Microsoft scientist finds life on Usenet

Sociologist Mark Smith has developed a tool that analyzes the social dynamics of Usenet, helping users find congenial groups whether they’re looking for conversation or quick answers.

By charting different types of behavior in Usenet groups, he’s able to steer users to the kind of group they want — not just a group that discusses the right topic but a group with the right goals and pace…
In real life, indicators such as the number of people eating in a restaurant, the decor and the smells tip off the consumer, he said. In an effort to create such atmospheric cues online, Smith and his group have created charts that represent with big colorful bubbles how chatty, argumentative or helpful a given group is.
They do this without reading any of the words in the messages. It’s all based on the pattern of activity. People who post multiple replies on every discussion thread tend to be the arguers, the nitpickers. Those who post just one reply — especially if that reply ends the thread — tend to be the expert problem solvers.
The software Smith’s team created, known as Netscan, is available online at, and about 1,000 people a day use it to help them choose discussion groups that fit their needs.
Someone who wants to know how to configure a printer would probably choose a group with a track record of quick answers, while someone looking for entertainment might choose a group whose history is riddled with flame wars, or online arguments.

From the San Francisco Chronicle, via EEK.

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