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On networks of the social variety

J. Harry Caufield

It's a strange time when I'm feeling better about Facebook and more uncertain about more specific social networks. In theory, the Book of Faces really is the internet's Walmart: it's a place to get all your social interaction needs as long as your needs aren't too specific. It's great for small talk but actually quite inefficient for any kind of extensive dialogue (to see what I mean, try picturing your next Facebook comment thread as a real-life conversation. It gets pretty difficult in those 10+ comment rigmaroles). The same goes for Twitter.* Even so, there's something to be said for small talk. It's better than no talk at all.

The constant level of background chatter is also preferable to noise with a perceived sense of urgency. In real-life terms, I'm talking about ringing phones, ambulance sirens, or other warning klaxons. These are notifications designed to get your intention; they signal immediacy and the need for rapid action. That phone isn't going to ring all day and that ambulance may need the road you're on. A bit of that urgency shows up in email and social networking messages. In each case, we see a tally indicating how many new requests for our attention there are today. Most of those cases aren't even as urgent as a ringing phone. We can ignore most of what happens on Facebook without any cost.

I've been trying out Researchgate over the past few weeks. It's one of the smaller, more specific social networks I alluded to above. It came strongly recommended by folks in my personal development class. Researchgate is essentially a social network specifically for scientists. Each user has a profile as with other sites, but the focus is less on their biographic details and more on their scientific accomplishments (read: publications). The site is well-designed and leverages a more natural approach to networking than sites like Linkedin do. Connection suggestions are frequent but appear to be weighted in favor of real-world contexts (i.e., colleagues in your department, people in your field, or authors you've cited) rather than a largely generic network structure.

The mildly irritating part about Researchgate is the question-and-answer portion. Much like Stackoverflow, it's a forum for technical questions sorted by method or scientific topic. Unlike Stackoverflow (or even Reddit, for that matter), the moderation is minimal. Many questions are hardly questions at all. I can excuse the lack of English proficiency in many cases but it renders many questions impossible to interpret. In other cases, the phrasing is nearly perfect but the question asker fails to provide anything but the most basic details. The worst part may be the sense of urgency: these questions give the impression that entire careers are on the line. A wrong answer, employed in earnest, may waste weeks or even months of valuable research time. I know it isn't my fault if people don't know how to ask helpful questions or how to take advice from internet strangers.** Social networks are just enough of a potential waste of time as it is.

*I'd suggest that Twitter is the Starbucks of social interaction. It's ubiquitous, frequently noisy, and redolent with fashionable credibility, yet even the people who use it often don't seem to devote much mindspace to it. It's usually pleasant yet generally forgettable.

**This is the way.

Additional note to self: don't forget that Biostars exists. It's Stackoverflow for bioinformatics.