Sunday, December 13, 2009

The nature of social queries

In my last post, I described the location of my camera as my most pressing information need. Soon thereafter, the need was satisfied via my social network, within which the lost camera acted as an implicit query. This process was, however, had none of the revolutionary flavor otherwise associated with social search. I got a call from my mother saying, "You uncle told me that you left your camera sitting on their kitchen counter."

The camera experience set me to thinking about social queries and social search. The missing camera information need falls into the category of known-item search. (Although, I did entertain the idea along the way that I should actually be shopping for a new and better camera.) Also, it is interesting to note, that the query could be answered within my own social network. It's a rather obvious point. After TRECVid I went to my uncle's house and not some other unmotivated place in the area.

Before the call from my mother that I was also pursuing a sort of a social search solution -- a completely conventional proceedure. I called the rental car and the hotel. I was trying to shake down the ad hoc social network including the people who entered the car and the hotel room just after me to figure out what happened to that camera. What I suspect is that a lot of the information needs we have as individuals correspond to known-item social queries and are answerable via a network containing relatively few rather mundanely predictable nodes.

I'm apparently not the only one thinking about known-item search in networks. Recently, the DARPA Network Challenge concluded. It involved the information need, not of an individual, but of an organization. To win you had to be the first to report the locations of ten red weather balloons across the continental US. DARPA moored the balloons and made them visible from nearby roads. The challenge was won by a team at MIT.

Looks like it was fun. The point I'd like to make here, though, concerns the nature of the query. It was a known-item (items, to be exact) query. But because someone already knew (created, in fact) the answer, the search space was radically limited. The US$ 40,000 prize money meant that this could not be a query "typical" of the average node in the network. I'm not sure what we can say that we learned as a result of the experience. On the other hand, we can be grateful that DARPA is smart not to ask something potentially destructive, like, "...." (Sorry, couldn't bring myself to even write an example here -- but a couple readily come to mind.)

Although the DARPA Network Challenge might have been fun, I am afraid it falls short of being good, healthy fun. It's a social search problem both initiated and solved by entities with, it's safe to say, fairly high centrality status within the graph of the social network used to solve the problem. As potential nodes future networks solving similar problems, such experiences effectively serve the purpose establishing precedent and teaching us about problem solving procedure. What we've learned from DARPA is: Sit around and wait until some entity poses money-backed question and then contribute to the MIT-sponsored site and get your piece of the payoff. Good, healthy fun would have taught us that we have to think very, very carefully about who we tell what. It is important not to proceed a step further until we have a mechanism in place by which we can makes sure that everyone understands the difference between sending in a geo-coordinate- and time-stamped photo of a balloon and one of the neighbors putting out the trash.

In particular, it's important to understand the implications of who we tell what about whom. In grade school we come to terms with the delicate balance between supporting fairness within the school world and not betraying our fellows by being a "nark". On the scale of today's social networks, the connection between our actions of telling and the consequences for our fellow human beings is no where near to being adequately transparent to allow for direct learning by individuals. It seems like a harmless piece of information, but when are we morally obliged to contribute it because it would help and when should we stay our urge to be part of the MIT lottery-like fun because of the potential harm?

Perhaps the issue is not yet relevant. People search, by which I mean search for location information about real living people, is still difficult. The sadness over the disappearance of Jim Gray is for some among us in a curious way inseparable from the disappointment at the failure of technology-enhanced large-scale search. You can launch a large scale distributed search to find someone and still not succeed. Even shaking down the vast social networks in the US doesn't seem so easy. Earlier this year, Wired posed a challenge called Vanish. To win you had to find a Wired writer named Evan Ratliff, within a month of him assuming a new undercover identity. He was discovered, but only undertaking a challenge put to him by Wired that forced him to radically narrow the search space for his pursuers -- i.e., enter a know location within a known time frame.