Chronicle of Higher Education Monday, May 4, 2009
Researchers Call for National Strategy to Adapt Social Networks to
Public Good
College Park, Md.

Facebook and Wikipedia are just the beginning. The real power of
social networks will be showcased by projects that unite far-flung
participants to help track disease outbreaks, revolutionize
neighborhood-watch programs, encourage energy conservation, and serve
other civic and community goals, according to a group of researchers
calling for greater government and university investment in social
More than a dozen researchers met at the University of Maryland here
last week to draft a white paper calling for the creation of "a
National Initiative for Social Participation." They argue that
computer-science programs at universities and federal agencies need to
move faster to support research into social-networking technology,
which they see as the next frontier of innovation.
The gathering was led by Ben Shneiderman, a professor of computer
science at the university, who first publicly proposed the idea in a
letter published in Science magazine in March. He also plans to make
his case during conference sessions at three academic meetings this
summer. And, naturally, he is using social media to organize—he
started a Facebook group called "iParticipate" for those who want to
Mr. Shneiderman is thinking big. "I see this as an agency like NASA is
for space, or like the NIH is for health," he said. When pressed, he
admitted that part of the goal is to spur his colleagues in computer
science, who are often slow to adapt their curricula to emerging
technologies, to pay more attention to the possibilities of social
networking. "I want a computer-science chair to say, 'This is pretty
interesting, we ought to have a course on this,'" he said.
Not everyone in higher education sees Wikipedia as a model of quality,
of course. Many professors have criticized the online encyclopedia,
which anyone can change and add to, as being too prone to errors and
vandalism. The idea of using a "crowdsourcing" approach to share
health information or crime reports is likely to run into plenty of

'Legitimate Dangers'
Mr. Shneiderman argues that the challenges of creating useful social
networks is precisely why more research should be done. "Coping with
legitimate dangers such as privacy violations, misguided rumors,
malicious vandalism, and infrastructure destruction or overload all
demand careful planning and testing of potential solutions," he wrote
in his letter to Science.
At the meeting here, the researchers struggled to find the appropriate
metaphor for what they hope to create. A "Manhattan Project of social
networking" was ruled out as bringing too much baggage—the professors
didn't want to be associated with nuclear weapons—but also as too
centralized. "This time the right way is not to bring a bunch of
scientists to a secret place in the desert, but to get thousands of
people across the Web to work together," said Thomas W. Malone,
director of the Center for Collective Intelligence, at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The National Science Foundation sent two officials to participate in
the discussion (though not to sign on to the resulting white paper).
The day after the meeting, the foundation unveiled a $15-million grant
program called Social-Computational Systems, which will support
research into some of the issues.
Haym Hirsh, director of the foundation's Division of Information and
Intelligent Systems, said agency officials started the program because
they believed that more research needed to be done around social
networking. He pointed out that Facebook and Twitter, the latest
crazes in social media, were both invented in the United States, and
that it is important to "maintain U.S. leadership in this area."
Mr. Shneiderman called the new program "a very good start," though he
called the amount of financing "modest by NSF standards." Now, he
said, college researchers will have to submit so many good proposals
that the agency will want to expand it—or support creating that new
agency for social-network strategy.