Chapter 10 – A picture is worth a thousand questions: Visualization techniques for social science discovery in computational spaces

Howard Welser, Thomas Lento, Marc Smith, Eric Gleave, and Itia Himelboim

Picturing complex data structures that are created when humans interact in and through computational media is a challenging but potentially richly rewarding method for discovery. Researchers and technologists increasingly apply information visualization techniques to the data generated by social media on the Internet in an effort to gain insights that may have been far more difficult to grasp with qualitative methods alone. While finding ideal images for various forms of complex data remains a challenge, several examples of discoveries about the nature and dynamics of social structures point to the value for research based on graphical representations. In our recent work at Microsoft Research, we have sought to find representations of the data structures like hierarchies and network structures that are common in most forms of computational social spaces. Our approach is to explore these images, finding irregularities along with overall patterns that illuminate the structures and dynamics of computer-mediated behaviour. In this chapter we present select examples of visualizations that highlight useful observations about the range of behaviour being performed in computational social media. Social media is created by now commonplace tools like email, email lists, newsgroups, discussion boards, web forums, blog comments, wiki talk pages, instant message conversations, SMS messages, Social Networking Services, and several other mechanisms for moving messages that can contain a rich collection of digital objects among select populations of people. We focus on work around Usenet, one of the oldest institutions and infrastructures of social interaction on the internet, and describe the scales, structures and maps created and containing elements from these spaces.