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 Del.icio.us 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 Del.icio.us 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.

1 comment:

Michael J said...

This post got into my bubble in my morning walk through twitter.

I'm a Print evangelist with a conversational knowledge of social media.

The description of passive search is important to me as it captures how Print sits passively in the physical environment. It is scanned by eye, not searched by words.

Inside my bubble, scanning instead of searching is what you are pointing to. Scanning uses the visual and pattern making part of the brain. It's much faster and more efficient than words and clicks.