Technology changes social networks

Around us is a world filled with connections and relations, and on May 4, 2010 Rensselaer opened the new Social and Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center to study these connections using the network sciences. Network science encompasses a very general area: galaxies impacting each other, different parts of the human body interacting, communication networks, and more. Specifically, the Center is applying network science to social and cognitive networks.

Claire & Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor of Computer Science Bolek Szymanski, the Director of SCNARC, states that “in the Center, one of the very exciting things is that we are looking at something generally known as network science … We look at any two nodes and ask how they interact so in a sense we look at the connection between two nodes rather than at each node individually. And, therefore, we see how these interactions behave and how these interactions impact the network.”

In addition, Szymanski is interested in where the boundaries of computers and other sciences meet to “build new tools which would then help scientists to do scientific accomplishments.” Examples of his interdisciplinary perspective include his research with Professor Heidi J. Newberg from the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy to understand the structure of the Milky Way from a computational perspective and his research on helping geologists rapidly exchange and disseminate rock data between each other without having to visit each site for their own samples. An iPhone application that can check where samples are collected and who collected those samples is being developed and approved by Apple for distribution.

Specifically for the Center, he looks forward to how it may explain how people act in various networks and how technology has enabled us to act this way and changed the way people act. He points out as an example that “big tragedies in the past came from the fact that people could not communicate immediately,” like in the story of Romeo and Juliet. Many meetings may have been missed when people did not know how to find or contact a person, while today with cell phones and the Internet we can “immediately see the face,” or if lost and trying to find each other we can “use the cell phone and say that I am waiting by the station” along with other applicable situations.

Szymanski continues to explain that technology has enabled new networks to form that may not have been able to exist before. He says, “In the past what we thought and how we behaved was mainly dictated by what kind of people lived around us” and that there was “enormous pressure by neighbors to conform—to be similar.” With the Internet we can “interact with people who have similar interests to us” and keep more ideas and interests alive than may have been in the past.

With new opportunities come new problems, however. Szymanski acknowledges that these technologies also removes many important aspects used in person-to-person interactions. Text communication has its difficulties with a lot of important non-verbal communication removed. Tone of voice and facial expressions that convey reactions are no longer available, which has led to the creation of emoticons, demonstrating how necessary expression is to interaction. Cultural differences create a large hurdle, as what may be acceptable in one culture may not be acceptable in another, and it is hard to make this distinction or to correct oneself when using electronic communication.

In researching these problems, RPI has partnered with IBM TJ Watson Research Laboratory, Northeastern University, and the City University of New York as well as collaborators from the Army Research Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, New York University, University of Maryland, Indiana University, Notre Dame University, and Northwestern University.

The Center is currently participating in five large projects. They include social networks in organizations, adversary and hidden networks, cognitive aspects of networks, trust in networks, and the dynamics of networks.

IBM plays a major role in studying organizational social networks by supplying the data of more than 300,000 employees over the world using its own developed system. They will attempt to improve businesses by discovering how helpful or necessary mentors are, whether having a large social network help or hurt the workplace, and how many managers are sufficient to keep a company developing and growing.

While there are many networks that want to advertise themselves for popularity or business, there are also networks that would prefer to remain disguised. Szymanski feels it would be interesting and useful to discover these networks, whether they be helpful local user groups or violent groups that can endanger the community. Different statistical methods are being employed to sift through the large sea of interacting groups and attempt to find these networks.

In order for social networks to exist there must be some level of trust between its members. Analyzing how this trust is formed can give us insight into how networks arise and how people who meet each other form a trust between themselves. Learning how this trust is formed will also enable us to know how we can facilitate this trust and enable networks to grow more quickly.

Network dynamics takes a look at what the underlying rules of networks are. Knowing how trust is formed and how to find networks is useful, but it still does not tell why networks grow and disappear. The Center tries to apply an information and computation point of view and use models to find these answers.

The last project the Center is involved with looks at the cognitive aspects of networks and how our limitations as human beings impact our network interactions. Seeing how the mind works and how people approach a network may help create more efficient and effective ways for people to be involved in these networks.

It should be observed that science has taken a renewed interest in these fields. “Today, often the interactions are over the internet, cell phones, over computer networks and therefore are somewhere recorded,” and now, “All of a sudden we have enormous amount of information, scientifically objective information about how people interact with each other,” says Szymanski.

When asked about the current role of students, both undergraduate and graduate, he notes that the Center is still fairly new with some spaces still being finished. While he plans to expand student involvement with URPs and letting students design and participate in experiments, right now there are only graduate students and two post-doctoral researchers hired. He emphasizes the importance of students in helping with this research due to the “generational gap” of the “older people being less involved with these new tools than younger people are. For example Twitter is very popular among young people … the older generation participates, but not as intensively.”

Looking to the future, Szymanski “hopes to expand” what the Center encompasses and undertakes, because he believes there are many “diverse issues of social networks” that can “relate to other fields.” There are currently faculty members from various departments involved without 10 faculty members representing five departments and three schools involved without including the many collaborators at other institutions, but this can increase eventually as needed since networks are general and ubiquitous.