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While researchers use social media to uncertain effect, a professor at the University of Maryland is calling for more research into social media and social networking, hoping to spur funding and speed curriculum changes reflecting its importance. He voiced his opinion in a letter to Science.

Ben Shneiderman is a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, and foresees a “National Initiative for Social Participation” catalyzing research projects, something he equates to, “like NASA is for space, or like the NIH is for health,” according to an interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

(The University of Maryland seems a busy place these digital days, having just voted down an open access requirement for faculty.)

Research into social media and social networks is a laudatory aim in its purest form, and Shneiderman is not the first to delve into the world of “social epidemiology” — a book of that title was published in 2000, after all. But since then, social networks have been captured more and more by the digital realm. We should understand how these tools and underlying concepts and hypotheses affect our daily lives, how they can be improved, unseen downsides and problems, and paths to innovations.

Shneiderman seems most interested in using social networks for surveillance — disease outbreaks, neighborhood watch programs, energy conservation, etc. Already, research into social networks have revealed social effects leading to increased risk for obesity and smoking.

Some of the digital realization of these ideas is already approaching reality. Google recently announced development of a PowerMeter application, to tie into forthcoming “smart” power meters so that owners can manage their energy consumption more judiciously. Google and IBM have also teamed up to improve surveillance of health and integration of this information into medical records in real-time. The recent H1N1 (swine) flu outbreak was captured with a Twitter map, which some sources claimed was more accurate than Google or Microsoft maps (a dubious claim).

Should the federal government centralize an effort to fund research like this? It seems a little less far-fetched than NASA’s mission, which doesn’t have quite as much “here and now” urgency about it. It seems to mesh with NIH, CDC, and NSF funding, while standing alone. It seems to need something beyond normal computer science studies and curricula. There’s much more of social/societal dimension to it.

It also seems an auspicious time to make the case, given the technology savvy of the Obama Administration. Too bad money’s tight.

Would our journals publish the results? Of course. As noted above, many papers showing social network effects in health and other areas have already been published. Moving into the digital, real-time realm would only make results more robust and more accessible.

All in all, I think it sounds like a bright idea. Now, we just have to wait for the inevitable social networking of Shneiderman’s ideas to turn this into a cause!

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.