TITLE: Computing in Yet Another Discipline
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: December 13, 2007 2:47 PM
Last month there was lots of talk here about
how computing changes science.
In that discussion I mentioned economics and finance as other
disciplines that will be fundamentally different in the future
as computation and massive data stores affect methodology.
Here is another example, in a social science -- or perhaps the
humanities, depending on your viewpoint.
is one of my MS students in Computer Science. Before catching
the CS bug, via web design and web site construction, he had
nearly completed an MA in Communication Studies (another CS!).
For the last year or more, he has been at the thesis-writing
stage in both departments. He finally defended
his MA thesis
The title of his thesis is "Significance of the General Public
for Public Relations: A Study of the Blogosphere's Impact on
the October 2006 Edelman/Wal-Mart Crisis". You'll have to read
the thesis for the whole story, but here's a quick summary.
In October 2006, Edelman started a blog "as a publicity stunt
on behalf of Wal-Mart" yet claimed it to be "an independent
blog maintained by a couple traveling in their RV and writing
stories about happy Wal-Mart employees". Eventually, bloggers
got hold of the story and ran with it, creating a fuss that
resulted in "significant negative consequences" for Edelman.
Sergei collected data from these blogs and their comments,
studied the graph of relationships among them, and argued
that actions of the "general public" accounted for the effects
felt by Edelman. This is significant in the PR world, it
seems, because the PR world largely believes that the "general
public" either does not exist or is insignificant. Only
specific publics defined as coherent segments are able to
Sergei used publicly-available data from the blogosphere
to drive an empirical study to support his claim that
"new communication technologies have given the general
public the power to cause direct negative consequences for
organizations". Collecting data for an empirical study is
not unusual in the Communications Studies world, but
collecting it on this scale is unusual and using computer
programs to study the data as a highly-interconnected
graph is even less so.
I was not on this thesis committee, but I did ask a question
at his defense: Does this type of research make it possible
to ask questions in communications studies that were heretofore
not askable? I suspected that the answer was yes but hoped
to here some specific examples. I also hoped that these
examples would help the Comm Studies folks in the room to see
what computation will do to at least part of their discipline.
His answer was okay, but not a grand slam; to be fair, I'm sure
I caught him a bit off-guard.
From the questions that the Comm Studies committee members
asked and the issues they discussed (mostly on the nature
of "publics"), it wasn't clear whether they quite understand
the full implication of the kind of work Sergei did. It will
change how they do research is done, from statistical analyses
of relatively small data sets to graph-theoretic analyses of
large data sets. Computational research will make it possible
to ask entirely new questions -- both ones that were askable
before but not feasible to answer and ones that would not have
been conceived before. This isn't news -- Duncan Watt's
Small World Project
is seminal work in this area -- but the time is right for this
kind of work to explode into the mainstream.
What's up next Sergei? He has tried a Ph.D. program in Computer
Science and found it not to his interests; it seemed too
inward-looking, focused on narrow mathematics and not big
problems. He may well stay in Communications and pursue a
Ph.D. there. As I've told him, he could be part of vanguard
in that discipline, helping to revolutionize methodology and
ask some new and deeply interesting questions there.