Saturday, July 25, 2009

Social search in academic research

If there's one thing that hasn't ceased to amaze me since I started blogging, tweeting, bookmarking and aggregating it's this thing I've come to refer to as social media serendipity. It can happen any time, anywhere. Sometimes it strikes as I am preparing classes, other times it happens as I am working on research. I may be working on a class on pitching stories when a new blog post just pops up in my feed reader with a relevant, up-to-the-minute case study to include in my class. Other times it is a Twitter or user I follow who will share the perfect example. The reason I call it serendipity is because I didn't ask for it. The information just has a way of finding me. It's as if there were hundreds of research assistants out there scanning the web and bringing the information back to me just when I need it. I honestly can't remember the last time I spent hours online searching the net for that perfect example to illustrate course material.
Yesterday as I was working on research I had another one of these serendipitous moments (which I will describe in a second) and it got me thinking. There's been a lot of talk lately about social search and the future of search and it just dawned on me that this thing I had affectionately called social media serendipity really just is the result of a passive social search. I call it passive because in the cases described here, I didn't actively seek out any information from my social networks. I simply received pertinent information from my networks without actually asking for it. Nevertheless I do think it qualifies as search since I am constantly scanning those networks for relevant information through the various feeds I am subscribing to. I've always viewed social search exclusively as an active process (such as outsourcing your questions to your Twitter followers), but I think that definition may need to be broadened to include serendipitous, passive social searches such as the following:
  • A few months ago, one of the people I follow on Twitter shared an interesting article with his followers. Since the article seemed relevant to research I am working on, I bookmarked it and set it aside to read at a later point (an example of a passive social search through Twitter)
  • As I read it last week, I annotated it with additional research questions. I noted that it would be nice to know how many of the videos uploaded to YouTube each month actually reached more than 1,000 or 10,000 views.
  • The next day, one of the users I follow bookmarked an article in Slate Magazine that answered that exact question (another example of a passive social search, this time through social bookmarks)
  • Yesterday after I had finished writing up the section of my paper that deals with these stats, I checked my feed reader only to find that I had a new item in the folder labeled research. The new item wasn't relevant to the research I had worked on that day, but the one above it, which I had marked as "keep new" was (I do that when a feed sounds interesting but I don't have the time to review it). This is how I stumbled upon a paper from HP's Social Computing lab on the success dynamics of 10 million YouTube videos - a perfect fit for my research and another example of a passive social search.
So there you have it - three examples of passive social searches that greatly helped me complete a book chapter I was working on. Obviously the quality of those searches will depend on the quality of your network and there is a definite danger of casting that network too narrowly as an article in the journal Science suggested this week. But that's something to explore in another blog post.

Update 7/27: A day after I published this post, ReadWriteWeb wrote a post using the active versus passive social search framework I outlined here. I'm not sure I completely agree with their search discovery continuum though - I think "friends & following" is just as important at the passive discovery side of the continuum, especially since our passive discoveries are filtered by our decisions on who to follow and friend.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What if your credit card company wrote your syllabus?

Classes are out for the summer and my husband and I are slowly getting ready to prepare our classes for the upcoming fall semester. The following post is inspired by a recent letter from one of our credit card companies announcing a change in their terms and conditions - a practice that most major banks and credit card institutions seem to be engaging in right now from what I hear (also see this report). Since we were working on our syllabi as this letter landed in our mailbox, it inspired the following thought: What if your credit card company wrote your syllabus? Here's the answer (should be 7 pt. font but noone would be able to read it):

Contents and Effectiveness of Agreement. This syllabus governs your classroom experience with your professor. This syllabus becomes effective and you agree to its terms by either showing up in class or by failing to drop the class within 3 business days of receipt of this syllabus.

Amendment of this Syllabus. Your professor may amend this syllabus by changing, adding or deleting any assignment, required reading or due date at any time. S/he will provide you with notice of the amendment to the extent required by university policies.
‡ Please note that your professor reserves the right to change how each assignment is weighted throughout the semester. For example an assignment originally worth 9.99% of your grade may increase to but not
exceed 29.99% of your grade. If you are late on any assignment during the semester you will be required to perform additional work on each assignment and will also need to submit an extra credit assignment for each late submission.

Performance information: Your professor may periodically review your overall class performance by obtaining information from your other professors concerning your work in their classes. Should it be found that you did poorly on any assignment for another instructor, your professor may adjust your grades for his/her class accordingly. In addition, your professor may report information about you to the dean's office. You have the right to dispute the accuracy of information reported. Your professor may at any time during the semester and for any assignment require that you perform more work than originally outlined. In that case, your instructor must give a one week notice before new requirements go into effect. Depending upon how your professor and his or her colleagues like you, you will be graded more or less harshly than other students in your class. If at any point during the semester, you do not agree with the professor's changes to the syllabus you may choose to drop out of the class--however, all homework will still be required. Please don't worry about your prof, however, as should your class perform poorly, s/he may receive additional funding from the provost.