Sign In

Communications of the ACM

ACM Opinion

Harnessing the Power of the Real-Time Social Web

Credit: iStockphoto

Can you help society by updating your Facebook status? To find out, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offered a $40,000 prize last December to anyone, anywhere, using any means available to be the first to report the whereabouts of 10 moored red weather balloons at undisclosed locations throughout the U.S.

DARPA—the Department of Defense agency that built the precursor to the modern-day Internet—issued the challenge as a way of celebrating the 40th anniversary of that achievement. Over those 40 years, the Internet has emerged as a global system linking nearly all the world's computers, as well as the Web, which today links nearly all the world's publicly available information. There is a current transformation being driven by the convergence of new Web technologies linking people, combined with new mobile technologies linking things and places as well. This new landscape, powered by ubiquitous computing, sensors, smartphones, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, is best described as the real-time social Web.

It is transforming the way all Internet users consume and produce information and communicate, collaborate, and participate in work and social projects. Our everyday activities generate the digital equivalent of breadcrumbs, which can then be harvested and mined to generate insights about our personal intentions and desires. While we all sense the emerging paradigm, which involves collective communication for individuals, businesses, and governments, some of us might still hear a small voice in the back of our collective minds saying, "You can't actually do anything with this technology, can you?"

That's why DARPA created the Network Challenge to "explore the role the Internet and social networking play in real-time communication, wide-area team-building, and urgent mobilization required to solve broad-scope, time-critical problems." While a casual observer might scoff at the idea that finding 10 balloons is an important challenge, it is certainly a daunting social and logistical problem, requiring mobilization and cooperation in an adversarial environment. Solving it even a few years ago would have been impossibly difficult.

However, the recent convergence of affordable technologies that are also mobile, networked, social, and operate in real time is beginning to create an infrastructure that functions (metaphorically) as a nervous system for society, sensing and responding to signals from both the real and the digital environments. The solution developed by the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team therefore sought to create an ad hoc social nervous system with geographically dispersed individuals functioning as sensors. The immediate challenge (to us) was how to get the word out as broadly as possible to everyone we knew and to everyone they knew, get the information back in, and then make sense of the relevant signals from the flood of reports. We addressed it by creating a platform for viral collaboration designed to generate an information epidemic while offering incentives to align the interests of each individual team member with those of the broader team.

The most revealing detail about the power of the real-time social Web in our story is that we heard about the Network Challenge on December 1, 2009—only four days before it began. We built our platform in two days, and by the afternoon of the third day we went live. Only 36 hours following launch, we had enlisted more than 5,000 participants, and more than 100,000 people had visited our site. On the fourth day at 6:52 P.M.—only eight hours and 52 minutes after the first balloons were identified—we had collectively found them all. (For an account of the DARPA Network Challenge by a member of another team, see the BLOG@CACM series by Ethan Trewhitt—Ed.)

While the speed with which we discovered them was significant, other more serious recent events illustrate how effective the social Web is at generating a real-time picture of our world of people and things. For example, during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, thousands of "tweets" poured in from eyewitnesses on the scene, enabling these "citizen sensors" to create a map of the situation as it unfolded in real time. This scenario replayed following the disputed June 2009 presidential elections in Iran in which social media became an ad hoc organizing platform enabling coordination of protests and access to information, both official and unofficial.

Do such events represent the beginning of a new age in which the social Web empowers individuals, helping them mobilize in response to disasters and emergencies? Or were they spurious, idiosyncratic examples unlikely to happen again? The answers depend on whether we are able to decipher the rules behind the marvelous technological tools now available to us all.

A new science is being built around human social interaction, seeking to find structure in our everyday digital exhaust and in the patterns of the lives we live. The goal is discovery in an environment cluttered with too much information. If we wish to harness the untapped resources of society for the greater good, we must still learn how to reliably design systems that link people and things and align the interests of the individual with the positive broader goals of society.

Understanding the new science is necessary for us to be able to face the challenges and explore the opportunities of living in the connected world.

Riley Crane ( is a Society in Science senior postdoctoral fellow in the Human Dynamics Group in the Media Lab at MIT, Cambridge, MA.



No entries found