Research at the University of Southampton

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This is a slightly off topic post which is just an opportunity to point out some of the research here at the University, which fascinates me, with current affairs. I talked recently to my tutor on the subject of taking a fourth year and how that differs from the second and third years (or how part 4 differs from part 2 and 3). Dave explained to me that the ability to learn about a subject in sufficient detail remains important, but the ability to pose philosophical questions and give reasoned answers – backed up research – gained were more important in part 4. This is my attempt to try pose those kind of questions and link that into a subject being pushed forward at this university.

I’m guessing that if you are a resident in the United Kingdom and haven’t had your head in a bucket (or been addicted to World of Warcraft, Call of Duty or ‘insert name of game here’ etc…), you’ll know that there is a general election due on 6th May. I can pretty much guarantee that half the people reading this have just switched off. But please, bear with me here whilst I explain why this is a truly fascinating time.

This will be the first UK general election where the social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook could have an influence of the outcome. Rather famously, a national newspaper claimed responsiblity for influencing the result of the 1992 election. This suggests what people read had an impact on their eventual vote. Since that time the web has exploded onto the scene and since the last general election in 2005, social networking on the net has likewise gathered a head of steam.

It could be argued that the evolution of the web has reduced the influence of the “old” media (in the form of press) and the editors that run them. It could also be argued that the funding gap between the various political classes would be less of a disadvantage by effective use of Social Networking sites. I don’t make any statement here as to the validity of those claims, but these would surely be the meat and drink of any student interested in Web Science as a subject. This is an interdisciplinary field kick-started by leading academics at this university like Dame Wendy Hall and Nigel Shadbolt, looking at the impact the web has had on society in general and what it will have in the future.

Le’ts return to the point at hand, a good example of new media in action was the Chancellor’s debate. This was a live debate between the financial spokepeople of the main political parties in this country. This lasted an hour where the broadcaster broadcast on the web, printing tagged tweets and running an online poll. This brings up many questions: did the output of printed tweets alter the view of people online? If so, was the online poll reflective of those people who tweet? Do people who tweet tend to be of one political persuasion or another? Was the online poll an accurate reflection of the people watching on television?

Having watched the event, it is like very much going to a football match and then reading the report in the paper afterwards. Very often you wonder how the reporter has come to the conclusions they do (and on occasion wonder if they were reporting on another match entirely). There seemed to be a sizable gap between the newspaper stories and the vibe on Twitter. The question of time was less of issue since the journalist would have been writing the stories at the same point as the posts were being made. It could be argued that the “old” media had two reasons to publish a report which pushed aside or overstated the opinions being stated on Twitter: one is a question of political allegiance, the other is that advertising Twitter and the likelyhood that increased use of social networking may result in the reduction in desire for the printed word. On the other hand, it is not uncommon from two football fans stood next to each other, who supported the same team, to have deeply contrasting opinions on the same event viewed from the same location.

Regardless of your opinion on the event itself, it seems fascinating, it’s happening now and would also seem to provide ample material for study.

* For those that are interested, you may follow me on Twitter.

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