BY KEVIN MOE
The recent explosive growth of social media combined with the sudden increase of “big data” is a treasure trove for today’s businesses seeking insight into behavior trends, pricing strategies, peer effects, or indeed any social science question that can be posed. However, even though these data points are out there, few businesses have the resources and expertise needed to effectively extract this vital information from the new media. SOBACO plans to change all of this.
SOBACO, the Social Media and Business Analytics Collaborative, is a large-scale, real-world laboratory where researchers design and conduct experiments through social media and collect the data to obtain answers to a variety of social science questions. Although the University of Minnesota has long had active research programs in the areas of social computing and big-data business analytics, SOBACO brings them to a whole new level.
“The SOBACO initiative institutionalizes this effort and brings people from various departments at the U together around big-data and social media-related questions,” says SOBACO Academic Director Ravi Bapna, the Board of Overseers Professor of Information and Decision Sciences at the Carlson School. “The University information sciences program has a storied history, having founded the field 40 years ago and having been ranked in the top five as far as one can remember. We want to continue to be on the leading edge in creating knowledge around IT-enabled societal transformation.”
SOBACO is motivated by a unique aspect of large-scale online social networks, in that some, like Facebook and Twitter, are based on a “platform” architecture. What this means is that outside entities, such as SOBACO, can build applications, interface, and ultimately conduct scientific experiments with hundreds of millions of real-world online users in an environment where they are naturally interacting. This giant global sandbox gives researchers a deeper understanding of how consumers, firms, industries, and societies are being reshaped by the social media and big-data revolution—information of tremendous value, especially to businesses. “These are going to be the building blocks for social media-enabled business models in the years to come, and our experimentation allows us to gain a causal understanding of the forces at play,” Bapna says.
New Opportunities for Researchers and Businesses
“Online behavior—browsing, buying, blogging, etc.—leaves a digital trail richer than the data we usually have,” says Carlson School Professor Joel Waldfogel, one of SOBACO’s Faculty Affiliates. “Analyzing these data to understand consumer behavior—and new opportunities for sellers—is a frontier that’s opening wide right now. It’s important for us to take our research questions and expertise and jump into this area.”
College of Science and Engineering Professor and SOBACO Faculty Affiliate Joe Konstan has been involved in collaborative and social computing for nearly 18 years and sees two winning sides of this initiative. “Businesses are mostly flying by the seat of their pants in the realm of social media; there is a need to build both deeper knowledge and the tool sets that will enable businesses to harness social media effectively,” he says. “At the same time, students and researchers are faced with challenging, interdisciplinary problems that require bringing together the best of computer science, communication disciplines, social sciences, and more.”
Konstan adds that none of this might matter if social media were a fading fad. But online participation is not only growing, but growing across a diversity of sectors that were previously hard to penetrate, including much of the developing world through mobile access.
The strength of SOBACO lies in its ability to provide a platform of hardware, software, and programming experts that enables fast, cost-effective means for experimentation. This is accomplished through interface tools that give researchers access to its state-of-the-art, technical, project management, and cloud-based infrastructure. Additionally, SOBACO provides these researchers with a large, real-world pool of study participants that can number in the hundreds of millions.
“I hope to see examples of innovative research that goes beyond traditional media analysis and laboratory experiements,” Konstan says. “I feel some of the most interesting social media issues can only be explored through field studies and even controlled field experiments, with real users of real systems being studied to understand real behavior.”
Waldfogel, for one, already knows where he wants to focus SOBACO’s gaze. Most of his research over the past few years has been about the effect of digitization on media industries. “Music has been the first industry revolutionized and I have recently been interested in whether the industry has been able to continue releasing products that consumers find useful and interesting despite the collapse of revenue,” he says. “One of the big bottlenecks in the traditional music industry is promotion, which has been traditionally accomplished through radio airplay. Nowadays, though, it’s possible for consumers to learn about new music via other channels, including internet radio and social media. The first set of questions I want to address under the SOBACO umbrella is promotion of new music through social media.”
Corporate Partners will Drive Research
Going forward, SOBACO is eager to partner with companies and organizations to explore opportunities in this new media realm. SOBACO’s corporate partners will have priority in determining the projects to be undertaken as well as special insight into all work being performed. In the end, these partners will be positioned alongside the Carlson School as leading actors in the creation of social media value based upon business analytics.
Conducting large-scale, real-world network experiments and studies require a diverse array of skills and resources. These range from deep technical computer science and big-data handling skills as well as new capabilities that have to be created in recruiting global subjects online, refining protocols, protecting subjects’ privacy, and using suitable monetary reward structures to induce actions. SOBACO provides the research infrastructure for businesses that do not have the time or skills to create these capabilities on their own.
“This is one of those exciting times when the research frontier and the frontier on practice are very much in alignment,” Waldfogel says. “Getting traction on research in this area will simultaneously produce both important academic research and useful insights for practitioners.”
Contact SOBACO Academic Director Ravi Bapna to learn more about industry-academia partnerships and the opportunities for involvement.
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