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 »