NetSci, the top global conference about network science, never fails to be a tornado of ideas. Now that the dust has settled, I feel a bit easier to put this year’s thoughts on this post. Yes, this is yet another conference report by yours truly.
Let’s first get over the mandatory part of the report: an evaluation of the awesomeness of the Multiple Networks satellite I co-organized with my friends scattered around Europe. As said, this year’s edition was open to submissions and we received 17 of them. I think that, as a start, that is a good figure. Also, the attendance was more than satisfactory, and it appears scattered only because we got the largest room of the conference! Here’s proof!
The overall event was a great success. The talks were very interesting and we had a great unexpected bonus point. One of our keynotes, as you might remember, was Mason Porter. Well, the guy actually got the Erdos-Renyi prize this year! The Erdos-Renyi prize has been established in 2012 and it goes to outstanding young researchers in network science. Well, make a note of this: speaking at the Multiple Networks satellite will eventually get you some important awards. After all, everybody knows that correlation = causation.
My favorite satellite (besides the one I organized, obviously) continues to be the Arts, Humanities and Complex Networks symposium. This year it was a little bit tougher than usual, with a lot of qualitative stuff that not everybody can appreciate. However, their keynote by Lada Adamic was nothing short of outstanding. She is currently working at Facebook, a position that gives her a privileged vantage point over memes and viral events. You know that those things tickle my curiosity very strongly, and Lada’s work is really great. She presented her work, where she proves that meme evolution and mutation on Facebook follows very closely the same mechanics of evolution and mutation we find in the biological world. Good news for my old paper, which was heading in the same direction!
Which brings me to the main conference, because one of the best talks I attended was from Jon Kleinberg, who collaborated with Lada on another memes-meet-Facebook work. In that case, there is less good news for me. My research plan is to use meme content to predict virality. However, the Kleinberg-Adamic dream team showed that content is actually a very weak factor! (Here’s a blog post about it).
There is still hope, though. My way to deal with content is fundamentally different than theirs. Plus the problem they are studying is slightly different from mine: they are analyzing memes that are already going viral and they want to know how popular they will get. I’m more focused on knowing if the meme is going to be popular at all, and I’m not that concerned about whether everybody will know it or only a niche group.
Virality of content was a very hot topic this year, because there were two other fantastic talks about it. One was by Sinan Aral, and he talked about how much we are influenced by a post’s popularity when we read it. Controlling for content (and believe me when I say that Sinan is one of the best experiment designers out there), if we know that a post is popular we are more likely to upvote it. This is so true that Reddit itself decided, for some subreddits, to hide the post score for the first few hours, so that real good content will eventually flow to the top once the discussion is settled.
On top of that, also James Gleeson talked about a theoretical model that can account for the popularity distribution of memes. The model sounds simple. You just assume that a person has a box containing all the memes they saw in the past. With some probability, the person will either come up with something new or reshare a meme from their box. When resharing from the box, there is a memory effect for which more recent memes are more likely to be reshared. Whenever you share something, regardless if it is new or not, it ends up in your friend’s boxes. Even if it looks so simple, the actual solution of the model isn’t it at all and James is so good he defies belief. And, at the end of the day, everything works like a charm. Again, this does not bother me too much, because it only predicts the distribution of popularity, not which memes are going to be popular, a different problem.
Besides all this work meme popularity, there were other very interesting talks. I mention:
- The very elegant talk by Chris Moore on community discovery, which also has the by-product of providing witty one liners for many occasions (for example “Physicists like to minimize functions because, you know, rocks fall”);
- The nice talk by Frank Schweitzer on the role of active individuals in collaboration networks, who have the side effect of making the networks more unstable and prone to breaking apart (damn you, hyper-active people!);
- The usual fun of the lighting talks (they could not call them ignite talks because of copyright issues). My favorite for this year was from Max Schich, with a really great panorama of the art market in London, Paris and Amsterdam from the Getty dataset. Aaron Clauset and Roberta Sinatra deserve to be mentioned too, with two great talks about climbing the greasy pole in academia (is it really worth it to shoot for big name universities? Short answer: no).
That’s it! You can see that also this year there was a lot to see and to think about. I am already looking forward for next year!