Maps of online social networks often reveal little more than the fact that two users have linked to each other’s profiles. That type of map becomes meaningless when, as is typical on MySpace, many users have more than 100 such links and sometimes as many as a million, says Dietmar Offenhuber, a research assistant at the MIT Media Lab. The Comment Flow visualization he created with associate professor Judith Donath traces actual communication between users. Offenhuber and Donath created these images by tracking where and how often users left comments for other users; connections are based on these patterns, rather than on whether people have named each other as “friends.” As the time since the last communication grows, the visual connection begins to fade. The image can include profile pictures and the text of the comments passing between users. Offenhuber says the tool can help users assess the communication habits of prospective friends at a glance. For example, a user who emits a thick flow of similar messages to a wide group of contacts might be a spammer posing as a friendly contact in order to post advertising on people’s profile pages.
Credit: Dietmar Offenhuber, Judith Donath, MIT Sociable Media Group