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How Can Social Networks Become Smarter?

Data mining could help, but users also need to maintain control.
November 16, 2009

Facebook always seems to be tweaking its users’ experience. Over the past couple of years, the site has changed a lot, with designs geared towards sharing content without also encouraging spam and more real-time features and low-effort ways to interact with friends.

But there are basic parts of the social graph that could use more attention. I was reminded of this by a talk by LiliCheng, general manager of Microsoft’s Future Social Experiences Labs, last week at Defrag2009, a technology conference in Denver. Cheng went through some of the intelligent features that are part of Wallop, a social network spun out of Microsoft Research. (Wallop as originally envisioned no longer exists; instead, the company now makes applications for other social networks.)

Wallop was designed to automatically cluster people into groups, Cheng said, making it easier to communicate with relevant friends. It also took emphasis off people who weren’t active on the site, displaying grayed-out nodes to show when a user hadn’t posted for a long time. “These are really simple things that I think are still missing in a lot of our social tools,” Cheng said.

Other social networks could perhaps be much more useful if they could group and manage contacts automatically. It would be good to know, for instance, if a friend rarely logs into his Facebook account, so I could try sending a message a different way. Although Facebook and other social networks do include features that allow users to make and manage lists of friends, few users take advantage. The user experience would perhaps benefit a great deal if these features could become more automatic.

Following a redesign of the Facebook home page earlier this year, product manager Peter Deng wrote: “We built in some default filters based around location, people you connect with most often, and your existing Friend Lists.”

Last week I wrote about how data mining could help people manage e-mail. The same is true of other tools that manage lots of information. These techniques can have huge benefits, but it will be most helpful if users can see how they work and tweak them a little.

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