[NetBehaviour] Visualizing Social Networks... in Excel

marc garrett marc.garrett at furtherfield.org
Wed Jul 30 11:09:12 CEST 2008

Visualizing Social Networks... in Excel

Ethan Zuckerman

In the spirit of attending OPCs - "other people's conferences", 
conferences where you're invited, but not part of the 
demographic/professional group the conference is aimed at - I'm now at 
the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit. I'm not a computer scientist, not 
university teaching faculty, and I'm not doing any research sponsored by 
Microsoft... all of which turns out to be okay, as it's a pretty 
interesting gathering looking at current research topics in computer 
science, with a strong emphasis on the study of social networks... 
something that interest me, even if I'm not doing a ton of active work 
on the topic.

This emphasis on social network studies helps explain why I'm currently 
sitting in a packed conference room, learning about an extension to 
Excel. Even at Microsoft conferences, Excel extensions don't usually get 
this type of attention. But the extension, .NetMap, has been developed 
by Marc A. Smith, a pioneering researcher on social networks who's done 
important work on analyzing relationships in Usenet groups in his time 
at Microsoft Research.

Much of Marc's recent work has looked at behavioral patterns in 
technical support newsgroups in Usenet. As it turns out, these groups 
are still hugely important for people looking for technical support 
(even in the days of pervasive spam) and Microsoft is interested in 
cultivating the utility of these networks. Rather than analyzing the 
content of these newsgroups (hard to do, as they're huge), Smith and his 
team looked at structures. They did a great deal of network mapping, 
graphing the posts and responses, and seeing the structures that emerge. 
At least three types have emerged:

- Answer people - these people almost never post new threads, but answer 
the queries of a large number of unconnected people. In network terms, 
they've got high out-degree and low in-degree. These folks are utterly 
essential in the functioning of technical newsgroups, as they're the 
folks that newbies end up getting support from

- Reply magnets - some people have a gift (or a technique) for posting 
in a way that gets responses. Reply magnets are the opposite of answer 
people - they post infrequently and everyone answers. Smith sees roughly 
0.5% of these people in newsgroups, but their posts get 30% of the 
responses from roughly 30% of all users. Basically, these folks are 
specialists in setting the agenda, which has interesting implications 
for political discussions in newsgroups, as these folks are capable of 
nominating agenda topics with much more success that the average user.


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