This September I will be going back to Oxford to do a DPhil. I will study the appearance of critical mass in budding on-line political communities.
Online communities can greatly impact society, as the recent events in the Middle East, and the rise of global online social movements such as Occupy Wallstreet, suggest. But in order to thrive, and become a community at all, online communities have to attain a critical mass of initial users. The central problem of which is that until a certain number of participants are present, joining the community is not going to affect outcomes, or be socially rewarding to newcomers.
Also, more in general, the exact factors that determine growth in the early stages of online communities, are still ill understood. Even internet giant Google has failed to attain critical mass for some of its platforms, such as Google Wave.
For my DPhil I will contrast budding political communities that turn out to become successful (grow or continue to exist) with those that fail. More specifically, it will be examined whether the founders and early participants of successful online political communities, differ, either individually or in their position in social networks, or whether it are the early communities as a whole that differ, for example in community-level dynamics.
Contrary to the traditional belief in the impact of leaders, the answer to this question is not a given, as studies of `leaderless’ online movements, and smart-mobs, suggest. Also, several theories suggest the possibility that founders of successful communities could be socially indistinguishable from those of communities that fail. See my full proposal for more information.
I have a scholarship from the Economic and Social Research Council, and will be doing my DPhil at the Oxford Internet Institute, where I also did my masters. The OII is an interdisciplinary research-centre of the the University of Oxford, focusing on Social Science research applied to the Internet. My supervisor will be Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, who is doing fascinating research on the growth of online political communities, and other aspects of online political interactions.
I will be leaving a great job at a great startup for this, but then one sometimes has to make difficult decisions in order to pursue a dream: that of doing (great and relevant) research, and becoming an academic.
Panorama of Oxford, and the entrance to 1 St Giles, where the Oxford Internet Institute is based
While still working on my MSc thesis, I went to San Francisco this summer. I first attended the Digital Humanities 2011 conference at Stanford University. It was great to see many known faces there again, and the talks and posters were ‘not bad’ either. Especially impressive was the keynote on Culturomics, the quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books.
Then I started work at Academia.edu, a funded startup which now has over a million users. Academia.edu is a social network for scholars, which – besides the usual social network-features – organizes people by their department and research-interests, and enables scholars to present their publications in a beautiful way. Not only does it allow direct subscription to the news-feed of individual researchers (as in a personalized journal), but it also makes uploaded papers more widely available, as user-pages are indexed by Google, and thus easy to find by researchers and other interested parties.
Academia.edu is (also see next post) a great place to work. The team consists of great engineers, and decisions are generally made in a non-hierarchical way that allows the best ideas to come to the fore. A lot of interesting new technologies are being used as well, such as Redis, MongoDB, Memcached, Varnish, and Solr (besides Ruby on Rails). In that sense it is a real startup. And since I arrived we have started doing automated testing, and been improving the quality of the code. In addition to all this, our office also provides a very nice work-environment, as it is centrally located (Kearny and Bush), with a lot of light, and plants (for whoever wants them on their desk).
My work-space at Academia.edu...Continue reading »
Trinity term (the 3rd) has just started in Oxford, and I (Wybo) have just handed in two 5000-word papers.
The first paper is about circadian (24-hour scale) time-effects on Hacker News. Its main hypothesis is that the time at which people arrive on the site (greatly) impacts whom they are most likely to interact with. This because replies that make very similar points as previous replies to the same post, are generally not appreciated very much, and visitors thus can only (productively) reply to relatively new posts (not older than 2 hours).
Some time-pressure effects were indeed found, both on the micro-scale of interactions between prolific users (more than 25 posts in 40 days), and on the aggregate level, in 3-hour time-windows, where there was greater reciprocity and transitivity (friends of friends becoming friends). Even the phased introduction of daylight saving time between the US and UK (UK is 2 weeks later) was found to have a measurable impact on the community-structure.
Circadian rhythms thus do have an impact, even if a small one, on the reply-relationships that form (see the paper for limits and possible alternative explanations).
A very short video of the network over a day (aggregate for 40 days), and its fragmentation by time, can be seen below:
In addition - specifically for this blog-post - I graphed the best time to reply to comments, and the best time to create threads, both in terms of their expected ratings (the average ratings). This data was from just before karma-ratings for comments were hidden. See the graphs below:
Average ratings for replies (posts that are comments at any level in the thread) created at each hour of day (in UTC). Notice how little variation there is.
Average ratings for threads created at each hour of day (in UTC). Again notice the very modest variation.
As can be seen there is not really a best time to post, because ratings are roughly constant during the day (though 19:00 UTC is not the worst time and there are some more variations during the week (especially Saturday evenings in US timezones are lower rated)). It should be noted that only posts that made it to the frontpage were included, see here for a study of the new-page.
This relative lack of variation is (some) evidence against concerns about overnight threads standing less of a chance, that were expressed in this HN thread.
A possible reason for there being so little variation, is that when more people visit and create threads, threads are on the homepage for shorter periods (turnover is higher), and thus about the same number of people see, and rate them at any time. See how the gap in thread-longevity precedes the peak creation-period in the graphs below.:
Threads created at each hour.
Time on the frontpage for threads created at each hour (and on the frontpage for at least one hour).
The paper can be downloaded here (30mb, pdf, lot of HQ images). The tools (in Ruby 1.8) used in the research are available here (though they are a bit rough around the edges). And the full anonymized dataset (to the extent that removing nicknames is sufficient, yaml file format) can be downloaded here.
The second paper was about how an online global advisory parliament employing proxy-voting as its voting-mechanism, could improve political decision-making. And secondly it is about what methods might be employed to make it more likely to attain critical mass, such as integrating it with Facebook, and making it follow the agenda of real parliaments & summits rather than setting its own.
Critical mass in thread-based platforms/forums is my thesis-topic. More on this later, but a taste of what I am working on can already be had from this JS + HTML 5 canvas, agent-based simulation of users posting on a forum (thesis-proposal is here).
As of the summer I (Wybo) will be working for Academia.edu, based in downtown San Francisco, California.
Academia.edu is a Facebook/LinkedIn for academics, and one that might very well change the way scholars communicate and work. Besides social networking functionality, it also offers features specific to the academic world, such as commenting on papers, following research-interests, and it has more in the pipeline. Academia currently has over 270.000 users, a couple of million in funding, and is rapidly growing.
The people behind Academia are great. My H1B visa just came through. And as some I talked to might have heard earlier, the (decent) job-offer was made a couple of months ago. So San Francisco & Silicon Valley it is :-)
San Francisco seen from across the Oakland Bay Bridge....Continue reading »
Life in Oxford, at the Oxford Internet Institute, is amazing: Lively and interesting seminars, presentations and talks by world famous academics every week (also across the university), motivated fellow students, delightful dinners, and all this amidst architectural splendor and centuries of tradition. There is one downside though; time.
With so much to do, so much to read, and so many interesting people around, time becomes the prime commodity, and it needs to be managed tightly, then bent, mangled and stretched a little further, and it occasionally snaps and jumps at you.
That’s why only now, with the end of Michaelmas (the first term) a few weeks past, the backlog of errands out of the way, most people gone home for the holidays, and tiny blob of time bouncing back (2 exams upcoming early January), that I write this post.
I did little coding in the past few months, though I gave myself a few hours off, today, to do some relaxing bug-squashing, and to write this post. So there’s not much to report in terms of the project, besides that I got an A+ on my thesis about LogiLogi’s quest for critical mass (thus a distinction for my Digital Humanities masters), and that some more (personal) good news is on it’s way, though I won’t make that public yet :-)
St. Cross, my college. Post-graduate-only, not posh, but a friendly and pleasant place.
I (Wybo) have just completed my thesis for Digital Humanities at King’s College London. It is titled ‘LogiLogi: The Quest for Critical Mass.’, and it reports on an (ongoing) attempt at attaining critical mass for LogiLogi.
It presents and discusses all improvements that were made to LogiLogi over the past year, among which: an integrated search page, improved recent changes and rankings, author badges, a screencast, in-place edit, easy attach buttons, logi-blogs, and more....Continue reading »
A poster on LogiLogi, and it’s “Quest for Critical Mass”, was presented at Digital Humanities 2010. And we won an European Science Foundation bursary for it. On our poster we report on recent improvements of LogiLogi, provide some background theory about critical mass, and identify factors that can be of influence on attainment.
The conference has just ended, and it was a great event, featuring topics as diverse as literary stylometrics, linguistics, 3D-modeling, and GIS. Especially Melissa Terras’ plenary talk is worth reading (& watching as soon as the video comes on-line).
I (Wybo) have just been admitted to the MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute. For my masters thesis there I hope to do empirical research into the appearance of critical mass in hypertext-related web-applications.
There are a lot of conceptualizations of critical mass, but the simplest one is the minimum number of active users that a web-application needs to provide sufficient network-effects to make it worthwhile for new visitors to join.
It should not be hard to find out what first inspired me to look into this topic, and I will indeed use it in support of LogiLogi, but it foremostly is an academically fascinating, and very relevant topic in itself.
Most collaborative web-applications fail due to problems with critical mass. Critical mass is the key to unleashing the latent potential that the internet harbours for bringing global understanding and social improvement. Given the universal challenges our world faces today, I hope my research will be a valuable contribution.
Oxfords dreaming spires seen from the north east
LogiLogi, and it’s Quest for Critical Mass will be presented (as a poster) at the Digital Humanities 2010 conference in London, this June. First of all we will analyze the concept of critical mass, as it applies to collaborative (hypertext Digital Humanities) web-applications, and at all the factors that come into it, such as network-effects, and bifurcation points.
Surprisingly little has been written about these issues so far, except for Philip Ball’s Critical Mass, and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping point, and those even deal only indirectly with the topic. Academic articles are (so far) nonexistant (except for some on broader issues in sociology and economics), and what little there is, is to be found on the web.
Then at the DH conference, we will present the results of the informal usability study that I will be doing in about two weeks, at the ISVW, in the Netherlands. We will implement some of the suggested improvements, and report on those. Following that, we hopefully will be able to show something of the process of gaining critical mass on LogiLogi. Our abstract is on-line here.
Today I’ve also given a presentation about it at King’s College London, as it’s also my thesis project. You can find that presentation here. In addition I will be presenting LogiLogi in general, at the London Seminar in Digital Text and Scholarship, on the 11th of March. Be there, if you happen to be in the neighbourhood.
I just came back from the ‘second snow workshop’ of the LiquidPub project in Ovronnaz, Switzerland. Besides the location (first time at a winter-sports resort for me), the topic of the workshop was fascinating. It gave me a better understanding of the LiquidPub project, and while I had read most of the papers on LiquidPub before arriving, nothing can replace some face to face interaction with those in the project. There was a good, and vibrant atmosphere.
The mountains near Ovronnaz
The slides of my presentation on LogiLogi, and how it is minimalistic (and minimalism is good), are on-line here. The presentation went well, and most people I spoke to were quite positive about LogiLogi.
While waiting at the airport on the way back, I wrote up some of my thoughts and questions about LiquidPub. Such as: whether people really want to continue updating articles, what motivates people who work on large academic software projects, why such projects tend to come up with overly complicated things and how academic software-projects are, or should be funded.
During the workshop I also thought a lot about possible weaknesses of LogiLogi (it not having many users so far, being the most pressing problem), and about how this could be improved. Making things easier and simpler seems key. One improvement towards this, which I implemented right away, is that titles and tags now only need to be specified after a text (logi) has been written. This should make it easier to simply begin writing, and worry about a title or tags once the logi is typed up.
At the airport I also wrote down some of these thoughts: whether there are people who are willing to share ideas in anything but journal-papers, problems with usability, and LogiLogis seeming similarity to a blogging platform.
LogiLogi is, as of today, ready for translation. We have worked on this because a German philosophy journal will start using LogiLogi some time within the next months. They asked us if they could have it translated. In addition it was something that was on our todo list for some time.
We use the I18n (Internationalization) framework provided by Rails, and the Translate Rails plugin for editing the translations. The Translate plugin provides a nice web-based user-interface for entering translations. It does, however, require one to install LogiLogi (and ruby) locally, and run it using Rails built-in webserver. You can run it with script/server from the trunk directory, and then point your browser to http://localhost:3000/do/translate to start a translation.
Besides this, I will also be presenting LogiLogi at the second LiquidPub workshop in Ovronnaz, Switzerland next week. LiquidPub is a project with similar aims as LogiLogi, though it is much more ambitious, in that, instead of trying to be an informal means of communication besides journals, it tries to change journals themselves (filtering articles for readers, building articles from smaller bits of text, and allowing articles/journals to be ever up to date). And not just that, it also tries to serve the organisation of conferences, and the writing and publication of books and educational materials.
LiquidPub is a project by the University of Trento, Springer Science, Institut Nicod and the University of Fribourg. It is backed among others, by: the International World Wide Web Conferences Steering Committee, the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence, and the International Conference on Software Engineering. Looking forward to being there, and learning more about it, as well as to their views on LogiLogi.
I’ve been studying Digital Humanities at King’s College London for about four months now, and I must say that it has been a good experience so far. The professors are nice and knowledgeable people, and the readings as part of classes are generally very interesting. In addition, to prepare for a Phd / MA in philosophy, I have also been taking a 40-credit (little over 20% of the yearly credits) course in Ethics at King’s philosophy department. A course that is fascinating and well-taught as well.
A question I often get, though, is: “What the (kleene star) is Digital Humanities?”. My usual response is that it is doing humanities research using IT-technology: Such as data-mining philosophical texts, modeling philosophical arguments, making 3D models of historical sites, or building tools and resources for philosophers (or other humanists). And that has appeared to be about right, though in practice there is a bit of a bias towards building digital editions of canonical texts, because that is what is best at attracting funding. But anyway, here is an alternative explanation of what Digital Humanities is to classical Humanities on Youtube (don’t fully agree with it, but is a funny watch anyway).
There is a rule at King’s, or more likely, in the British educational system, that one is not allowed to write an assessed essay on the same topic/resource twice. Therefore I haven’t been writing much about LogiLogi so far, as I want to save it for my thesis....Continue reading »
LogiLogi has a base in London now. I (Wybo) moved to London last month. I’m doing a MA in Digital Humanities at King’s College London now (with a HSP Talents Scholarship, and a KCL Int. Humanities Scholarship).
For my MA-thesis I am going to improve LogiLogi, and try to initiate a first community of philosophers on it. The proposal for this can be read here.
Also I finally received the last grade for my BAs (I hold 3 BA’s now), which is a 9.5 (out of ten, less than 3% get this mark) for my thesis for Philosophy on LogiLogi: Philosophy Beyond the Paper. You can read it on LogiLogi first of all, and here as a .pdf paper simulation.
London by night...Continue reading »
I (Wybo) have just been at the LIRMM lab in Montpellier, France for a week, working on LogiLogi. The LIRMM lab, under the leadership of Michel Robert, and with the guidance of Jean Sallatin, will be using LogiLogi to write and discuss their self-evaluative documents, and their mission-statement. The LIRMM really is an inspiring place, where 180 staff and about 170 PhD & master’s students work on topics like robotics, micro- electronics, and (most of them) on computer-science.
I’m typing this as I am on the train back home, because we have been working so hard (also over the weekend) that there was hardly any time left for other things, such as updating the blog. I haven’t even seen the beach, except from the plane :-)
We have fixed a lot of bugs, and also done some small, but important improvements to the UI. In all, it was a good time, and for all the hard work (the devving was fun in itself too!), there were also good conversations, even if some of them were in French :-)
I will be doing some more fixes during a few evenings in the coming weeks, but LogiLogi should be quite usable and stable now. There is more good news in the making, but I will post it in another post.
From left to right: Martine, Claire (designer), and Wybo (action-shot :-)...
Reallife discussion later in the project
Just got back from the ECAP (European Conference on Computing and Philosophy) 2009 in Barcelona. Though it was quite a broad conference, and the quality of the presentations sometimes varied, I found it to be a fascinating and definitely recommendable event. Last year I also attended and presented at it, in Monpellier. A video of this is now available in ogg format, (and flv, slides of 2008 are here).
Drawn from the interesting talks of this year was first of all a keynote by Luciano Floridi on the relationship between information and knowledge. Then there was a talk by Kevin Warwick, on what it is like to be a robot (and he’s the guy that actually tried it out!). Then there was a talk by Philip Brey on the proper role of information in society. And there was more, notably also a track on Singularity.
Then there was “our” track on computer-supported cooperative work. Two presentations (apart from ours, naturally :) in it were especially relevant to LogiLogi. The first being the one by Dominique Luzeaux, on Wiki-Debate. Their logical relationships and emoticons for comments were especially nice (though a bit overly-complex for voluntary users imho). The second was the presentation by Luc Schneider. It especially went into the LiquidPub project, and the ideas behind it, which are strikingly similar to those behind LogiLogi. So we are not alone, and judging our company, likely on the right track.
Besides this, interest in cooperation was expressed by at least two parties. But more on this when things become more concrete. The slides of our presentation can be downloaded here