Class_08: Engineering Social Systems

Date: April 21, 2011
Audio: /weigend_stanford2011.08_2011.04.21.mp3
Initial authors:[Yushu Zhou,], [Yingnan Liu,], [Fontaine Foxworth,]

A Poll for HW3.Analyze Facebook Data

  • We had a discussion in class whether you would like to share your Facebook likes/links/shares/friends to the class. We want to continue collecting opinions by the following survey.
  • Please fill the survey by the end of Apr 26, Tuesday.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Key Points

  • Social Systems Design - The Identity of Participants
  • A History of Q&A services
  • Guest speaker, Tracy Chou from Quora shared her insights on the trend of organizing, searching, and sharing the intelligence, and discussed the incentives that motivates individuals to contribute their knowledge to the online community and what techniques are used to guarantee the information quality.

Identities of Social System

One of the key ingredients of designing social systems is the aspect of identities of the participants. The three types of identity are:
  • Real names is a way of translating real world identities into online representations of oneself. Naturally, it is impossible to fully represent an individual with an online profile, but using real names introduces a sense of accountability into online behavior. Two ubiquitous sites with real names are LinkedIn and Facebook . Though one reflects a professional identity and the other reflects a personal identity, the class launched into a discussion regarding the consistency of online profiles, regardless of their platform. See below for notes on the discussion. facebook.jpg

"Use your real names...This isn't Myspace"

  • Pseudonyms imply a persistent identity over time. This could be in the form of a screenname or an online alias that has been adopted. This allows for a profile to be created and developed over time, so the user gets the opportunity to project what they want in an online figure. This can be expanded beyond names into virtual personalities; a good example of this would be the use of avatars in services like Second Life. This introduces the concept of high cost of cheap pseudonyms. Generating names and virtual personalities is an economy of scale, allowing people to create multiple profiles if they care to. This introduces opportunities to misbehave without paying reputational consequences. It might devalue each user, making the online personalities less credible than if someone were to use their real name.
  • Anonymity is the identity type that relies most heavily on privacy. Because there is no name or profile associated with site engagement, these types of systems are not good for gather data on a single individual, but rather is relevant for larger populations. A good example of a working anonymous community is Craigslist . Craigslist creates an online marketplace while maintaining the anonymity of its users; this means users do not have a metric of reliability (as in eBay). The nodes of Craigslist are not connected by merchant or consumer, so every transaction represents a single exchange.


Tor - The Anonymity Network
    • Tor is a system intended to enable online anonymity, composed of client software and a network of servers which can hide information about users' locations and other factors which might identify them. Use of this system makes it more difficult to trace internet traffic to the user, including visits to Web sites, online posts, instant messages, and other communication forms. It is intended to protect users' personal freedom, privacy, and ability to conduct confidential business, by keeping their internet activities from being monitored. In March 2011 The Tor Project was awarded the Free Software Foundation's 2010 Award for Projects of Social Benefit on the following grounds: "Using free software, Tor has enabled roughly 36 million people around the world to experience freedom of access and expression on the Internet while keeping them in control of their privacy and anonymity. Its network has proved pivotal in dissident movements in both Iran and more recently Egypt. The software is open-source and the network is free of charge to use.


    • 4chan is another community where being anonymous is prized. 4chan is, in essence, a collection of imageboards for a variety of topics. The website is largely responsible for creating and spreading memes across the internet including the concept of a 'rickroll', lolcats and the now-infamously known internet group Anonymous . Below is a TED video of the creator of 4chan talking about the power of anonymity on the internet:
Identity Consistency, Discomfort with Facebook Sharing
When discussing the use of real names within online platforms, the issue of profile and personality consistency surfaced. Some of the arguments are listed below:
  • Does inconsistency in online profiles indicate misrepresentation of oneself?
  • In the real world we are more likely to attune our behavior to the specific context or situation; therefore, using various online services to represent different sides of the same person is still a valid way of representing oneself.
  • The other side: people have only one personality, so indicating anything different through an online profile is a misrepresentation of self.
  • The notion of an individual's identity being a single idea but operating within a certain subset of one's identity in certain situations was proposed.
  • BranchOut is a site that looks to bridge the two worlds-- specifically, the professional and the personal. By building a professional network on top of a Facebook profile, BranchOut hopes to personalize the recruiting process, but there are concerns that personal life might not be consistent with company ideals.

  • The differences in company culture was briefly discussed; working at an intimate start-up vs a giant market leader requires different types of professionalism, so Facebook might be too personal for some employee communities.

When discussing HW#3, Andreas asked if it would be okay to scrape individuals' likes, comments, and tags from their Facebook profile; There was significant tension in the room. To gauge how the class actually felt, we created the poll above. Results will be posted here after Tuesday, April 26th.


Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. Quora described their products with seven main characteristics:

  1. Accumulating knowledge: people use Quora to document the world around them;
  2. Reusable: each question page on Quora is a reusable resource to help everyone who has the similar questions;
  3. Collaborative: Almost any public space on Quora can be edited by anyone who knows how to improve it;
  4. Continually improving: people can write their own answers to questions any time they think a question page could become a better resource with more information added to it;
  5. Organized: People who use Quora keep it organized;
  6. Targeted: People can follow topics so that the system can show them questions they are interested in and know about;
  7. People: Everything on Quora is tied back to a person.

A History of Q&A Products

  • Google's goal is to organize information that exist online, but there is still enormous information in people's heads instead of being posted online. Once people realized that there was more to seeking information than just search, so new forms of engagement with the web surfaced.
  • Before Question Forums existed, personalized websites and blogs were a way to pose inquiries and thoughts to the world; Yahoo! Answers was a way to streamline most of this content into an easily navigable service
  • Before Yahoo! Answers, Question Engines such as introduced the idea of inquiring in natural language.
  • In 2005, Yahoo launched the model of user generated questions and user generated content in response to poor performance in Korea and Southeast Asia
  • Social media (e.g. blogs, twitter, video-sharing websites, online forums, Facebook) allows people to post everything that they want to post. The only problem is a gap between information contributors and audiences that information contributors don't know what their audiences are really interested in and want to know. In other words, such online services are information-contributor-centered instead of audience-demand-centered.
  • Quora is a audience-centered social Q&A community. It constructs a good platform for "inverse blogging:" (1) questions as prompts (so you know someone’s interested); (2) distribution via topic system (so you know you’ll have readership); (3) feedback via upvotes and comments (so you get rewarded for good content and can interact with readers).

Other Q&A Products

  • Yahoo! Answers


Yahoo! Answers is a anonymous Q&A online platforms that allows users to both submit questions to be answered and answer questions asked by other users. The site gives members the chance to earn points as a way to encourage participation. It was initially formed as a response to Yahoo's poor performance in Korea in 2005. The model was conceptualized to be a self-sustaining

Criticism on Yahoo! Answers:
  • being more about social networking than providing accurate information;
  • questions seeking factual information received few answers
  • the knowledge on Yahoo! Answers is not very deep

  • Baidu Zhidao


This anonymous Q&A platform is similar to Yahoo! Answers. The main value proposition of this product is to get a question answered, accurately and fast. Answers will be directed to the asker. There is time limit for questions to get answered. The asker will pay the answers with some virtual points. In order to keep the answers with high quality, the points will only given to the person who offers the best answer and the best answer will be selected by the askers.

A new Q&A player, Hipster , launched in 2011 at SXSW and attempts to leverage mobile data to provide geo-sensitive answers about your surrounding environment.

Wikipedia vs. Quora

  • Wikipedia: focus on providing factual information; help individuals to verify the data; contributors can do so anonymously. You can search to find moderated information.
  • Quora: asking for individuals' insights, opinions, and comments; contextualizing the data; gives potential for discourse. You can follow topics-in a way information finds you.
A concise comparison can be found here

Quora Q&A

What incentives can a user get from providing answers?
  • Feedback creates a "pat on the shoulder" effect, particularly with up/down votes and comments.
  • Reputation allows trustable users to distinguish themselves if they provide enough valuable content.
  • Accessibility of private insights/opinion establishes a community feel.
  • Sense of duty to contribute knowledge encourages consumers to be contributors.
  • Possibility of Influence encourages contributors to answer more thoroughly.
How to keep quality high?
  • Real identity introduces the idea of accountability into answering questions. This increases the likelihood that answers are factual and establishes an idea of trust within the community.
  • Moderation
    • Machine learning, which is used to predict how good an answer is.
    • Human moderation. human is always the best judges. On Quora, anyone can edit questions and offer better answers. Also, technical staffs govern users' behaviors online, such as not allowing survey questions.
    • Community moderation. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where each person customizes their own experience and there aren’t really shared spaces for interaction (Facebook Pages are the closest to this, and the comment threads tend to degenerate quickly), Quora has to be attentive to the community and shared spaces.
  • Upfront Time Investment ensures that new users who join Quora have to spend some time consuming information and search for potential answers in the system before asking a question. It is often hard for a new user to draw considerable attention to a question they ask, unless they build up a reputation. This reputation building process builds a high bar to entry for people just looking to get one question answered without contributing to the system.