Marc Smith from Microsoft Research at the BBC

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 26 September 2004

This week the BBC's New Media & Technology department had a visitor in the shape of Marc Smith from Microsoft Research. We often have these types of presentations in Bush House on a Friday, we call it a "Learning Lunch". The BBC supplies the sandwiches, a speaker provides the learning and hopefully a group of people from the department pick up something new and get stimulated by it. Mostly these are internal staff presentations - in fact my own "A Day In The Life of BBCi Search" started out as one such Learning Lunch, but recently we have been bringing in external speakers more often.

Marc gave us a great presentation on some of the work he is involved with in producing visual representations of social interaction in cyberspace, mainly the Netscan project, an attempt to display the data contained in usenet and its archives.

It seems that at some point there was a conscious effort on the part of Microsoft to cultivate its corporate relationship with the volunteers amongst the usenet community who were enthusiastic about its products - after all, they save Microsoft millions, if not billions, of dollars in support costs by answering questions from the public for nothing in the many microsoft.* groups.

Although we don't currently go out of our way to cultivate it, this is a trait we also see in our community spaces on bbc.co.uk. Messageboards like Points of View will often (though not always) see negative opinions about the BBC countered by positive replies from members of the public, who are in the forum tirelessly day after day defending the BBC from attack. Marc made the point that for Microsoft, some of these usenet volunteers were in the forums on more days of the year than Microsoft could have legally made them work as an employee.

Some work had been done in mapping the sizes of the various areas of usenet into tree maps, and whilst the large size of the alt.binaries.erotica group wasn't a surprise, what was more interesting was that Microsoft believe they have actively grown the amount of conversations about their products by supplying the community with the tools from Netscan. Users can get an info page which allows them to track new members into their community space, and to follow the hottest and fastest developing threads. Microsoft also interact with the community, asking what tools would be useful to them. Marc's example was that a tool showing new members of the community is great for established people, but the last thing newbies needs is something that will "show me the names of other clueless people".

Another data view Marc showed us was a way of visually understanding an individual user's behaviour. These graphs showed a red dot above the line for every thread instigated by a member, and a blue dot below the line for every thread that the member had responded to. The size of the dot indicated the number of posts that user had made in the thread concerned. Immediately different types of behaviour showed up as very different images. A troll or spammer left lots of very small red dots, instigating threads but never returning to reply - whilst the real hubs of communities, the people who hang around and reply to thread after thread, display as graphs with lots of small blue dots.

These were not just pretty pictures for the sake of it either - they have practical applications. The patterns were still recognisable in a thumbnail view. Using these data views of the membership of the community on a reactive or post-moderated board would allow resources to be directed at the threads that had been instigated or colonised by the trolls, flamers and spammers, and at the individual community members themselves. These kind of tools could become invaluable for people running communities on a shoestring, or in the BBC's case, for people running lots and lots and lots and lots of communities and community spaces.

The final part of Marc's presentation revolved around a project called Aura, which is a way of using barcode scanners and sensors to help people annotate the real world - with obvious applications in art galleries, and less obvious applications in the grocery store. It seemed to me to be coming from the same sort of mind space as Chris Heathcote's Geowarchalking from ETCon / ConConUK this year. In the end though I have to concur with evilcoffee's thoughts on the subject, that it was very interesting, but that you couldn't imagine your parents ever being bothered to use it.

Not only was the material interesting, but Marc was a very charismatic presenter with some great little one liners - if you ever get the chance to listen to him it is well worth it.

1 Comment

I knew I could rely on you. Thanks for the write-up. I got back from a meeting in time to hear Marc talking to my team, but he seemed to be saying a lot of the things I'd spent the previous couple of hours hearing messageboard hosts discussing. So I left them to it.

Talking of little red dots, recently I heard a tale of a troll who visited a site and posted only one. He started a thread with an extemely inflammatory question and then left. It apparently generated a 25 page flame war. So lots of large blue dots all getting very cross with one little red dot and then each other. That's what we need to target, not the people with little red dots. You can't do without an ignore button on community sites anymore.

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