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HP researchers try to tell you who your friends are

By Brandon Bailey

[email protected]
Posted: 12/12/2009 04:00:00 PM PST

Most people have scores of contacts, scattered around their mobile phone, e-mail address book and multiple social networking sites. Scientists at Hewlett-Packard can tell you which of those contacts are your closest friends.

It may sound a bit out of character for a company like HP, perhaps best known for producing mass-market PCs and printers, along with hardware and software for big commercial data centers. But HP researcher Bernardo Huberman and his colleagues think there's value in winnowing the wheat from the chaff of social networks, especially in an era of countless Twitter followers and nearly infinite amounts of online information.

"Our work is at the intersection of social behavior and information technology," Huberman said in an interview last week. Gesturing toward a nearby laptop computer, he added, "These do all sorts of things. They get faster and faster. But what is really interesting is what happens when people are using these devices and suddenly discover new ways of interacting with each other."

As director of the social computing group at HP Labs, Huberman leads a team that has been studying how people interact and share information on digital networks. Their work led earlier this year to a mobile phone application that gives users a constantly updated list of their most frequent contacts. Another app lets people share location-based recommendations with their friends or a much larger crowd.

And in a project that could appeal to operators of online news or retail sites, the team is testing a computer program that will automatically position items on a Web site based on an algorithm that can predict their popularity.

Huberman's team is one of 19 research groups at HP Labs, headquartered in Palo Alto, that focus on subjects ranging from building massive datacenters to commercial printing and business analytics. While their work is wide-ranging, HP says its scientists pursue research that could eventually lead to commercial applications, which the company may develop or license to other firms.

HP says social computing research is part of the company's strategy to expand its role in "cloud computing," in which HP wants to deliver a variety of services to consumers and business customers over the Web.

Experts agree there is commercial value in understanding social behavior in a high-tech world, whether to provide specific services or to deliver targeted information and marketing messages. Social networking is not just confined to Web sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn, said analyst Charlene Li of the Altimeter Group, a business consulting firm that focuses on "disruptive technologies." In the future, she added, "Everything is going to be social. Social will be like air."

Li said she was especially interested in the potential for a phone application called Friendlee, which Huberman's team unveiled as a prototype in September. It grew from their analysis of traffic on Twitter and other online platforms, which confirmed that most people have "meaningful" interaction with only a handful of friends or close associates, no matter how many "followers" or contacts they list.

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