Thursday, October 06, 2011

Bernardo Huberman: Social Media and Attention

Bernardo Huberman from Hewlett-Packard Laboratories and Stanford University is visiting Aalto University School of Science. He is giving a joint ICS Forum/Aalto Physics Colloquium talk today, on 6st of October.

In his talk, Prof. Huberman discussed the explosion of online interactions: the web has speeded up the metabolism of thought and decision about work, social issues and play. Twitter is delivering over 200 million messages a day. Facebook has more than 800 million users and Google+ has gained more than 40 million users in one month. Rate of sharing content in social media is growing exponentially.

Huberman further pointed out that attention is limited by brain capacity. Attention is a scarce and valuable resource. Wherever attention flows, issues surface and ideas are discussed - and money often follows. Almost anything else except attention can be manufactured as a commodity. Actually, attention is the coordination mechanism that powers the progress of science. Within academia attention has a symmetry property: academics seek attention from those who also seek it from them. Topics that get a lot of attention become part of the research agenda of the community. Attention is used to determined professional standing. He also mentioned that productivity can be measured the same way. This raises, however, the question of time delays: the importance of a finding or an innovation may be understood only much later. Regardless of this, the value of the work is measured according to more or less recent citations.

Most of the attention that we pay today is reflected and propagated in social media. Huberman referred to a study of 15 million recommendations from by Lefkovec, Adamic and Huberman (ACM Transactions on the Web, 2007). The network allocates attention in a highly nonlinear but predictable way. For example, the analysis of the behavior of 1 million users of follows lognormal distribution as predicted. In a publication by Wu and Huberman (2007), they noticed that novelty decays in a predictable manner. HP has built on these kinds of research results and developed a technology called i-catcher that dynamically charts the attention paid to each piece of online content on a web page.

Huberman continued into a very interesting topic of predicting the future with social media. He used the popularity of movies as an example and referred to a service called Hollywood Stock Exchange. He explained the use of sentiment analysis and the Mechanical Turk. Huberman defined subjectivity in this context as the ratio of positive-versus-negative tweets to neutral. Polarity is then the ratio of positive to negative tweets. In a publication by Asur and Huberman (2010) in the Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Web Intelligence, the authors present the result of some predictions.

One of the interesting aspects of social media, is that it shows what is general social agenda. Earlier, the mass media decided what are the topics of discussion in the society. In the attention economy, what "balloons" to the top defines the public agenda. Trends are formed as the popularity in the crowdsourced world. Trends are created by people keep tweeting. There is a certain persistence of trends. These issues are discussed by Asur, Huberman, Szabo and Wang (2011).

Huberman concluded by making a remark that with social media it has become possible to measure social phenomena, not only to create theories of them.

A lively discussion followed the presentation. Huberman noted that advertising a going through a revolution. As an example he stated that HP stopped advertising in traditional media. Propagation in a viral form is important. One question posed the issue of personalization which may prevent from receiving dissonant views and could start to resemble editorial control. In his answer, Huberman said for example that he is very careful in the use of Facebook and Google+. He also mentioned Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton as people who are experts in drawing attention by creating situations and scandals in an effective manner.

The talk by Prof. Huberman was very well attended by about one hundred researchers including many prominent professors at Aalto University including Erkki Oja, Kimmo Kaski, Risto Nieminen, Olli Simula, Pekka Orponen, Samuel Kaski and Kaisa Nyberg (list not conclusive).

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