Excellent Neil Swidey piece in Sunday’s Boston Globe Magazine about the rolling focus group that social media networks like Twitter and Facebook have become.

Cambridge’s Bluefin Labs decodes social media chatter

Facebook users “like” things 2.7 billion times a day. People share their opinions more than 500 million times daily on Twitter. Now, this start-up is betting it can change everything from product placement to how we elect our president.

Nut grafs:

Twitter, Facebook, and other services have already transformed media from a one-way conversation into a democratized, constantly churning feedback loop. In time, social media hold the promise of exercising enormous influence over everything from the shows we watch on TV to the toothpaste we buy in the supermarket to the politicians we send to Washington. “Social TV” and the “second screen” experience?—?watching the TV set while cradling a smartphone or tablet?—?may even rescue live television viewing from the dustbin into which the DVR has swept it.

Yet the only way any of this is going to happen is if somebody can reliably convert all that online chatter into meaningful information. After all, if someone tweets “the office is making me cry,” is that person referring to a particularly poignant episode of the NBC comedy or a hostile workplace? Even more difficult is discerning sentiment. Are most of those millions of mentions about your show praising it or panning it? And what if the name of the show isn’t even mentioned? Making those kinds of interpretations are easy for humans yet exceedingly difficult for computers.

But they’re learning. A Cambridge start-up called Bluefin Labs is marrying the computational power of machines with the interpretive guidance of humans to make sense of?—?and profit from?—?the fire hose of nonstop social media. The company’s work builds on the research of its two cofounders, MIT guys who have dedicated their professional lives to teaching machines to understand human language. Now they are using that knowledge to teach machines to understand what we really mean when we tweet or post about everyone from President Obama to Honey Boo Boo. The outcome just may be as important to the president as it is to that cringe-worthy pint-size product of reality TV.

Whether the results will be important or cringe-worthy is still up for grabs.


John R. Carroll is media analyst for NPR's Here & Now and senior news analyst for WBUR in Boston. He also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town.
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