Share on Facebook Tweet on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share by email
Social Networking Applications: the path between the aspirations of researchers and politicians, and the worries of violating moral values and crossing privacy limits

Social networking is a term loosely used nowadays in the context of technological developments for several worldwide market scenarios. It took a special focus in our region because of its role in the Middle East spring revolutions. Researchers at ATLC were pioneers in discovering the local interest and trends of social networking services in Egypt and leading Arab countries.

While the term ‘social networking’ scientifically describes the infrastructure of connections between individuals, companies, or governments, (a.k.a nodes), the reference to social networking usually encompasses the true value build on top of this information infrastructure, meaning the social analysis and services.

According to Wikipedia, the history of social networking as a tool for research goes back to the middle of the 20th century, in many fields like epidemiology, sociology, anthropology, and now information technology. The focus of this article is on the use of social networking as a foundation for information technology services.

When the researchers at ATLC were trying to correlate the consistent growth of Arabic content on the internet with sources for this trend, they discovered the direct relationship between the Arabic content growth and the blogosphere (a Social Networking Service, المدونات). The next discovery was the high percentage of social networking related accounts (email, chat, and Facebook) among Egyptian high school and university students.

What is special about the content developed using social networking tools is its highly unstructured nature, meaning users tend to use comments and gestures (e.g. like, unlike, etc.) rather than plain text with structured sentences. The users also tend to use multimedia on social networking services over text. The analysis of social networking is normally statistically based, involving extensive data modeling and machine learning tools, not language and text analysis tools. The availability of wealthy sources of data on the internet enabled these statistical tools to achieve reasonable degrees of accuracy.

The common technical challenge for social networking research lies in the technology validation section. Researchers who want to take their social networking innovations to real market scenarios will need to validate hypotheses in their inference models with the actual use of the models in real life scenarios. This requires significant time investment and upfront addressing of the common privacy and security concerns for the data shared during the explorations. Large companies, universities and government entities are usually discouraged from serious investment in social networking applications for these reasons. In addition, recent reports linking social networking services to intelligence agencies and espionage activities raised consumer concern around violation of their rights to private data.

Social networking is also making headlines in the political arena. In modern democratic systems, politicians (Barrack Obama is one example) used social networking tools to campaign for election, fundraise and communicate with their political party members. On the other hand, in the less democratic and under developed systems, politicians used social networking tools to rally and mobilise supporters while escaping the crackdown of autocratic regimes. The recent use of social networking in the Arab spring revolutions was a good example, and is not surprisingly the motivation for my article.

There is no doubt that social networking and technology found a global interest that is hard to dispute, whether in modern more established systems or in less fortunate under developed systems. This interest can open the doors for a variety of businesses with positive economy potential, yet before we all get excited about the wealth in these opportunities, the shared concerns about privacy and security of the sharing of social networking data need to be addressed. Governments and regulators are busy regulating and defining the rights for social networking data sharing, while politicians and researchers are aggressively leveraging and exploring the data.

Researchers at ATLC are uniquely researching social networking scenarios for the regional masses. We tend to focus more on social applications delivered/consumed on mobile phones, in Arabic language, and have cultural/regional value to a population with scarce access to technology and low economic and literacy levels.

The main question presented in our research has been, can the value of the social networking technologies extend beyond communication and information sharing to other fields like education, health, and financial services? ATLC researchers sponsored several explorations and pilots aiming at:

  1. Enhancing student and professor interactions in dense university classrooms (e.g. average student population in public Egyptian universities can reach 2500 students per classroom)
  2. Doctors ranking and referral service
  3. News fact checking and extraction
  4. Enabling citizens (community) journalism and opinion mining
  5. Community based models for micro finance

I am among the many people around the world who enjoy today's social networking applications. I also believe social networking technology will pave the way to numerous modern mass services that will eventually come packaged together with technology infrastructure as utility based services for homes and business. Governments who get ahead with regulating social network data sharing and establishing a culture of tolerance and respect of privacy laws will position their countries well in the race towards future economies and social frontiers.

By: Tarek Elabbady, Director of Microsoft EMEA Innovation Labs