Earlier this year something remarkable happened. For the first time ever, more people in the US visited Facebook than Google. Google stood for a time when people passively searched the Web for content. Facebook stands for a time when people actively create content. And you can easily see this for yourself: simply walk past any group of people using computers and increasingly, mobiles and watch what people do. Statistics on Social Media (mainly Facebook and Twitter, but also Livejournal, Google Buzz, Orkut and YouTube, to name a few) are staggering. If Facebook were a country then it would have the 3rd largest population in the world. On Twitter alone, people send more than 100 million short messages ("tweets") each day. Social Media is not a fad: it is here and not going away.
People use Social Media to communicate in many different ways. Facebook grew from roots within American academic communities and support groups of friends talking and sharing information with each other. Twitter on the other hand originated in the world of public blogging and encourages people to post short messages that are potentially read by anyone. Early-on this communication was mainly textual, but increasingly image and video sharing has become popular.
Social Media is attractive from a research perspective. Linguistically, it contains the language of enormous numbers of different people, communicating on a vast range of subjects and in numerous languages. Social Media is an excellent way to carry-out research in Sociology (how do groups emerge? evolve over time? what about ageing? political viewpoints? etc). Because so many people use it for very many different purposes, it can be used as a rapid and cost-effective way to monitor large communities. People have used it to track 'Flu outbreaks and monitor for earth quakes and other natural disasters. It can also be used as a tool of persuasion: Political parties use it for campaigning, as do numerous companies for marketing and business intelligence. Social Media has even been used to control botnets. Here in Edinburgh we have used Social Media for event detection (quickly finding-out about what is happening in the World), modelling the Stock Market and also as a source of large datasets driving the development of novel algorithms. We also translate it from on language to another.
Social Media has been so successful because it improves lives, both personally and in the workplace. Most people are aware of public Social Media sites such as Facebook. Fewer people are aware of Enterprise (commercial) versions, which are used by companies internally. If Edinburgh University had an actively used network, then almost certainly excellent and unforeseen opportunities would emerge. Sitting here in my office in the Informatics Forum, wouldn't it be nice if I could instantly find partners for interdisciplinary grant applications? Recommendations on new places to eat? Advice on how to deal with EUCLID? Univresities are social places and the more this can be supported, the better.
Life in the bird cage is not without problems. Because virtually all Social Media is controlled by companies, academic access to the data (what people talk about, who they are, who their friends are and so on) is problematic. At the time of writing, there are no large-scale sources of Facebook friendship graphs or person-to-person communication available; Twitter actively prevents people from distributing static sets of Tweets. Without this data, it hard to do research and something as basic as reproducing results is next-to-impossible. Social Media companies are clearly still learning how best to balance the needs of their users against the desire to make money. Facebook continually change their privacy settings (driven, it seems by a desire to make their data more attractive to third-parties), making it hard to know exactly what is shared and with whom. These companies tend to lock the data in, making it hard to move it later. Initiatives such as OpenData and peer-to-peer Social Media networks (which do not directly control the data) point to possible solutions to these problems. Ultimately, we probably need government-level intervention legislating how our data is stored, shared and safeguarded.
What about the future? It seems likely that the Facebooks and Twitters of today will be replaced by something else. What is unlikely to change is our desire to talk with each other, nor expected battles revolving around data. Perhaps legislation will catch-up and the rights we have about our data will become better defined. As a user of Social Media and a researcher in it, I don't see these as problems. It is good to talk, even in 140 characters at a time.