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Volume 23 / No. 1 / 2012
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Peering into Social Networks

A Conversation with Jon M. Kleinberg, Computer Science Kleinberg
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How does a person—or anything—become popular? How do groups arrive at consensus? How do opinions form? These are some of the questions at the interface of computer science and the social sciences that fascinate us.

SNEAD: You help us see the invisible networks all around us—social, political, technological, scientific. But let’s talk about social networks.

KLEINBERG: Social networks are made up of fleeting, unrecorded interactions: two people talk, a piece of information passes from one person to another, they tell another friend, and gossip spreads through the network. This is something that happens, but not something you could directly observe until now.

For as long as human beings have lived together in groups, we have had social networks. What has changed is our ability to see them.

We can see these processes unfolding on the web and internet, through Facebook, Twitter, email, and cell phone communication. They create traces allowing us to study the processes at a level of detail that has never before been possible.

Science always advances when we can take things that were once invisible and make them visible. The ability to discern microscopic objects, resolve extremely distant formations in space, and image new kinds of particles that escape our direct experience have all led to big breakthroughs in their respective fields. This is happening now with social processes and networks. The challenge is how to take this kind of information, which is nonphysical, and find good ways of representing it.

What does a social network look like?

To understand what a social network looks like, I first collect the structure of the network. A network is built of nodes and links. The nodes are the people—the individuals to be connected—and the links are the relationships among them. Let’s say I want to look at certain data: the social network defined by Twitter, for example.

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