Monday, May 30, 2011

Validation of Dunbar's Number In Twitter Conversations

Modern society's increasing dependency on online tools for both work and recreation opens up unique opportunities for the study of social interactions. A large survey of online exchanges or conversations on Twitter, collected across six months involving 1.7 million individuals is presented here. We test the theoretical cognitive limit on the number of stable social relationships known as Dunbar's number. We find that users can entertain a maximum of 100-200 stable relationships in support for Dunbar's prediction. The "economy of attention" is limited in the online world by cognitive and biological constraints as predicted by Dunbar's theory. Inspired by this empirical evidence we propose a simple dynamical mechanism, based on finite priority queuing and time resources, that reproduces the observed social behavior.

Bruno Goncalves, Nicola Perra, Alessandro Vespignani, Validation of Dunbar's number in Twitter conversations. arXiv:1105.5170v1, 25 May 2011


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Twitter's World Domination? Forget It

"Chinese Internet users are primarily interested in micro-blogging when it comes to social media. Sina Micro blog (China’s alternative to Twitter) accounted for 1 in every 158 Internet visits in China for April 2011. This makes China one of the most voracious micro-blogging nations worldwide, with a greater market share of visits going to micro-blogging sites in China than in the UK, US, France, Canada, Australia or India. Twitter is by far the most dominant micro-blogging platform in the UK and US, but Twitter accounted for 1 in every 250 visits online in the UK and 1 in every 555 in the US during April 2011, much lower than Sina Micro’s dominance of the online market in China. What’s more, this data doesn’t take into account mobile or 3rd party applications, so the actual usage of micro-blogging in China is likely much higher than our statistics suggest."


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"the article as homepage"

Like? I'm struggling to find out who coined the phrase "the article as homepage" - i.e. individual articles on websites as social objects linked into online networks (the rise of the Like buttons). Any suggestions? Thanks.

Update - earliest trace so far: redesign: engagement above traffic?


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Challenging views

Pearson Blue Skies There are some challenging views on the Pearson "Blue Skies" website, well worth reading. When you do, just bear in mind the vested interests of the authors/publishers.


Monday, May 23, 2011


On Friday I published a graph looking at variability of marks on out first year key skills course. This looked at the variability of marks between topics by plotting the standard deviation for each topic as an error bar. I was castigated by some people for the lack of labels on the graph ;-) so here's another one which asks the question, is the difference in marks between topics statistically significant?


By plotting the standard error of the mean as an error bar, we can determine whether differences between topics are statistically significant. When SEM error bars do not overlap, we cannot be sure that the difference between two means is statistically significant, but when they do, you can be sure the difference between the two means is not statistically significant (P>0.05). In this graph, the marks for the Units & Conversions and Molarities and Dilutions topics are not just lower, but are significantly lower than the other topics, suggesting this is where more effort should be concentrated.


Friday, May 20, 2011

What maths do students struggle with?

Data from our 2010 cohort (error bars +/- 1 SD):

Maths data


The um problem

From StatsBytes:

Thinking, typing, talking - too much for my cognitive space. I could edit the audio track to remove the ums, but I think next time I'll try typing and talking alternative bursts.

Do you have this problem too?


Thursday, May 19, 2011

#altc2011 here we come

ALT-C 2011 Dear Colleague,

I am pleased to inform you that your proposal 0015, Project SOAR - Student's Online Attention and Reading lists: navigating the river of student attention has been accepted for presentation at ALT-C 2011. This follows anonymous reviewing and subsequent consideration by the Programme Committee.
The reviewers made the following comments which may be of use in preparing the presentation:
Accept with no changes to the abstract as an ePoster.  

(I'm looking forward to experimenting with the ePoster concept)


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The dumbness of crowds #UoLTUG

At #UoLTUG yesterday, I banged on about James Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds. According to Surowiecki, key criteria separate wise crowds from irrational ones:
  • Diversity of opinion (that's where noise-filtering tools like Flipboard and Zite come in)
  • Independence
  • Decentralization
  • Aggregation
If these criteria are not met, it can all go horribly wrong: 

Another way of saying this: the social media echo chamber is a dangerous place, tricking you into thinking things are happening when they're not.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cognitive information spaces on mobile devices

Guardian app One of the first things I noticed when I got my iPad were the contrasts in what I'm calling the "congnitive spaces" around reading on mobile devices. I'm not sure if cognitive spaces is the most appropriate term for what I'm struggling to describe - for me, it's an extension of the notion of cognitive load which includes cognitive load but also incorporates spatial notions connected with navigation and the implicit permissions generated by locations.

I soon gave up any long- or even medium-format reading on the iPhone due to this issue, and now use it as a comms device (Twitter, SMS, occasional web pages - revolutionary idea: smartphone as a comms device ;-)

Reading on the iPad is a little more complicated than the iPhone. Each weekend I read The Guardian in print and online formats, allowing direct comparison of the same content in different formats. It's the weekend, and the relaxation factor of a printed newspaper is significant, but for me, the iPad still falls more within the sit-forward than the sit-back information space paradigm. The above ad in this Saturday's print Guardian (hence the fuzzy picture - click for larger image) reveals the key problem - how much information is available at various levels of browsing? For me, the top layers on mobile devices are too restricted (The Guardian Nokia app in the photo being an extreme example), which limits my interaction with the content by restricting the pathways I feel able or willing to take through the content. Similar reservations have been described for eBooks, so I know I'm not alone.

I have the same problem with mobile versions of websites on the iPad - for example, I don't want the mobile version of Google Reader (lower panel below), I prefer to use the real thing (upper panel) which gives me much richer top level information and expands the "cognitive space" of the service, opening up many information pathways:

I need someone to point me at the appropriate literature in this area (if there is any beyond this) - offers?


Monday, May 16, 2011

My reputation grows with every failure

“My reputation grows with every failure,” said Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. And that was before the Internet. Shaw would no doubt be amazed by how quickly electronic bulletin boards such as Facebook and Twitter can now spread the word of deeds both good and bad...


You lot are all miserable gits and I'm not talking to you any more

Image of happiness Online social networking communities may exhibit highly complex and adaptive collective behaviors. Since emotions play such an important role in human decision making, how online networks modulate human collective mood states has become a matter of considerable interest. In spite of the increasing societal importance of online social networks, it is unknown whether assortative mixing of psychological states takes place in situations where social ties are mediated solely by online networking services in the absence of physical contact. Here, we show that the general happiness, or subjective well-being (SWB), of Twitter users, as measured from a 6-month record of their individual tweets, is indeed assortative across the Twitter social network. Our results imply that online social networks may be equally subject to the social mechanisms that cause assortative mixing in real social networks and that such assortative mixing takes place at the level of SWB. Given the increasing prevalence of online social networks, their propensity to connect users with similar levels of SWB may be an important factor in how positive and negative sentiments are maintained and spread through human society. Future research may focus on how event-specific mood states can propagate and influence user behavior in "real life."


Monday, May 09, 2011

Got an iPad? Need an excuse to get one? #UoLTUG

Flipboard I'll be talking about:

Flipboard, Filtering and Information Underload

at the UoL Tablet Users' Group (#UoLTUG) on 17th May at 1pm in the BDRA Media Zoo (103-105 Princess Road East). See you there.


Thursday, May 05, 2011

Wrestling with the video thing

Learning from YouTube In the past I've written quite a lot about video here, and generally been a big fan of informal instructional videos. In short, You Tube. Unfortunately, I've currently gone off video a bit, and I'm struggling with the concept of how it fits into most educational purposes beyond low level screen capture howtos like this. This is a shame, because I'm talking at a meeting next week and the main reason I was invited was because of what I've said about use of online video in the past. Oops.

A couple of days ago on Flipboard, I picked up this link which led me to Alexandra Juhasz's new "book", Learning from YouTube. Predisposed to like this concept, I had a look at the website, but sadly I found the experience profoundly disappointing (kudos to Alex for trying though). However, a comment by Andrei Ștefănucă on the Inside Higher Ed article gets to the heart of the problem I'm having with video right now:
"...videos aren't books because the book is an inner experience, we construct it in our imagination, while the video is just something that we observe".
And that's the problem. In essence, video externalizes "experience", reading internalizes it. Video simply isn't engaging enough. Even YouTube is becoming a sit-back medium which gets in the way of deep engagement.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Introducing StatsBytes - Introduction to statistics with R

R I am happy to announce the launch of StatsBytes  - a free, online self-directed introduction to the statistics package R. The documents as published today are essentially a first draft and I hope everyone who read this will help by scanning them carefully for mistakes, which I am sure are lurking there. Teaching materials of this sort need to be embedded in academic disciplines for acceptance. StatsBytes is published under a CC-BY-SA licence, so I want people to take it and repurpose it by rewriting the examples. Once the content settles down a bit, I may make a downloadable archive available to make it easier for people to do just that.

Originally, I planned to produce this resource as a microchunked uncourse on In practice, I found that this approach didn't help me with authoring in this instance (unlike MicrobiologyBytes, which has been my day to day notebook over the last few years and has contributed enormously to the production of the new edition of my textbook, Principles of Molecular Virology), so StatsBytes is now an old-fashioned static website. The one concession to modernity is a trial of a Facebook page as a support site for the course. I'm not yet sure if Facebook is a good choice for this or not, or whether better alternatives are available - I'd welcome your comments on this.

Unlike it's predecessor, StatsBytes does not (currently) include any screen capture videos, or indeed any appearances by Socky. This might change, but so far I feel that the text-based R interface does not really lend itself to video. Although I'm concerned about losing the impact video can have when it works, I'm not shoehorning video in there just for the sake of it.

I'm also thinking about my assessment strategy for my own students who will ultimately use this course. My current main priority is to reduce the over-assessment burden that students suffer in order to give them more time to engage with learning. Modularization is one of the sources of over-assessment, as is salami-slicing of continuous assessment, so bearing in mind the pass/fail competence test nature of our first year key skills module, my current plan is to make all the materials available with formative assessments which students can retake as many times as they want, and then to assess competence via a week long online exam in the penultimate week of term (to avoid clashes with other deadlines). I may need to slip in a midterm exam to relieve anxiety over failure to engage with formative assessment. To spend my time supporting increasing numbers of students rather than dealing with niggles over test results, the assessment format needs to be minimalistic and streamlined rather than complex and reiterative. Blackboard is currently giving me some grief in this regard.

I did think about trying to put a game layer on StatsBytes, but as ze Frank said at SXSWi, there's no point unless this is integral to the function of the site.  Anyone who is motivated enough (for whatever reason) to slog through a self-directed course on R doesn't need the added complication of a game layer!

Update:  For various complicated reasons, StatsBytes is no more! The plan is to produce a more static version in the near future.