28 August 2012

Social Structure

I’ve been pretty fortunate with my first quarter at UC Irvine, particularly in that the classes I’m taking feed directly into my interests. That might seem like a very low bar for satisfaction, but consider that there are hundreds of classes offered (admittedly maybe only a dozen or so in Anthropology) and I could be taking any of those classes instead. More likely than not there would be some irrelevant classes where I was putting in a significant amount of work for something ultimately not related to my goals. More troubling, though, is that I could be in a class where nothing meaningful got done. ** That would be a waste of units - time and money, in my case - and I’d be pretty upset about that. **

** I digress. I’ve had a chance to read a lot of articles and a few books on social network structure and design, and it’s gotten me thinking about social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter again. I’m interested in seeing how people form relationships. Do we all have a big circle with everyone knowing each other perfectly? Certainly not; we have multiple social circles and the people in one circle tend to know others in the same circle, but not other circles (usually). **

** Or at least, that’s how I presume it is. In the US. For people in Generation (X?, ) Y and Z. Maybe. **

** Maybe not. **

** It’d be rather interesting if it turned out that people form their social network - the aggregate of their connections - in different ways depending on their cultural background. This seems like an easy enough thing to evaluate, although it’s fairly data-heavy. Then again, that’s the beauty of the area I want to explore: questions which once would have been daunting in their data collection phase are now trivialized. We can map and graph a person’s social network in a few seconds (less, really). **

** We have all the data we could ever want. Frankly, we have all the computational power we need at least to model, prototype, and test ideas (if not also to scale and deploy). **

** We just need to figure out the right questions to ask. That’s the biggest issue we face. How do we make sense of all of this? **

** PandoDaily recently ran a story which raised this point: so we have big data, a big industry with big hotshots doing impressive stuff with petabytes of information on us. This magnitude of information is simply too much to throw tactics at haphazardly. You need to figure out what questions (and equally importantly, how) you’ll ask that data. **

** Ars Technica published a less immediately relevant article, but with much of the same undertones. The challenges these engineers face with serving tens of thousands of users regularly (and simultaneously) is unfathomable. That said, this is practically the dictionary definition of Cultural Anthropology’s use-of-space observation method. What better way to resolve a technically confounding problem than by finding human patterns which can allow engineers to focus resources on the right places (both literally in this case, but also figuratively). **

** It’s kind of exciting to be studying Anthropology at this particular moment; I’m seeing untapped areas of study which could benefit enormously from simply asking the right questions, something people so often struggle with but which Anthropologists are trained to do well.
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