a number of news outlets in the region started to report that Israel was supplying weapons to Muammar Gaddafi which seemed a little insane at the time given that they were arch-enemies. But, nonetheless, it was being reported.

They were reporting it because they found a mortar shell that had what looked like a Star of David on it, a six pointed star. Well, in less than an hour my Twitter followers were able to prove that’s a standard symbol that has been used for over a hundred years to mark these types of shells as star shells that you shoot up to light up the sky. They are illumination rounds so had nothing to do with Israel. The same symbol could be found on mortars and artillery from World War 1. So, it is things like that, we stumble on these questions that are being reported. One question leads to another and we just dig in further.

FG: On that point there is a guy in the UK who does something similar on Syria.

AC: He goes by the name of Ron Moses but his real name is Elliot Higgins. He is a fascinating guy because he was just some unemployed bloke who had a lot of free time on his hands. So he started paying attention to Syria and he has become the civilian expert on arms in and out of Syria. It’s incredible what he’s done. So, I’ve worked with him on a few occasions and we swap information.

FG: It’s basically a new way of gathering news that traditionally was done behind closed doors whereas you are making, as you say, an open, public newsroom. I know you have had some criticism from traditional journalists who say you tweet something or ask someone, “Is this true?” And it later turns out to be false, whether it’s someone else or your followers who have proved it to be false. What do you say to people who say, “You shouldn’t be tweeting that if you are not sure if it is true,” in case people don’t see the correction?

AC: Well, I got that a lot after the Newtown massacre, at that elementary school in Connecticut. Michael Wolf wrote a fairly scathing editorial about me for The Guardian but I wrote back and paragraph by paragraph I told him he is completely misunderstanding what I do. In fact, the examples he cited of where I was sharing rumours I was actually sending out tweets reporting what U.S. broadcasters were claiming on air and asking what evidence people knew about them. So, at one point there was a report that a purple van had been surrounded by police and I hadn’t seen that reported anywhere else but one of the U.S. networks cited it. So I asked people, “What do you know about this?” We tried to figure it out.

In the context of how I work it makes sense for the people that follow me. And the folks that have criticised me, they understand that but don’t feel comfortable with it. I can’t force them to change their outlook on how journalism and reporting happens. The only way I can judge it is if the news organisation I am working for is happy with how I am doing it and if our ombudsman has any problem with how I am doing it. In each case the response has been very positive.

FG: Since you have been doing this there has been many more journalists, and non-journalists, who have been copying that technique.

AC: It is becoming more common in different ways. People may not do it full time for their reporting but there are times when the public knows more than you do so why not ask them for help. I certainly wouldn’t want to pretend that this the way we should be reporting in all circumstances because probably the majority of the time you are reporting on other stories it may not be appropriate.

FG: I guess a key thing with the Arab Spring was that you didn’t have foreign correspondents on the ground.

AC: The two things that really went into play there was first in many cases you didn’t have foreign correspondents on the ground and that was especially true for Libya early on and for a lot of Syria. But on the other hand you had people living there who were willing to capture what was happening and upload it or share it some form.

If you can find a critical mass of these people and cross-reference what they’re saying, somewhere in the middle of that is the truth. So, if there is a large protest and, let’s say, shooting starts to happen, one person may report it on Twitter but they are going to have a very limited field of view around them and they may not totally understand what had just happened. Whereas if I have been able to identify thirty people across that same area, spread out all over, and then monitor what they are saying simultaneously you can, in some way, triangulate the truth from that.

FG: News budgets are more and more limited so do you think your technique could be a future for news? Instead of sending someone out who is expensive you do this kind of reporting.

AC: I really hope not because it is a completely different style of reporting. Some of the most powerful reporting that has come out of Syria has been when reporters have gone in and been able look people directly in the eye to talk about relatives that have died or have been wounded and to be able to put together the context of that in a broader sense. And that can be very hard to do remotely. I would hate to see my methods used as an excuse to cut back on foreign reporting or any type of reporting for that matter. I think they complement each other very well.

At one point, I ended up going to Cairo for an event. There was a big altercation in Tahrir Square that evening that came out of nowhere. They hadn’t had one for several months at that point.

So, I went with a small group of protestors and they brought me as close as they could get without bringing me into the square as they were a little paranoid about my safety. We are surrounded by police. There is tear-gas going off and people with blood running down their hair. So, I am able to observe all these things going on in my immediate vicinity but I still real didn’t have an understanding of what was going on. I didn’t know what was happening at the centre of Tahrir or on the other side of it. And the only way I was personally able to fill in those pieces was when I was able to get a signal on my phone again and could look on Twitter and see what all my contacts were saying.

So I end up becoming one node out of many that paints a bigger picture. But at the same time, one correspondent at that location serving as that single node can still tell extremely vivid and powerful stories.

FG: It’s funny that although you were there you were still doing journalism as if you were sitting at home in the U.S.

AC: It is funny there are times that I am traveling and there is something happening in that city and I almost would rather be back at my hotel working on it because there is only so much I can do caught in the middle of it.

FG: Where do you see things going in the immediate future? Will there still be print in five or ten years?

AC: It is phasing out in different places at different speeds. I am never comfortable making a prediction with these things. Many newspapers in the U.S. have either switched entirely to digital or have gone out of business or have cut back the amount they are producing on paper. So, the trend isn’t favourable for them but at the same time they are beginning to do things online that are profitable.

I’ve never been a fan of pay-walls myself but the New York Times is making a profit on their pay-wall. So, there are different economic models.

I think the key point here is that journalism isn’t dying. It’s the economic models that are changing and in that process some of those economic models are going to fade away and they just happen to be ones that we cling onto very closely because they have worked so well for a very long time. And in some cases we haven’t planned for that transition very well. But I think there are some papers that will continue to do what they are doing because they have an audience that really loves what they do.

As long as the subscribers are willing to pay and advertisers are willing to pay to fill a demographic we’ll have a New York Times and an Economist and others. Whatever format it is in people will use it because they value the content. So the key thing is differentiating yourself with the content.

Banner and top picture By Ahmed Abd El-Fatah from Egypt [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Main body picture By Lilian Wagdy (DSC_9315 Uploaded by The Egyptian Liberal) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Zachary Quinto Talks About His Return to Galway, Social Media and the Big Bang Theory

Some photos I took in 2009 at Java’s and their window display about a famous former waiter.

A favourite café of mine and many others in Galway City is Java’s on Abbeygate Street. In the late nineties, after a late night of playing computer games with friends, I’d sometimes wander in to Java’s for a hot chocolate before heading home. A few years ago, in 2009, I read about one of the waiters who worked there around that time. Turns out, I had unknowingly been watching this same guy on TV: he played the Sylar character in Heroes and had been cast as Spock in the new Star Trek reboot. I had a flashback: ahhh, that American waiter, yes, now I remember him from when he was in Java’s – so it was Zachary Quinto who kept losing my orders!

15 years later, Zachary was back in Galway to speak at the 25th Annual Galway Film Fleadh, where he took part in a Q&A session, discussing amongst other things his acting career, why he came to Galway originally, and how he uses social media. He was also on hand for showings of two films he co-produced: Margin Call and All is Lost.

Zachary Quinto in the Q&A session with Will Fitzgerald at the Galway Film Fleadh.

When he arrived in Galway last Thursday, one of the first things that Zachary did was to go to his old place of work for a coffee. You can watch an Instagram video of a walk he then took retracing the route from Corrib Park through NUI Galway back to Java’s (and here’s a map if you want to try it yourself). The video has already been viewed nearly 9,000 times.

Follow me up [on Instagram]!”, said Zachary. “I like it actually. You know I have a certain level of skepticism about social media, but I use it: a total necessary evil.

“But I think Instagram for me is my favourite of them. I don’t even really tweet any more except to link it to my Instagrams. Well, it’s so boring!”

With over 790,000 followers on Twitter (six times his Instagram following), that may sound like a lost marketing opportunity, or at least one for the future. Zachary Quinto Aftershave, anyone?

Zachary has European heritage: he is half-Irish (through his mother’s side) and half-Italian (from his late father). He did some research before coming to Galway in 1998, and found out that it was one of the fastest growing cities in Europe.

“It was at a time when I felt really there was a limitlessness of possibility, and that was incredible because it was the first time I travelled abroad by myself and decided to live in one place”, said Zachary. “I met great people and hung out with a handful of them last night which was great – we reconnected – thanks to social media actually. So that was kind of alright.

“It was a magical time. I was in college, and it’s just a really welcoming city. I felt really welcomed here.”

He also recounted some funny stories about when he was working in Java’s and how he lost some orders taken on notepad paper. The scraps of paper were left on top of a toaster oven, and either caught fire or fell in behind the toaster where Zachary couldn’t get at them.

Zachary has since gone on to star in Heroes and American Horror Story on TV, and movies like Margin Call and the latest installments in the Star Trek franchise. He also spoke about his friendship with Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, and a recent advertisement they made about the technologically-advanced Audi S7 car, “The Challenge“, as kind of Laurel and Hardy double act. (He asked us which one was the straight man, Laurel or Hardy, and I told him it was Hardy.)

Zachary also referred to a third Star Trek movie that may begin filming in 2014. He hinted that he would be interested in a cameo in the popular science geek sitcom, the Big Bang Theory, something that Leonard Nimoy has already done.

“My cardboard cutout has already been on it, you know. I had to give my permission for them to use it. I have been mentioned two times on it, actually.”

Let’s hope he gets to play Rock-Paper-Scissors-Lizard-Spock on the show. Or maybe Rock-Paper-Scissors-Toaster-Quinto. The rules for this new game are below, and we’d love to play it with Zachary next time he is in Galway!

Toaster oven (yes, that’s a hand shaped like a flame!) burns scraps of paper with orders, toaster oven blocks Quinto from getting at scraps of paper, scraps of paper elude Quinto.



As well as Zachary, Galway has some more connections to the world of science fiction and fantasy. Former NUI Galway student Martin Sheen has been in his fair share of science fiction. JRR Tolkien was once an external examiner at the University and a regular visitor to Galway. Planet of the Apes actor John Huston lived for many years in Galway, and the University’s Huston Film School enjoys patronage from the Huston family. Fictional character Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was purportedly born in the Claddagh. Eye Cinema‘s design was inspired by Thunderbirds. Futuristic anime Fractale features backdrops from Galway. And the National Computer and Communications Museum uses Star Trek to illustrate future technologies to visiting school kids (plus they have a fun Uhura and Spock head cut-out board: now there’s a future photo op for you Zachary!). Know of any others? E-mail us at

Social Media: A New Frontier for Researchers

Following a presentation I gave at the European Intersectoral Summit on Research and Innovation last month entitled ‘Engaging Citizens in Research and Innovation: Opportunities and Challenges Afforded by Social Media’, I was interviewed by Orlaith Finnegan from Digimind on this topic. A copy of the interview is below.

1) Can you start by telling us about your background and where your interest in social media comes from?

My background in social media started in 1998 when I set up a discussion forum to talk about a multiplayer computer game called Quake. This evolved into, a company I co-founded with some fellow computer gamers in 2000, which is now Ireland’s largest general discussion forum and is part of Distilled Media.

Forums are the original social media on the Web, predating the term social media, but exhibiting the main feature of people connecting through shared “social objects” of interest – in our case, the original social object was the game we all played together and discussed on the forum.

Social media was pretty much just a hobby interest for me up until became a major service, and also my connection grew through social software and social media becoming one of my main research areas when I joined DERI, a large Semantic Web research institute based in NUI Galway, Ireland. I also chaired the premier social media research conference, ICWSM, in Dublin last year.

2) You recently spoke at The European Intersectoral Summit on Research and Innovation 2013, on the importance of using social media to promote research and innovation to a wider audience. How has social media opened up opportunities to scientific researchers?

Social media is providing new opportunities for researchers to disseminate their research, but also for them to become aware of peers’ research, and to find interdisciplinary topics (through status updates from people in other disciplines) so as to explore possibilities for cross-domain collaboration. It doesn’t have to be just a paper that a researcher shares through social media – it could be a research presentation, an explanatory video, or a blog post about one’s work.

An interesting emerging topic in this space is something called Altmetrics which looks at how researchers are being “cited” and referred to through social media rather than through traditional paper references and citations. In fact, these are related, because if someone retweets your post about a slideset that in turn is a presentation you have given about an academic paper, that person or someone else who sees the retweet from that person may well cite your paper in their own academic work.

3) What advice would you give to those in the research community who are looking to reap the benefits of social media and engage with a wider audience?

For finding things, I would use a tool like TweetDeck or StreamGlider [I’m also a co-founder] to set up searches for keywords of interest, so you can keep abreast of both research and industry news on your research topics. I have a Twitter search set up for my research areas, e.g. “semantic web” OR “sem web” OR semanticweb OR semweb, and from that I can have a fair idea of what is going on in this space. It’s easier to keep track of a topic-specific search rather than dipping in and out of the streams of content coming from social sites. Also, join relevant groups on LinkedIn for your topic of interest, as again they are another great source of information from various perspectives, but also a place to talk about your own research.

But for engaging, there is a challenge to get noticed. Huberman, director of HP Social Labs, says that almost anything except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. So to get attention in the first place, the researcher has to think carefully about how they should phrase their message and who would they most like to get the attention of. Rather than regurgitating the title of an academic paper in a status update, how about phrasing a question that will draw (balanced) commentary if possible? Also, can you find some hubs or connectors in your topic who would be interested in sharing your message with their contacts? If it’s a blog post about your research, make sure to mention the leaders in this space (as you would do in an academic paper), and tell them about it via @mentions or even email when sending out your messages.

Timing of your message is also important. Just like any social media marketing, choosing the optimal time is key. I haven’t seen any studies to look at the best times to send out scientific research updates, but in general mid week after mid day is the best time for getting clicks. If you’re in the middle of meetings, you can use a scheduling tool like HootSuite to send it out at a pre-ordained time.

4) Many researchers are starting to use social media to surface important insights, to crowd source information and to analyse data. What do you think are the challenges presented by this new form of information retrieval and analysis?

There are some obvious challenges. The first is that most researchers tend to use data from Twitter, as they can’t get data from Facebook where there are more people. This is mainly because the Twitter API is more open, allowing you to access updates and networks for most users with public profiles, whereas on Facebook you only have access to your direct friends’ data via the API. The second issue is that it has recently been posited by Pew Research that Twitter is not as representative as previously thought, with opinion on Twitter sometimes differing from general public opinion, so some assumptions may be slightly off with respect to political analysis or policy opinions.

Having said that, for getting answers, social media is definitely an extremely valuable and rapid source of information. There’s no better way to crowd source a research idea, or to get insights into a problem you are having. For analysing data, again, being able to quickly draw on a swathe of people who can assist with a task is really useful for a researcher.

5) Can you give an example of who you think is using social media effectively to promote research and innovation?

If I was to pick out a few, I’d think of: MIT Technology Review, who do a great job covering emerging topics and whose social media stream is a combination of stories, staff updates and community-directed messages; William Gunn, head of academic outreach at Mendeley (@mrgunn on Twitter); Zeynep Tufekci (@techsoc), covering social science and technology; the Irish Ben Goldacre, my colleague Brian Hughes, who writes “The Science Bit”, a blog that debunks pseudoscience with actual science.

Web Behaving Badly: Is the Internet Having a Negative Effect on Our Personalities?

Visit the comments section of any online publication or scroll down to the activity beneath a popular YouTube video and you’ll see the full spectrum of human emotion, often expressions of anger, aggression and vitriol. Then there is the dark side of the dark side of the Web: cyberbullying incidents that have, in the worst cases, contributed to the suicide of the victims involved, such as Irish teenagers Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley.

While anti-bullying campaigns are useful for raising awareness and encouraging the reporting of cyberbullying incidents, there is also research being done into why certain deviant behaviour appears to be intensified by virtue of taking place online. Dr John Suler is a professor of psychology at Rider University, New Jersey and specializes in cyberpsychology, which is the study of individual and group behaviour on the Web.

Suler’s paper titled ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ – published in 2004 in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behaviour – approaches deviant or anti-social behaviour from the point of view of how safe or free an individual feels in an online setting to express opinions or engage with others in a way that they mightn’t necessarily do in a face-to-face situation. Essentially, this paper is the theory behind the feeling many of us have that some people are “brave” enough to be nasty on an online forum but would never say to a person standing in front of them.

Do all of us behave differently online? This depends on the person says Suler: “Some people online behave very similarly to the way they do in person. Some people may act quite differently.

“People who have underlying needs and emotions that need to be expressed, but cannot be expressed in their “real” life, will be especially tempted to do so online.”

Two of the concepts Suler uses to explain deviant behaviour online are dissociative anonymity and invisibility; it is much easier to be less inhibited when we feel that we can slip away unnoticed and unidentified. It sounds similar to when people get caught up in riots or become part of a group of football hooligans, I suggest to Suler.

“Sure, any situation in the ‘real’ world that involves anonymity and deindividuation (blending with the crowd) is one in which a person might lose their sense of individual responsibility and do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise,” he explains.

One of the most damaging forms of online behaviour is cyberbullying. Can the online disinhibition effect shed some light on what kinds of people engage in cyberbullying?

“Bullying, online or off, is almost always a displacement or acting out of underlying feelings of anger and helplessness.

“All of us might do some of this under the right conditions, but people with a history of abuse and impulsiveness are more likely to engage in this kind of acting out.”

Cyberbullying has an added element of audience. On social networks like Facebook, the victim’s network of friends are also exposed to this. “Unfortunately, there can be a ‘performance’ aspect to bullying in general. Bullies often like to impress people with their supposed strength, especially their minions,” explains Suler.

Generally speaking, he says that it is easier and more tempting for an individual to be anti-social online but it does come down to how restricted or inhibited that individual feels in an offline setting to begin with. There are, however, positive effects to feel less socially restricted online; Suler says that some researchers believe it may result in acts of generosity and altruism.

“One factor contributing to online disinhibition is the tendency to project one’s own thoughts and feelings into the somewhat ambiguous interactions we have online – ambiguous because, especially in text communication, we can’t see or hear other people. As a result, some people might project feelings of sympathy into how they experience others online.”

Check out for more information, short videos and lots of tips about cyberbullying.

Yay! My Twitter account is like a megaphone… Argh. So is everyone else’s :-(

Bernardo Huberman heads up the Social Computing Lab at Hewlett-Packard. The emphasis of his work, according to the man himself, is to understand things by answering important questions. One of the main things he has been gaining an understanding of over the past three to four years is the “economics of attention”. How to best get other people’s attention in a world of information overload raises many important questions, as you can well imagine. So important that, even though we covered it once, you probably missed it, and we will try for your attention again. Hopefully the catchy headline helped…

Huberman spoke this week at the “Innovation at the Verge: Computational Models of Physical/Virtual Space Interaction” workshop at the Lorentz Center in the Netherlands. His research focuses on big data, but the term itself encompasses many different types of data: the petabytes of data being generated at CERN every second; the vast amounts of imagery from the Hubble telescope; human genomics and its associated data; socially-shared content and social networks; and more. Huberman’s source of big data is from social media, and it differs from other big data sources because of its strong relationship to other data (people, companies, etc.).

There are a lot of companies learning immense amounts of information about us on a daily, hourly, and even per minute basis. Android Jelly Bean devices pre-loaded with Google Now can tell things about where you are, when you should go home, how long it will take, etc. They anticipate what your behaviour is going to be, because, quite simply, analysing big data reveals patterns. The part of this that most people are unaware of is the privacy concerns associated with this data. Most people do not know how to isolate what they are doing from the view of others. What we read or what we do or what we discuss online is being stored for a long time and may be preserved indefinitely.

Even our video players can be used to find patterns in our activities, more so when your video provider is also your phone and internet provider. One company recently talked about observing the behaviours of hundreds of millions of people through their video watching activities. Observing traces of what people are watching and when, they can figure out when you went to the bathroom. A common pattern: someone stopped their video player, they did not make a phone call, they did not text, and they did not go on the Web, for an interruption of about seven to eight minutes. (Such patterns can also be corroborated with surveys.)

Before you freak out, it’s not all bad. Patterns obtained by analysing the big data from social media also allows us to find out a lot about our social behaviour, and can be used for our benefit. Before the advent of modern social media and Web 2.0, we had forums, the original social media. Before that again, it was very hard for us to respond to information on the Web. Now we can blog, tweet, comment, and everybody has started participating on the Web in a very (inter)active way. And the resulting social big data has become very important: 340 million tweets per day; a billion Facebook users; 900 million users of YouTube, with two thirds of all web traffic being video.

But the Web has also speeded up the metabolism of thought. Warren Buffett recently said he was still puzzled by how we can get so much information from the Web for free. Previously, finding out information on how to invest in a company was one of the most valuable things in the world. Now you can do it in five minutes for free, and faster than you could have before. Actions and reactions via social media are extremely fast, leading to an accelerated mode of thinking. The interconnected social media world reacts instantaneously, and everybody has access to it.

But with all of this freely-available information, something important happens. Information begins to lose its value, because things that are plentiful are cheap, and those that are scarce are expensive. Booking holidays in travel agencies or finding the best flight from A to B are now freely available: the information is all there, why pay for it when you are being flooded with it? Now what is valuable are the things that are scarce. In this case, it is our capacity to attend: we can try to attend to something when there are 150 other things looking for our attention at the same time, but we will most likely fail. This is why you get spam – notice me, download me, watch me, rent me – and all at a phenomenal rate and volume.

How we attend to things will usually determine what it is that we are going to do. Wherever attention flows, particular issues surface, those ideas are discussed, and money flows. Traditionally, the editor of a newspaper decided what went on page 1, 2, 3, and so on. On the basis of that decision, you became aware of issues: but they were certain issues that he or she had chosen for you. In social media, you are being flooded with all kinds of stuff. In this case, it is whatever floats to the top that shifts / gathers attention and causes other issues to recede from view.

It is Huberman’s view that almost anything except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. The economics of attention is essentially what is driving the society in which we all exist today. We all have loads of items vying for our attention and things at the end of lists that just don’t get done. It’s true even for (or especially for) the President of the United States: you can imagine that someone is presenting an agenda to that president saying that these are the things he should pay attention to.

Today, in principle, you can write the tweet of your life and everyone will quote you. As Huberman puts it: “The paradox of the Web. You now have a megaphone. Just like everyone else.” We are essentially drowning in immense competition, and it’s like an arms race to get attention. One of Huberman’s important questions is can you derive a strategy that would put you in the headlines every day? It is difficult to do it more than once or twice, but Lady Gaga was given as an example of managing to create attention events that can somehow capture the imagination of huge amounts of people. As Huberman says, “Style is now more important than substance: how you package information is key. If everyone was able to find the Higgs-Boson particle, then someone has to package it better, to draw the attention of others to their information.”

Propagating recommendations in social networks can help with the marketing of a book, but successfully converting those propagated recommendations into sales is the motherlode. Again, it’s related to attention, specifically getting the attention of user hubs who can lead to huge conversions. Finding those hubs would be hugely lucrative for a publisher. Similarly, someone in the physics community can tell all their friends when they publish a paper, but it would be really great if some prominent scientist noticed it and told everyone else. One’s professional standing relies on us getting the attention of people higher up in the hierarchy.

So how is this attention allocated? If you were given a billion items on the Web, how can you figure out which ones will get attention? Huberman says it’s straightforward. Combining how many people downloaded a movie or accessed a page on the Web over a given time period with the decay rate for accesses of that item will yield information on how much attention something is getting and will get in the future.

Original images from Wikimedia Commons [1, 2].

Firstly, attention for items on the Web is not distributed at random but rather has a pattern. It’s distributed in what’s called a log-normal fashion. Huberman claims that this is a universal law – from web content voting to video viewing – and if you can measure the number of accesses any site gets, it will be distributed like this. When they analysed the frequency of clicks on Digg for example, a typical item received 60-70 “diggs” (recommendations), and a small number of items received thousands of diggs. It’s the same distribution with YouTube, and of course everyone wants to be at the good end of the scale (the items with the largest numbers of clicks).

Secondly, attention decays. We all get bored and attention starts to drift. When we see the rate at which people download a video (e.g. Gangnam Style), the rate at which it is downloaded slows down because nearly everyone (who wants to) has seen the video already. Decay is also universal for social sharing sites, and it’s a bit like a half-life value in radioactivity. The measurement of a few points allows you to predict how long activity will last for. The “half-life” in Digg is about 69 minutes.

Combining this half-life with the log-normal distribution allows Huberman and his team to do something very interesting: make predictions. He can take any YouTube video, use the initial rates at which it was downloaded and the typical log-normal distribution for the site, and then predict clicks in the future (e.g. a year from now). Similar work was carried out using box office reviews from Twitter. Based on how much attention was being generated from people talking about a movie before it was released allowed Huberman to predict how well it was going to do on box office opening.

A related question Huberman wanted to tackle was how random are social interactions on the Web? Looking at data from Epinions and Whrrl, Huberman used entropy measures from information theory to show that it was highly predictable for a person to talk to another given person if they had communicated previously. Life in virtual spaces has a predictability, and the high likelihood that you will communicate with a person again resembles what is observed in physical spaces (an experiment by Hitachi using sensors found a similar predictability). In organisations talking to each other off the Web (e.g. by email), communications aren’t limited to the formal organisational hierarchies, but exist as informal interactions across hierarchical groups similar to communities of practice.

Attention creates a feedback loop. When observing why people upload videos to YouTube, Huberman et al. did a large study on those heavy producers of content uploading thousands of videos per year. They saw a strong correlation between downloads of videos and productivity amongst producers all aiming to get millions of video downloads. Was it attention that drove this? It seems so: the more attention they got, the more videos they produced, and less attention resulted in fewer videos.

So, pay attention and know that someone else will be very happy to pay for it.

Innovation at the Verge is a workshop organised by Galal Galal-Edeen, Johan Hoorn, Paola Monachesi and Gert de Roo. The Lorentz Center is an international center that coordinates and hosts workshops in the sciences, based on the philosophy that science thrives on interaction between creative researchers.

Speeksy: Social Discovery Through Facebook

Social discovery is an online space that has been emerging over the last couple of years. It is a throwback to some of the original ideas that the first social networks were built around. Friendster was about meeting new people through mutual friendships. Likewise, MySpace was a very social way of discovering new music.

In contrast, Facebook, with its multiple levels of privacy settings is very much about keeping in touch with people you already know. Social discovery is, in essence, a network that enables you to meet people.

For the moment, with Facebook’s star still in the ascendency, launching a competing social network is a task set aside for the brave and the foolhardy. A smarter way to address the need people have for meeting new people would be to integrate a social discovery application with the Facebook platform.

This is what Barry Cassidy has done with his company Speeksy — a social discovery platform that uses Facebook information to create connections through shared interests and mutual friends.

Barry says that, “We looked at how people met new people in the real world. What was it that makes a connection between you and someone new that you are meeting? Essentially, mutual friends is a big thing and so is common interests.

“The Facebook API is pretty easy to engage with but for us it was more about thinking through the features that we could use. What features in the Facebook Open Graph could we leverage to make it easier for people to meet new people?”

Speeksy has just one single sign-on process. Information needed to create an account is pulled from Facebook’s Open Graph. A match is then made between you and people who share your interests and are connected to you through mutual friendships.

Connections are created based on things that you have already indicated that you liked on Facebook such as movies, TV shows, bands, books and so forth. Barry says, “It is a seamless entry from Facebook into our product where you don’t have to create a profile of fill in a questionnaire or personality test.

“We are trying to create a social experience where you can meet new people in a very natural way. We are creating an enjoyable social experience that people will want to go to and engage with regardless of whether they meet new people or not.

“When you log into our site we create connections through interests. You can find interests that you already have or you can explore new interests such as running and other things you might do in the real world. You can create music playlists and see what other types of music people are listening to. You can also browse people and see their interest graphs”

Just like in the real world the online world has its share of unsavoury characters. However, Barry has a strategy for dealing with egregious behaviour: “We filter people out on the reputation [they acquire] based on their behaviour and engagement with other people.”

Meeting new people (providing they are not nut-jobs) is a necessary component for maintaining our health as we move through life. We are social animals who revel in novelty. New social encounters can sometimes challenge some of our fixed, but maybe false, notions. They can provide new sources of stimulation and through shared interests we can feel a sense of belonging that is essential to our tribal natures.

Most of social media is human nature taking advantage of the technologies of the World Wide Web to broaden one’s horizon from the village and the local area to the global. Social discovery and applications like Speeksy offer us a new opportunities for fresh engagement based on shared interests.

Having common ground to begin with makes it all the easier for new relationships to flourish.

Via.Me: Multiple Media Services in One Platform

At the beginning of last year we ran a number of articles highlighting some of the fundamental challenges that face a tech startup and some ideas on how to approach and handle them. Two of these posts were based on interviews with Fergus Hurley, a Galway native who now resides in California. Fergus discussed the importance of design in the Role of Design in Getting a Product to Market and project construction in Developers and Product Development.

Fergus is now Director of Products at Radium One and on March 1st, this year, he and his team launched Via.Me. For the last couple of weeks at TechVo we have been exploring the Via.Me platform as it offers us the potential to use upload different types of media just using one service.

We have experimented with services such as Audioboo, Instagram and SoundCloud and they are all great. (I, for one, will continue using them as I have already established my own little mini-communities on each of them.)

It is almost a paradox in the world of social media that as the services and choices become bigger and more numerous, activities and communities become more fragmented and more narrowly defined.

However, for a multi-media platform such as ours, and for other users who would like to post pictures, video or sound according to which medium best suits what is intended to be communicated, keeping track of what has been published where has become a job in itself.

Via.Me is a number of different services in one platform. According to Fergus, it is a way to, “Upload all your different types of media. Photos, videos, voice-notes and text/stories in one application across all the social networks. In this first incarnation it supports all those media types and it has the web presence and mobile presence that very few other applications have.”

Fergus says that there are four different target audiences:

“One, is consumers. People who are coming to the site and they can use it themselves and start interacting with it.

“Two, is celebrities. That means celebrities posting their content and building up their audiences on our platform and allowing people to subscribe to celebrities while getting real-time updates from those celebrities.

“Three, is publishers. Brotips, Notebook of Love and Men’s Humor are posting content all over the networks and then people are coming back to view that content on Via.Me. They create one central hub for all their content and they have the view count showing so they can get a metric.

“Four, is the brands. In general, as a company, Radium One’s biggest focus is on brands. We work with a lot of the top 100 advertisers in the US helping them with their online advertising.”

Although Via.Me is comprehensive in its capabilities. Fergus believes that it is important to, “Keep things really, really simple. You have to keep the application as intuitive and as simple as possible. If you build something that is really difficult and is hard to explain to other people then it’s going to be really hard to get adoption. We definitely kept the product a simple, sharable concept with instant gratification.

“It’s about getting the users onboard. We have already had over a quarter of a million downloads of the application and we’ve had millions of people come to the website. It is about growing the audience from there.

“A lot of people are using it as a publishing platform. They see the links and comeback and comment on our platform and then they start engaging with our platform on a daily basis.”