The social media revolution

The social media tsunami approached, hit and had a huge impact, leaving a lot of catch-up work in its wake aimed at figuring out what can be done within the realm of zeros and ones. Julita Vassileva is up to the task.

"Social media will revolutionize how business, politics, non-profit organizations and education work," explained Vassileva, who defines social media as online spaces that allow interaction, sharing of opinions, ideas and resources. "It has the potential to influence people's behaviour to do good things for themselves and for their communities."

With $416,000 over five years from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Vassileva, professor in the Department of Computer Science, will look to answer some questions that online communities have brought up. Of particular interest to Vassileva is how incentives and software design can motivate desired behaviour.

"To unlock this potential, one needs to answer profound research questions about human motivation and solve the technological challenges in building infrastructures that support successful communities," she said. "This research aims to develop an infrastructure that motivates people to pursue and accomplish goals that benefit them and their communities."

Vassileva understands the enormity of the task in answering an age-old question, how can we influence behaviour to make positive contributions to society? "We want the users to have positive outcomes, not just waste time," she explained "We want the communities to motivate people to learn, be healthy and act in ways that benefit communities."

An obvious incentive is money, because "it is the simplest and most ubiquitous, but often this is not a feasible option because of the expense. There are other intrinsic and tangible rewards we can use to motivate behaviour," explained Vassileva. "We are looking at recognition, reputation, status and goal accomplishment; people go to extensive lengths to gain these. Look at eBay, where reputation is essential to making money, or Facebook where the number of friends is a measure of status."

The focus of Vassileva's research during the course of the project will be on designing online community infrastructure based on motivational mechanisms and applied to developing healthy lifestyles, encouraging volunteerism and even online learning.

"Motivating people relies on understanding deep issues of individual and collective human behaviour and these are very important to every online system," she explained. "Figuring out how to influence positive social behaviour could be extremely valuable, but every system and every user demographic will be unique."

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