An Epidemic of Pointless Social Computing Research
I went to a talk a while back where a senior researcher analyzed some large-scale social computing data, and proved that it displayed an elegant mathematical property. I raised my hand during the question period and asked (as politely as I could muster), “Why does this matter? Does this have some kind of broader implication or application?” The researcher had no answer for me. In fact, he seemed puzzled by the question.
I’ve been going to a lot of talks like that lately–they seem to be breeding. People are playing with big data and coming up with incredibly clever results–with no evident broader implications. Lately, Twitter data seems to be a chief culprit. It’s so easy to get (or it was), and look at all the cool analysis you can do on it! I’m betting most of the those papers will rot uncited. I hope when our enthusiasm for this new big data toy wears off, people will invest their energies in results that matter. Of course, defining “matter” is the challenge.
What is the distinction between basic research and playing with data as a clever puzzle game? How do you even tell the difference? That’s the hard part. Personally, I’d like to see more people doing user-centered design: starting with problem statements that are significant for some group of people for some reason.