TITLE: Computing in Yet Another Discipline AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 13, 2007 2:47 PM DESC: ----- BODY: 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. Sergei Golitsinski 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 yesterday afternoon. 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 effect change. 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. -----