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The Internet-Entangled Society Can Be Analyzed

The study of social networks on the internet is becoming more popularand more possible not only for researchers, but also for journalists, students, and ordinary users. There was clear evidence of this atthe international summer school ‘Social Network Analysis: Internet Research’, at the HSE campus in St. Petersburg which brought together participants from eleven countries. The organizers of the school - HSE Internet Studies Lab (LINIS) and the Sociology for Education and Science Laboratory – invited the audience topick out the best presentations for reward.

The study of social networks on the internet is becoming more popularand more possible not only for researchers, but also for journalists, students, and ordinary users. There was clear evidence of this atthe international summer school ‘Social Network Analysis: Internet Research’, at the HSE campus in St. Petersburg which brought together participants from eleven countries. The organizers of the school - HSE Internet Studies Lab (LINIS) and the Sociology for Education and Science Laboratory – invited the audience topick out the best presentations for reward. The winner of the competition was postgraduate Sociology student, WojciechWalczak from Poland: he had given a talk about a web application he developed to collect data from Facebook, which anyone can use to download and visualize his or her network of friends, posts and comments. By applying it, – with the consent of the users – Wojciechacquired material for an extensive study of mutual commenting dynamics on their pages.

This kind of software is being developed rapidly at the moment. Several  suchprogrammes were discussed at the summer school. AnatoliyGruzd, Director of the Social Media Lab at Dalhouse University, Canada, taught the participants how to use the Netlyticsoftware developed at his lab, which allows users to download data from Twitterand Google Drive, and comments from YouTube, and at the same time builds and analyzes interaction networks between their elements. This tool, for example, can help determine whether the discussion of a certain topic on Twitter includes communities which never talk to each other and tweet only among themselves, or the topic has become a general subject for discussion. Sergey Koltsov from the Internet Studies Lab told the audience about the LINIS BlogMiner software which downloads full-text data from LiveJournal. From this data you can receive networks of mutual commenting, and also automatically determine what they are about. Working with this kind of software is often quite easy, which is one  reasonwhy internet data analysis is  striding beyond the limits of the research community.

Advanced students at the summer school, who were particularly keen, had the opportunity to learn how to develop scripts for direct data downloading from Twitter based on Python – a popular programming language, which is often used for internet-related tasks. Master classes on this topic were conducted by Alexander Hanna from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and HSE Associate Professor Benjamin Lind conducted a series of workshops on advanced analysis of network data with the R programming language. A broad range of scripts have been written in this language, which make it possible, for example, to evaluate the basis on which people form connections in networks: mutual age, interests, location, etc.

The audience’s interest in the technical part of online social networks research showed just how important it is, but, this is only a tool, and to use it in a sensible way, we need research tasks. These tasks were remarkably varied among the participants, as were their approaches.

Alexandrov D. & Talmud I.
Alexandrov D. & Talmud I.
‘I believe that the way the prizes were distributed, tells us a lot’, says DaniilAlexandrov, Head of the Research Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science (HSE Campus in St. Petersburg), ‘The first prize was given to a Polish sociologist for software, the second – to psychologist Candice le Sueur from Pretoria for critical analysis of online photos, and the third – to a mathematician from Iran, Ahmad KhaliliJafarabad, for a complicated mathematical model which predicts the appearance of new connections in networks. This shows the broad interests of our participants and, more generally, the variety of tasks for internet network analysis’.

The spontaneous initiative by participants to create a discussion community on Twitter with the use of the school’s special hashtag #snaSPb2013 is avivid example of the omnipresence of the internet as a tool for forming social connections. Towards the end of the school, YuryRykov presented a dynamic map of mutual commenting, and it revealed the most active participants.

Koltsova O. & Ahmad Khalili Jafarabad
Koltsova O. & Ahmad Khalili Jafarabad
 ‘The most surprising thing’, says Olessia Koltsova , Head of the Internet Studies Lab, ‘was that our discussion was almost immediately joined by Barry Wellman . He is a prominent international academic, social networks researcher, Director of NetLab at the University of Toronto, and one of the five most cited sociologists in the world. He was not at our school but he was interested in the discussion, and he joined it right away. This is the magic of the internet: it instantly shortens geographical and social distances. Internet studies has a lively present, but its future is even more promising ’.