On Monday evening, Joi Ito, Internet pioneer and head of the MIT Media Lab, talked to Nature Boston as part of our coverage of Social Media Week. On Thursday, tune into the live stream of “Beyond a Trend: Enhancing Science Communication with Social Media.” The panel, hosted by American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is the latest in the monthly series organized by Science Online NYC, aka SoNYC.
Science, by its nature, is built on a web of traditional social networks. Look at any citation map, C.V. or literature search for a sense of the interactions that drive scientific inquiry. Much of what we know stems from who studied with whom, who worked serendipitously in a particular lab and who moved their ideas from one company to another.
The burst in electronic interaction is about much more than collaborating over the Internet. Scientists can learn a great deal from social networking about how to generate data, how to test ideas and how think beyond disciplines, Ito said.
In a conversation earlier this week, he offered a hypothetical example of how emerging tools are creating new ways to analyze information generated by online networks. Take data from the history of books, together with trends from search queries and Twitter and connect it all to scientific references, he said.
“Then we get these really rich data sets with which we can understand… the shape of ideas within the context of society.”
He also offered a very concrete example. This spring’s Research Update session – usually open only to the Media Lab’s corporate and philanthropic sponsors — will become a Tweet-up. For the first time, most of the previously private sessions will be live streamed and the lab will solicit input through Twitter.
“The more you get your ideas out there, the more likely you’ll find people to collaborate with,” Ito said.
Ito likes to talk about the Internet as a philosophy of decentralized innovation. In that sense, it is driving a shift in the way scientists collaborate.
“You can see peer review in science and peer review on the Internet converging,” he said.
Traditionally, a researcher will seek confirmation of findings from peers –top experts in a field. The basic ethos of the Internet, Ito said, is that, if you put something online and it survives, it must to be true. Instead of a handful of experts, “millions of people are going to read it and if you’re wrong,they point it out.”
For researchers accustomed to working with carefully collected data within a clearly defined discipline, that approach may seem chaotic. That’s the point.
“If you have the ability to collect a lot of data and inputs and do an analysis to filter out the noise, then you actually get a really interesting set of answers that has the benefit of having diversity mixed into it,” Ito said. He pointed to Wikipedia as an example.
You also end up with data that tends to be more robust – in the same way the human body is robust. Like the immune system, robust systems tend to be open and a bit messier but they are more adaptable, he said.
“When you have chaotic and fast changing environment, that we do, fitness and robustness are actually important…efficiency and cleanliness less so…But, I’m an Internet guy, so that’s the way I think.”
For more, see the Media Lab’s Social Computing project: The Social Computing group works on models for information processing that work from both angles. We build sociotechnical tools that aim to create substantive human connections as part of the process of data analysis. Our current focus is on developing programming languages for social computation.