Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts on ICDM II: Social networks

The other trend that caught my eye at ICDM is the dominance of social networking research. There was a trend line at the business meeting that bore this out, showing how topics loosely classified as social networking had a sharp rise among accepted papers in ICDM over the past few years.

There were at least three distinct threads of research that I encountered at the conference, and in each of them, there's something to interest theoreticians.
  • The first strand is modelling: is there a way to describe social network graphs using abstract evolution models or random graph processes. I spent some time discussing this in a previous post, so I won't say more about it here. Suffice it to say that there's interesting work in random graph theory underpinning this strand, as well as a lot of what I'll call 'social network archaeology': scouring existing networks for interesting structures and patterns that could be the basis for a future model. 
  • The second strand is pattern discovery, and the key term here is 'community': is there a way to express natural communities in social networks in a graph-theoretic manner ? While modularity is one of the most popular ways of defining community, it's not the only one, and has deficiencies of its own. In particular, it's not clear how to handle "soft" or "overlapping" communities. More generally, there appears to be no easy way to capture the dynamic (or time-varying) nature of communities, something Tanya Berger-Wolf has spent a lot of energy thinking about. Again, while modelling is probably the biggest problem here, I think there's a lot of room for good theory, especially when trying to capture dynamic communities.
  • The final strand is influence flow. After all, the goal of all social networking research is to monetize it (I kid, I kid). A central question here is: can you identify the key players who can make something go viral for cheap ? is the network topology a rich enough object to identify these players, and even if you do, how can you maximize flow (on a budget, efficiently). 
There were many papers on all of these topics -- too many to summarize here. But the landscape is more or less as I laid it out. Social networking research is definitely in its bubble phase, which means it's possible to get lots of papers published without necessarily going deep into the problem space. This can be viewed as an invitation to jump in, or a warning to stay out, depending on your inclination. And of course, the definitive tome on this topic is the Kleinberg-Easley book

This concludes my ICDM wrap-up. Amazingly, it only took me a week after the conference concluded to write these up.
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