Posts Tagged ‘academia’

Will Facebook dominate Social Commerce?

February 13th, 2011

Facebook is a monster of a company, no doubt. It seems that world domination is its ambition, and it is well on its way towards that goal. But will it dominate social commerce, as it has so many other areas?

It turns out that social networks like Facebook “are not structurally well-suited to be networks of sellers,” according to a fascinating study done at Columbia (download pdf). The problem? Social networks like Facebook and Twitter end up being too clustered. When I click on a high school classmate from Hunter, I inevitably find that we have 60+ friends in common.

Why is this a problem? If you start traversing the social graph from my profile, you’ll likely to get stuck in a Hunter cul-de-sac. I love my classmates, but after a while, it’s a deadend that eventually gets boring. And empirically data from a social shopping site in France support this explanation.

The solution is to foster a network that looks more like a web than a cluster. More links are better, but you want to make sure that they take to different places. In my opinion, this structure can be induced through proper incentives, but it does not occur naturally. Herein lies the opportunity.

But it is likely to be tricky, because such “strategic attempts to alter a social network’s structure can lead to unintended consequences.” Unfortunately, the researchers don’t provide much detail into what alternative incentives are worth trying or what consequences they are concerned about.

Since the opportunity involves creating a new network, it seems to me that it is not only large but defensible. A difficult problem, perhaps, but what a nut if you can crack it! Given how different it is than building a global social network, I think it is one that Facebook is unlikely to crack by itself.

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In case of emergency…

January 6th, 2009

I can still remember the days when spell checking seemed like a neat new feature. Networked study aids now go much farther than mere computer aids, helping students with their bibliographies, avoiding plagiarism, watching lectures and more.. But this service takes the cake:

File Destructor is a tool that should only be used for emergencies. Basically, it’s a tool that creates a fake file that you can send to your teachers. You can choose the extension as well as the size of the file, and when your professor can’t open the file up, you can just blame it on your computer. Of course, many teachers are starting to not accept these excuses, so be careful when using this. This web tool allows you to spend hours browsing MakeUseOf instead of working on that stupid project.


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Biased decisions

December 21st, 2008

A fun video cataloging a number of error in reasoning that people make in their decisions. Enjoy!

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Do incentives increase performance?

November 20th, 2008

The NY Times had this editorial today about incentive bonuses. In the article, he presents seemingly strong evidence that bonuses shouldn’t matter. In experiments in India and MIT, participants who were offered truly substantial rewards performed *worse* than people who were offered small rewards. His conclusion: don’t pay large performance bonuses to investment bankers.

I take exception to the author’s interpretation of the experiments. It misunderstands how incentives operate. Offering higher rewards doesn’t necessarily make individuals perform better. I can only run so fast, and try as I might, I can’t shave a minute off my fastest mile run even if you offer me $1 million or even $1 billion.

However, there are runners out there who can beat my time 60 seconds or more. And some of them are doing more lucrative things, like professional sports or even investment banking etc. If you offered them the right price, you might be able to get them to leave those other jobs and participate in your race.

So, Dan Ariely is way off the mark in drawing the conclusion that investment banks could perform just as well without performance bonuses. Run back to the Ivory Tower at Duke, Dan!

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Cognitive Surplus

August 25th, 2008

Here’s a provocative video. It received a warm reception at e-thePeople and nice discussion. Here’s how I described it on etp:

Where do you find the time to participate in e-thepeople? Clay Shirky suggests that e-thepeople, wikipedia and other participatory media find the time by tapping into the cognitive surplus, the 200 billion hours Americans spend watching TV each year in the US alone. He claims that people choose participation over consumption, when given the chance. What do you think:

Is participatory media a revolution or just a fad? Is your time on e-thepeople valuable or a waste of time?

Watch it here:

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A local deliberative poll

March 19th, 2008

We’ve just completed another successful deliberative poll this past weekend. This time, I did not have to travel to a far away place; the poll was in my own county, San Mateo, CA. The topic: housing. I do however see a parallel with the EU poll. In the EU, the deliberators had to consider what expansion would mean to Turkey and the Ukraine even though people from those countries weren’t invited. In the San Mateo poll, residents were asked to consider how housing policy affects commuters from the Central Valley, SF and SJ.

Here is a 2 minute news piece on the poll, uploaded by a participant of our poll. Enjoy!

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The Theory of Interstellar Trade

March 12th, 2008

Although I frequently disagree with Krugman’s approach to politics, he is a brilliant economist. Here is a funny paper he wrote on “The Theory of Interstellar Trade” (via slashdot):

Abstract: This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest rates on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer traveling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved… This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

The two “useless” but fundamental theorems are: (1) return on investment is calculated in the home inertial timeframe, not the voyagers timeframe and (2) interest rates on two planets separated by light years should still be the same.

Two comments on these theorems. First, the first one implies that the profits on interstellar trade must be enormous, because there is so much time elapsed to make a return trip. And this is not including any of the “real” costs, like fuel, building the ship or paying people to go on a voyage where all their loved ones will be gone.

Second, I think the second theorem may be wrong. If the interest rates *have* to be identical, does that mean that there is action at distance? In other words, should it be possible to infer what the interest rate on Trantor is based on the current interest rate on Earth? Of course, I could be wrong since I don’t really understand special relatively very well (nor instellar trade theory for that mattter).

It’s sad to know that even if the engineering hurdles could be crossed, financial theory poses serious barriers as well to interstellar trade. Sigh.

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The psychology of facebook

January 25th, 2008

I was asked by PARC to present again on the psychology of facebook. (Why do some applications go viral? You can read my speaking notes or watch this 1 min 52 sec screencast that is almost identical in content or grab the slides or handout.) But the main reason to reprise that post is to link to this pdf of my academic research paper, “Six patterns of Persuasion in Online Social Networks.” The paper makes that case that online persuasion follows simple patterns that can be explained with social psychology. Enjoy!

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Mad science: What could it teach us?

January 23rd, 2008

mad scientistAt an interesting talk today, I found out that behavioral economists cannot use any form of deception in their experiments. I found this norm somewhat puzzling, because psychologists often include mild deception (like confederates) that cause no harm to the subjects but offer new research opportunities. At previous talk, I heard a researcher say that it would be unethical to offer variable compensation to survey respondents in order to help reduce non-response bias.

These two examples are from a broader class of what I call “mad science”: potentially unethical but otherwise scientifically valid research techniques. My mind wandered to an interesting but scary topic: what is the most valuable lesson we could learn from mad science?

I immediately thought of medicine. There are many tests of efficacy of treatments and even answers to certain basic biological questions that could result in dramatic improvements in the human condition for centuries, but are entirely unacceptable because of the potential harm (and even death) to individual subjects. I then thought about military research. Sometimes the virtual reality and other technology research in my communication department is deemed “creepy” but it’s not unethical.

Dear readers, do any of you have any ideas of potentially valuable but unethical research? I would be especially interested in social science examples. Or perhaps mad science is an idea that just best to be avoided.

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Informed voting via prediction markets

January 7th, 2008

My friend Richard sent me this interesting link and email in response to my post yesterday:

[ is] moving beyond prediction markets that try to determine who will win
the election, towards markets that predict the effect of someone
winning the election. In other words, markets that attempt to predict
the price of oil, interest rates, # troops in Iraq, etc. conditional
on the person or party that wins the election.

The design of these markets is theoretically interesting as are
questions as to whether you can get enough liquidity in these more
complex markets to get good results.

But beyond that, there is the potential, mentioned in the blog post,
of using these markets to help people decide how to vote. On one
hand, this seems ridiculous – and maybe even open to abuse or
manipulation. On the other, it’s eminently reasonable. I really want
to vote for the candidate that will be the best president and have the
best outcomes for the country. To the extent that I feel that the
markets are better predictors of these things than I am alone (or in
conjunction with the spouting of pundits or even deliberation),
shouldn’t I base my vote on them?

In my opinion, the most important questions facing voters are: what is the consequence of your voting decision? How will the world be different if one candidate wins rather than the other? Using prediction markets to understand these consequences seems entirely reasonable to me.

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Sold out! Part III

December 26th, 2007

Here’s a link to the slides from the other presenters from our facebook expo. Lots of interesting ideas and data, even if it’s a little decontextualized without speakers’ notes.

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Sold Out! 10 million in 10 weeks

December 12th, 2007

Look ma! Someone decided to post a video of my presentation last night on a prominent facebook blog.

My Stanford class on facebook apps is wrapping up. As a class of 80 students, we created 40 or so applications that run within facebook’s social network. As of last night, more than 16 million people had installed these applications.

Anyway, our class presented the results last night at Bay Chi to 400 people, including a hundred people who watched on video screens in an overflow room and dozens of others who were turned away at the door. Tonight, we’ll repeat the exercise tonight to an even bigger audience at the Stanford Alumni center.

How were these applications able to be so successful? Below is a transcript of my three minute speech or you can watch this 1 min 52 sec screencast that is almost identical in content or grab the slides or handout. This framework was created by Xingxin Liu, BJ Fogg and me.


Six patterns for success. We conducted a bottoms-up analysis of the top 100 facebook apps according to Appsaholic. We found six patterns and then classified them. Native patterns are tightly integrated in the profile pages and rely heavily on friend selector and other functionality exposed by facebook, whereas adapted patterns do not.

Within native patterns, you can take actions or create artifacts that are either individually- or group-directed. For example in 1A, provoke and retaliate apps allow a user to perform an action on a friend. This genre includes apps like KissMe, Hugs, Zombies and X Me. In 2B by contrast, group exchange apps allows users to create and share artifacts collectively. This genre includes the top 2 apps, SuperWall and FunWall and others like BumperSticker.

Within adapted patterns, ‘competition’ adapts popular games like Scrabble, poker and video games to a social context. Adapted patterns, however, are cross-cutting: many native apps include Leaderboards and status levels to foster competition. Meanwhile, many apps include ‘deceptive’ like misleading fake facebook buttons and other navigation to trick users into install other apps.

Here is Bless You, a class app that reached 200k users in 20 days. It is quite simple: send friend a bless by one click.

Bless You - 1

Bless You fits the ‘Provoke& Retaliate’ Pattern. However, it includes other patterns too: a level system for competing, top lists for comparing, profile box for self-expression and group exchange; and ‘deceptive’ navigation.
Bless You - 2

We coded every app by primary pattern in the top 100 and aggregated the data in this chart. Deception is common but secondary, so we have omitted it. Some observations:
1. A small number of Group exchange apps reach many users and are highly engaging
2.Reveal & Compare appears to be faddish – large reach but low engagement
3. Compete is highly engaging within a niche
Facebook Stats

Which applications from tonight’s presentation fit into which patterns? Hopefully, these patterns offer one useful way to think about why these apps were so successful. Questions? We’re Michael Weiksner, Xingxin Liu and BJ Fogg. Please see us at intermission, and I have about 100 copies of our handout if your interested. Thank you.

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Peanut gallery or agenda-setters?

November 5th, 2007 has been relaunched. Blogrunner shows the same stories that appear in the site, but it gives you convenient access to lists of the bloggers who are linking to the stories in the NY Times. In a real way, it is outsourced letters to the editor on steroids.

What blogrunner does is turn the blogosphere into a peanut gallery. You can cry foul that some point was missed in this or that story, cast aspersions, etc., but you don’t get to choose the topics of discussion. The New York Times reserves the right to be the agenda-setter.

In contrast, puts the bloggers themselves in charge of the agenda. Not only can bloggers comment on the days news, but memeorandum features topics based on activity in the blogosphere. Rather than an hidden committee of elite editors, bloggers collectively decide the agenda.

For now, I am glad that both of these sites are up and running. I am pulling for memeorandum to have increasing power to set the agenda, but the NY Times arguably does the best job in politics and world affairs at the moment. In terms of technology though, memeorandum’s technmeme and other community sites like slashdot and digg do far better job than the NY Times.

So, I am glad that blogrunner is back up to empower the peanut gallery!

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Can you be fooled by a dog on facebook?

November 1st, 2007

This New Yorker cartoon sums up the legacy media’s (e.g., newspaper, tv, magazine, etc.) attack on the threat posed by the Internet:


In other words, the Internet lacks credibility. Does facebook suffer from the same line of criticism? On facebook, can anyone tell if you are a dog?

I would think so – it’s hard to create a fake identity on facebook! For the first time over the Internet, facebook provides meaningful identity warranting. Think about what it would take to create a good fake profile: you’d have to have pictures and know the other persons preferences quite well. And then you’d have to convince real people to ‘friend’ you, which is a hard task for a fake identity. (However, it might be possible to masquerade as someone else for a little while.)

But your virtual identity has an interesting feature: you have even more control over your self-presentation. I choose my profile picture and I have to agree to friend someone. I am not obligated to share any preferences that might undermine how I want to present myself. I can even use photoshop to enhance my image, or put my face in an outlandish jibjab starring you” video.

In the parlance of Walther and Parks, facebook is mediated communication with this special mix of “cues filtered in”, “cues filtered out” and “cues bent and twisted.” Perhaps most relevantly, for the first time, these cues are very real.

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