Web Analytics Takes the Pulse of Humanity

A big-thinking Stanford University professor sees a world in which things like hyperlinked documents, social networks, and the Web act as one "huge computer application" capturing incredible amounts of data. And he wants to assure it's minable end to end.

Outfitted with the right algorithms and analytics tools, you should essentially be able to measure the social behavior of the human race. You should be able to determine and predict how and why humans interact with one another, how they share information, and how they influence one another, said Jure Leskovec, an assistant professor of computer science at Stanford.

After all, he says, "Everything we do, we do on the Web." Leskovec shared his advanced analytical thinking and early research results during a Webinar, "Mining Online Data Across Social Networks: Capturing Data, Modeling Patterns, Predicting Behavior," hosted by Stanford yesterday. As the Webinar title suggests, Leskovec concentrates his research on mining and modeling of data from large social and information networks and the study of how influence and information spreads through these online connections.

"The Web is the laboratory in which we can study the pulse of humanity," noted Leskovec, who also is a member of Stanford's InfoLab and Artificial Intelligence Lab communities, during the Webinar.

Leskovec said his research already is proving useful, not only in predicting the most influential nodes or individuals in any network, but also in identifying where information may best be placed to ensure that it spreads virally throughout a network. The research also paves the way for developing metrics for measuring social interaction, as well as determining how and why social networks evolve in the way they do, Leskovec added.

During the presentation, Leskovec said he believed his research would be important to fields ranging from marketing to Web development because it will make possible the use of these metrics for predicting how best to spread any message, and which online networks survive and which do not.

As a practitioner of online community building on a number of sites and now the person primarily responsible for building the community here at AllAnalytics.com, I easily filled in the blanks as I listened. How prescient researchers would have seemed a few years ago if they had been able to predict the collapse of then-social media giant MySpace and the rise of its upstart competitor Facebook as world leader, or at least leader of the online world, by using sophisticated analytics that vastly improve data mining.

And imagine the value in social media marketing, one of the most rapidly growing fields on the Internet, if such analytics capabilities could predict which potential online connections held the greatest influence within targeted communities, and which are most likely to spread content shared with them.

If the future of social media interests you, be sure to join us for an instant e-chat tomorrow, August 18, at 2 p.m. Eastern. (If you haven't yet registered on AllAnalytics.com, please fill out a quick form here to participate in the chat.) We'll be talking with AllAnalytics.com bloggers Joe Stanganelli and Pierre DeBois, both social and Web analytics experts, about what analytics may be able to tell us about the social media world. We hope you'll join in the conversation.

Meanwhile, what do you think can be learned from metrics that measure interaction on social media and the Web, and how might they affect your company? Please leave a comment and start a discussion below.

Shawn Hessinger, Community Editor

Shawn Hessinger is a community manager, blogger, social media and tech enthusiast, journalist, and entrepreneur based in Northeastern Pennsylvania. He serves as community manager and blogger for BizSugar.com, a business news and information Website, and contributes regularly to the online business news source, Small Business Trends. He is the founder of PostRanger.com, an online content and media community, and has provided blogging and social media services and consulting for companies all over the world. He researches and writes on a variety of business, Internet-related, and other tech topics including business intelligence and analytics. He is also keenly interested in computer-aided data management as it relates to his various online ventures. A newspaper journalist with more than 11 years experience as a reporter and then managing editor, Shawn began blogging in 2006 and now provides a variety of consulting and outsourcing services in Search Engine Optimization, Web development, and online marketing to companies large and small. He is a strong advocate for the use of BI and related computer data management in business decision making, whether using software as a service (SaaS), cloud, or other applications, and in the opportunity these technologies provide to transform small startups and larger established businesses alike.

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Re: social media
  • 8/23/2011 10:47:00 AM


One more point here. At the current rate of technological growth, it may be unlikely there will be any such thing as a "tweet" as we currently understand it by the time people are "burned out" on this kind of communication. Also, similar predictions of the television and its fad status were clearly in error so I suspect that looking at social media as a mere fad which we'll all get bored with may be similarly mistaken.

Re: Social Media Analytics
  • 8/23/2011 10:33:02 AM

Hi tinym,

First, I suspect that reports of social media fatigue may be somewhat overestimated given the continuing growth of online social networks and their overall cultural impact. Second, I suspect the implications of the research, like the impact of social media itself, may reach well beyond the digital world. See my earlier response to Maryam's comments.

Re: Social Media Analytics
  • 8/23/2011 10:12:54 AM

Hi Maryam,

What is interesting here is that, as in the case of online gaming studies, researchers are suggesting implications beyond the digital world. In other words, social media allows study of human behavior difficult previously in a physical environment but reveals findings that researchers believe can be applied to everyday offline life. So, Leskovec is truly suggesting that "The Web is the laboratory in which we can study the pulse of humanity." But certainly, his research has much broader implications.

social media
  • 8/23/2011 2:28:03 AM

Tnym—exactly social media is being viewed as the be all and end all rather than another communication venue. For those who rely on on social media the implications will be serious long term we still have not seen how the behavior will evolve long term—everyone may burnout of too many tweets, updates and likes!

Re: Social Media Analytics
  • 8/23/2011 12:01:57 AM

I was thinking the same. Social media fatigue is an issue right now with all the "me too" networks forming. The sweeping statement "we all do everything online" simply isn't true. The research is fascinating. There are plenty of folks happy to stroll down the street to talk to the neighbors. They may never use social media.

Social Media Analytics
  • 8/20/2011 12:19:16 AM

Shawn while I respect the experts attempts to model social media interactions and determine better predictors of behavior I also think it’s important to note that there is still a large portion of the population not using social media hence, they are neglected as part of the analysis. Also recent information is indicating a tiring of social media, many users are reporting less frequent interaction with social media venues than when they were first initiated. Turning social media into a definitive revenue generator for companies is still a hot topic and will continue to be as both the tools evolve and consumers evolve in their usage and behavior. Great discussion…

Re: The Web as lab
  • 8/17/2011 11:58:53 PM

One way to look at it, Beth. Another is that analytics will forever uncover new opportunities.

Re: The Web as lab
  • 8/17/2011 5:17:22 PM

So Shawn, is this to say that gone will be the days where an upstart like Facebook comes in and blows away the competition? Meaning, our analytics will get so sophisticated as to be able to predict the viral success of a company and take away such surprises? 

Re: The Web as lab
  • 8/17/2011 3:01:17 PM

Hi Beth,

Most interesting, of course, is the kind of vast perspective this research takes of the Web and particularly social media examining not simply what someone may think of a particular brand or analyzing a particular political or religious sentiment but rather providing potentially actionable data on how a message spreads virally and how to determine, through metrics, the most influential members of a community. This is light years ahead of using metrics to determine how your efforts at spreading your message or making connections is going. It gives insight into algorithms that show us how such spread of idea and influence is actually accomplished and thus, presumably, how it can be repeated.

The Web as lab
  • 8/17/2011 2:39:22 PM

Shawn, interesting post considering our recent discussions here about social media analytics, like the Point/Counterpoint debate on the pros and cons of sentiment analysis. I think Leskovic and other academic researchers are certainly worth watching listening to. They'll no doubt be the ones to figure out what is and isn't possible in terms of how to tap the Web and social networking for analytics -- and hence drive business value.