When you come to a fork in the road…
As some of you know, I have been exploring a variety of paths forward for SocialQuant, my real time social search and analytics project. My family, friends, and colleagues have given me much support, patience, and advice during this process, which has reached a crossroads, and as Yogi Berra says, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
The rise of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, combined with web-based applications, smartphones, and cloud computing have all set the stage for new applications and use models based on social discovery, collaboration, and communications, in addition to traditional search. What we’re all calling “real time search” lately isn’t exactly real time, nor is it exactly search, in which you find a definitive/authoritative answer. Much of the opportunity revolves around discovering people, discussions, and events that are relevant to you and bringing it to your attention in a timely, actionable fashion. Information streams from social media are transient, unreliable, and noisy. At the same time, the sheer volume of data can help provide the basis for building better filters. As an added bonus, you can ask questions to people in the social graph itself, and there are numerous examples of communities of interest forming around current events such as Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Iran elections, or even Michael Jackson’s funeral, all of which help surface information content, opinion, and sentiment that were previously inaccessible online. One interesting aspect of real time social media is that it’s not just algorithmic, it’s based on human connections and emotions. So a message that “feels right” from people you trust can be more relevant than one that is “correct” at times.
The challenge then is in filtering and ranking the massive flow of information in a way that helps direct the user’s limited (and non-expanding) time and attention in a way that’s most valuable to them. With today’s information technology, amazing things are possible with limited resources. I personally have more computing and storage resources than the facility we launched HP’s original photo site with (for millions of dollars), at a fraction of the cost, routinely pushing around datasets of millions of rows on the local development servers. Unfortunately, that’s just the ante to get started on the problem. Running ranking, clustering, and semantic analysis for filtering the ever-growing stream of social media eventually requires web scale computing, even with careful problem selection and data pruning. The bar is also going up every day as the social media user base grows, and as well funded teams make progress on their platforms (+Google). So very shortly, to be competitive in real time, social search and discovery is going to require access to lots of data and either getting a datacenter or working with someone who has one.
In my case, I have recently chosen the latter path, and will be joining the Microsoft Bing search team, focusing on real time and social search. Microsoft itself has been showing signs of a renaissance, with search relaunching, Windows 7 looking leaner, Azure becoming non-vaporous, more web APIs getting published, core online applications starting to turn up, and a cool Office 2010 video. Even Mini-Microsoft is getting positive recently. And Google is starting to have “bigness” issues.
I look forward to working with Sean Suchter and the Microsoft Bing search team (and likely expanding their carbon footprint) in pursuit of new applications and services as the social media and online application space evolves.