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It’s who you know

New course examines value of online social networks

Bruce Hoppe

The College of Arts and Sciences computer science department is out to prove the old adage that it’s not what you know that matters, it’s who you know. And, it turns out, it matters what you know about who others know as well. The shorthand for such knowledge is “social network analysis,” and understanding and leveraging such social networks online will be the focus this fall of a new course, CS103: Introduction to Internet Technologies and Web Programming
“The Internet is creating a new way of people connecting to each other that has all kinds of impacts on the way people find things, buy things, get noticed, and earn trust,” says course instructor Bruce Hoppe, founder of Arlington-based Connective Associates. The course is intended to be accessible to students who do not have an extensive computer science background. 

Put simply, social network analysis is the mapping and measuring of relationships, in which every person is a node connected to other nodes. But not all nodes are created equal. Everybody has a friend who knows someone you can crash with in any given city or who is always clued in to what bands are playing in town this weekend or who always knows who’s hiring for part-time work. In network parlance, these friends are “connectors,” information disseminators and the de facto hubs of social circles.

In the online world, understanding social networks means knowing who e-mails whom, about what, and how often. It also means knowing which Web pages are linked with one another and which are, essentially, lost and isolated in cyberspace.

Thus, in addition to CS103’s usual curriculum of basic Web programming and researching how the Internet works — what exactly happens to e-mail when you hit send, for instance — Hoppe’s students will discuss issues related to social networks, such as online identity, security, community, and influence. They will also complete collaborative projects based on the principles of online social networks.

“The whole idea of deciding what’s relevant on the Web for a particular person or community has become a science,” says Azer Bestavros, a CAS professor of computer science and department chairman. “The Internet, with things like blogs and Web pages all pointing to each other, allows us to look at the links and relationships people form, understand the hierarchies, communities, and clusters, and come up with strategies for improving one’s presence on the Internet.”

Hoppe, whose consulting firm helps businesses use social networks to increase efficiency, foster teamwork, develop leaders, and market themselves, believes his business background will help students understand the value of networks. 

“A huge part about being a successful business person is marketing and being visible, getting your message out there and being able to identify those people who will be receptive to your message,” he notes.

One example of social networks put to a profitable use is FaceBook.Com, an online network of interconnected profiles, clubs, and interest groups in nearly every college across the country. Another is Google, which ranks its search results based on how many links have been made to Web pages containing the searched-for keywords.
“The reason Google is so successful is precisely because they are looking at the Web not as a bunch of Web pages with keywords in them, but as a bunch of Web pages linked to each other,” says Bestavros. Social network knowledge is also behind Amazon’s ability to recommend other products you might like (and buy) and eBay’s ability to build trust in a vast marketplace of buyers and sellers who never meet face-to-face.

Hoppe, a former professor of operations research at Rice University, also wants to put the power of social networks to work in the classroom itself, which he says will be interactive and driven by discussion and participation. He contrasts this to the “hub and spoke” social network of the traditional lecture course, with the professor at the center doing all the talking. “We’ll be doing an informed improvisation,” Hoppe says.