Researchers help define next-generation social networking

Academics who gathered at an annual event at Microsoft discussed shortcomings to current social-networking platforms.

The next generation of social networking will give people more tools for defining smaller online communities in a way that mimics the real world, academic researchers said Monday.

"One thing that's very broken in the social tools we have right now is context and boundaries and a sense of who I want to share what with," said Liz Lawley, director of the laboratory for social computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Many social-networking sites essentially force users to become part of a huge community, or they force users to choose whether someone else is a friend or not, with no other subtleties defining that relationship, she noted.

"People want to create villages and they're being forced into cities. That's creating a huge tension in social interactions," she said. Lawley and other academic researchers spoke at the Microsoft Research annual Faculty Summit, an event that brings together academics, government workers and Microsoft researchers to discuss new fields of computer-science research.

Ideally, Lawley and the researchers she shared the stage with would like to be able to define various sets of friends online.

"The people I fly with as a pilot could care less about my ... amateur radio work. They should have the ability to say they'll be my friend in this context and not necessarily in another context," said R & H Security Consulting President and CEO Howard Schmidt, a former academic who also consults for the government. "This is something we have to fine-tune as we build out social networking."

Academic researchers could help contribute to developments allowing such fine-tuning, but first they'll have to start using the existing tools, Lawley said. "Many of my colleagues could bring interesting insight, but I look at their use of these tools and they have no idea that there's a way you can share bookmarks with other people, no idea that you can moderate comments on a blog."

The researchers also discussed opinions, some of them perhaps surprising, on other important subjects in the online social-networking space. Lawley, who has a 14-year-old son, said she feels strongly against some of the restrictive methods used online to segregate adults from children in an attempt to protect kids from predators. On Second Life, for example, she can't interact with her son because he has to be in the teen grid and she has to be in the adult grid. "So I don't learn from him about how to use technologies and he doesn't learn from me about how to interact in a social context," she said.

Shutting down sites or trying to shut out people won't solve the problem of sexual predators, she said. "We don't talk about shutting down the Catholic church," she said, referring to the clergy sex-abuse scandal. "Sexual deviancy isn't unique to the online world."

While she sees the value in age verification online, age shouldn't be used to segregate users. It's better that parents and adults teach young people how to interact safely online -- "that's the real preventative," she said.

Other academics agreed. Few people assembled at the conference could go online and fool a kid for long because most people wouldn't be able to imitate their vocabulary well, said Dan Reed, director of scalable and multicore computing at Microsoft Research. Training young people how to identify adults posing as children can work well, he said.

At the event, Microsoft unveiled some free software tools now on offer to researchers, aimed at making it easier for them to publish and share data throughout academia. The products include e-Journal, a hosted service that lets researchers self-publish online-only journals; the Research Output Repository Platform, which connects various types of research output such as papers, lectures and presentations to make it easier for others to find related materials; and the Research Information Centre, a collaborative workspace based on Microsoft SharePoint and delivered in partnership with the British Library.

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Nancy Gohring

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