Social networking sites — threat or boon to science?

Posted by Rory on December 16th, 2010 @ 5:13 pm

Social networking sites and science

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that social-networking sites pose a two-fold danger to the web. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

In the last post I took issue with Sir Tim and argued that, on balance, social networking sites add rather than subtract to the flow of information, and stimulate rather than suppress innovation.   In this post I’ll look at the impacts social networking sites are having on science.  I’ll look focus on two large generic social networking sites, Facebook and Twitter.  In a future post I’ll look at social networking sites aimed specifically at scientists.


Scientists, like everyone else, use Facebook, but generally they don’t use it in relation to their research.  Rather, like most people, scientists use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.   As I have argued previously, the serious problems with privacy — or rather lack thereof — in Facebook put scientists off from using it for research.  An even more fundamental problem is the lack of support in Facebook for adding structure to data, which makes it unsuitable for recording experimental data.


In contrast to Facebook, Twitter is used extensively by scientists to discuss issues related to scientific issues.   Importantly, this discussion usually does not reach down to the level of active research projects that individuals or labs are carrying out. Rather discussion centers around things like research techniques and trends, approaches, technology, publications and publishing, and the research process. Twitter is not viewed as a good place for discussing active research because of concerns about confidentiality held by the majority of scientists, who are not open science advocates, and limitations on the nature of the content that can be included, which are of course far more severe than even in the case of Facebook.

Science and social networking sites

So that’s how scientists are using, and not using, Facebook and Twitter in relation to their research.  Facebook is largely irrelevant as an environment or space for conducting scientific research and scientific discussion.  I would argue, however, that Facebook is indirectly playing an important role, (a) by shaping the way  younger scientists think about how to communicate, which in turn will impact on the way they carry out science as new collaboration and communication tools become available, and (b) in stimulating scientists to think about what these tools might look like, as Cameron Neylon did in an interesting post called, What should social software for science look like?.

Twitter is already an important  environment for conversations about science, so it is more than just a model or a stimulator of new ideas.  Twitter is already making a positive contribution to science in that (a) it facilitates conversations between people who probably would not have been in contact or found each other were it not for Twitter, (b) the conversations it stimulates probably would not have taken place without the Twitter platform, and (c) the conversations are useful adjuncts to other forms of scientific communication, e.g. those which take place in academic journals and blogs.  Like Facebook, Twitter is also a model and a stimulator of new ideas about ways of communicating that will over time  find their way into specialized resources developed specifically  for scientists.  An example is the powerful stimulus that Twitter provides to the spontaneous formation and rapid development of micro communities of interest.  This has led to the growth of these communities around specific areas of scientific interest on Twitter, and there is no reason to suppose the same thing will not happen on social networking tools developed specifically for scientists.

Overall:  thumbs up for social networking sites

So the story so far is pretty positive.  Twitter is already making a significant contribution to communication between scientists, and Facebook is stimulating lots of thought about how its  new communication model can be adapted and tailored to science.

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Facebook versus Tim Berners-Lee: do social networks threaten the web?

Posted by Rory on December 9th, 2010 @ 7:42 pm

Tim Berners-Lee: the threat posed by Facebook and other social networks to the web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee recently argued, in Long Live the Web:  A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality, that the web is under threat from a variety of developments.  One of these is social-networking sites, which allegedly pose a two-fold danger. First,

“Social networking sites assemble. . . bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not.”

A second danger “is that one social-networking site . . . gets so big that it becomes a monopoly, which tends to limit innovation.”

Are social networks silos?

Let’s start by looking at the first criticism, that social networks are silos that prevent you from using your data outside the site. The first thing to point out is that this is not always the case, or sometimes is only partially the case.  In some cases you can get at least some of your data out of social networking applications.  And new applications explicitly intended to be ‘open’ counterparts to ‘closed’ social applications are springing up, e.g. Diaspora, an open version of  Facebook.  Second, in many other cases social applications permit or encourage sharing of data with other social applications.  Facebook and Zynga is an example of this.  In these cases the ‘silos’ are more like the nodes between a series of connected tunnels.  You could argue that  the creation of the silos is an essential prerequisite to the creation of the tunnels, and so although in one sense they cut off exchange of data in another sense they extend the range in which data can be effectively exchanged.   And finally, the limits on moving data out of social applications, which certainly do exist — no denying that — has spawned it’s own corrective — the DataPortability Project.  This is supported by many of the largest social applications, including LinkedIn and Twitter, as well as Google, and is having an impact, albeit a gradual one, towards increased ability generally to get data out of social applications.

In sum I would say that the ‘ threat’ posed by social applications to the spread and portability of data, while it does exist, is greatly overstated by Sir Tim, and is tempered by a number of factors  including the self interest of the applications themselves and countervailing pressures, both commercial and public, towards openness.

Are social networks likely to become (and stay) monopolies?

What about the second danger alleged by Sir Tim, that one social-networking site (or search engine or browser) becomes so big that it becomes a monopoly, and results in limited innovation.  Yes, monopolies stifle innovation.  But I find it odd that Sir Tim cites search engines, browsers, and social networks as examples of this danger.  He should have more confidence in the robustness of the web he helped to create!   The evidence is that the web acts as a brilliant market whose dynamics act to prevent any emerging monopoly from getting too firm a grip.  On the contrary the emergence of each new wannabe monopolist stimulates a huge new wave of innovation which within a short period of time emerges to push it off the pedestal.

The rise of social apps is a classic instance of this pattern.  A few years ago, having perfected the search paradigm and dominated the search space, Google seemed poised to rule the web for decades.  Who was going to challenge Google? The only hope seemed to be from a combination of a monopolist from an earlier era — Microsoft — and an also ran which never quite made it to monopolist status — Yahoo. That combination fizzled out.

Where has the real challenge to Google come from? Not from these formerly dominant players, but rather  from new businesses developing a completely new paradigm — social.  These businesses emerged not as a result of government regulation of the dominant search paradigm, but rather in the messy, murky bottom of the pond, through trial and error and innovation. And when signs emerged that the new social apps were finding a positive reception in the marketplace, funding quickly became available to help them scale up, and in the space of a couple of years they have been so successful that they now appear invulnerable, just like Google did until they came along.  Search and its dominant player, Google, are being shoved aside by social, led by its dominant player, Facebook.  The power of the new paradigm is nowhere better exemplified than by Google’s own determined efforts to make itself an important player in the social space.

Does that mean that Facebook will in a year or two reach the dominant position that Google had a couple of years ago? That seems unlikely.  First, search evolved as an area where the emergence of single dominant monopolist was natural. Social seems different.  Already Facebook faces competition from other kinds of social applications, like Twitter, and finds it beneficial to serve as a platform for synergistic social applications like Zynga.  And looking ahead, some, like Mark Suster in  his recent post Social Networking: The Future, are arguing that a new generation of social apps focusing on specific verticals or communities of interest, like StockTwits for those interested in investing in the stock markets, are emerging to challenge Facebook.  Interestingly Facebook is supporting, not trying to suppress, the development of new social apps, as evidenced by its involvement in Kleiner Perkins’ sFund.

So it looks as if external forces, and Facebook itself, will act in such a way as to prevent Facebook  from emerging as a monopolist of the web during the ‘social’ era in the same way that Google briefly appeared to dominate the web during the ‘search’ era.  There will be no need to wait for a new paradigm to emerge to topple the dominant player, as happened with Google and search.  Instead the emerging web paradigm, social, may prove more robust than search in the sense that it allows for true competition within the paradigm.  If that proves true the social paradigm may prove longer lasting than the search paradigm, and there will be greater scope for innovation within the paradigm.  In any event the fundamental point is that the web once again is proving its mettle as a fantastic market which encourages competition and innovation, and prevents the emergence of lasting monopolists.

The verdict

Sir Tim pointed to a valid concern.  But for the reasons noted above I am not convinced by the implications he draws about the dangers of social applications. Reasons of self interest and public pressures are acting as natural correctives against the (early) tendencies of social applications to horde data and become independent silos, and in fact the creation of these temporary silos also has the countervailing effect of usefully extending the range in which data can be exchanged.  Moreover, the signs are that Facebook, the leading player in the social space, will never become a monopoly.  Rather, for reasons involving both self-interest and external factors, it (a) will be but one of a number of successful social apps, and (b) far from stifling innovation, will prove a key force in stimulating a major new wave of innovation.

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How to keep an online research journal — the tools are getting better!

Posted by Rory on December 1st, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

A dream app:  the online research journal

Would you like to have an online journal that gives you a snapshot of everything you were doing on a particular day, including research and related activity, like your thoughts on journal articles you were reading at the time, notes on conversations with others in the lab about experiments they were working on, etc.?  Would you like this journal to be available in a diary or calendar view?  Would you like the journal to sort out all the entries you made on a particular day and present them to you coherently without your having to do anything in terms of organization at the time of entering the information?

That’s the dream app that Kim Martin, at the University of Edinburgh, would like to see.  Andreas Johansson at  Lund University has a similar vision.  As Andreas says, “Sometimes it’s just easier to follow how your ideas evolved over time in this way.”

Three currently available approximations of the dream app

How far away are we from having that dream app?  Here are three apps, in ascending order of interest and relevance, that are available now and might be considered steps on the road to the dream app.

Facebook News Feed

Facebook has something — pretty primitive admittedly — along these lines already. Facebook News Feed is a constantly updating list of stories from people and Pages that you follow on Facebook.  Like the dream app, it captures everything, or rather everything of yours on Facebook (if you want it to; if not you have the ability to restrict what goes into News Feed) and presents it to you chronologically.  But it has no ability to differentiate on the basis of time, and hence is unable to present things to you in a diary or journal view.  And of course people don’t use Facebook for recording research, so the content of information it captures is not relevant.

Google Wave

Google Wave allows groups of people to communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps and other things.  A wave is shared, so any participant can reply anywhere in the message and edit the content.  The wave can be played back so that any participant can see who said what and when.  So Wave actually has a lot of what the dream app would need.  Even better, it keeps the record of a group of people involved in a research project, not just an individual, and makes it possible to identify each contribution made by each individual.  It acts like a group journal or diary, focused on interactions rather than individuals.

What are Google Wave’s limitations?  It lacks a nice interface and doesn’t show you a diary or journal view. It is not particularly intuitive or easy to learn.  And most important, it’s been pulled by Google as an active app!  Nevertheless, Wave has been very useful in demonstrating the kinds of things that are possible in an online journal which is (a) focused on research rather than personal information, and (b) captures a group’s activities rather than just an individual’s.


The last of the three apps is Momento, an iPhone/iPod diary app for individuals. It allows you to write diary entries about what you are doing  on a given day. It also lets you tag friends (from your iPhone contact list), places, events, and add photos to these entries.  And it lets you import bits of information from services like Twitter, , Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Digg, and any RSS feed. The result is log of what you’re doing online.

Momento looks like a journal, which is broken down by days in descending order from the current day. You get a snapshot of any given day, including the most recent items (tweets, check-ins, etc). Clicking on any of these days takes you to a detail page which shows you all of your activity for that day.  There’s also a calendar view which allows you to go to any moment in the past. Clicking on a date will again take you to a specific day page with all of the info about what you did that day.

The dream app revisited

Although the dream online research journal does not yet exist, it’s clear from what is already available that its key elements would include:

  1. A detailed record of a group’s research interactions and documents
  2. The ability to recover contributions made by each individual, and when they were made
  3. Nicely presented diary and journal views