Friday, 29 July 2011

I remember when networks used the mail

INFORMS asked us to blog about O.R. and Social Networks.

Once upon a time, O.R. people networked using the mail. In those days, academics would often have a network of people interested in the same branch of O.R., and would circulate drafts of papers by post for comment and criticism. And we networked at conferences, study groups and lectures.

When the OR Society (UK) held its conference in Exeter in 1991, they asked me to chair the event. I invited various speakers from outside the O.R. community to speak at the event. Two were academics. from geography and medicine. Independently they commented that the atmosphere of an O.R. conference was different from the experiences of their disciplines in conferences. They both said that it was much more friendly, and they sensed that O.R. people were less competitive. The networking was both social and sociable.

And then came USENET and the sci.op-research discussion group, which I followed and contributed to over the next ten years. It made for an international gathering, though there were the regular contributors who had a word to say about everything. There were those who thought that they could get help with student homework free of charge, and every so often we had contributions who thought that "op" meant "optical". On balance, I think that the overall cost-benefit of using the discussion group was limited. I could have done more usefully with my time than follow it. But there were days when it was valuable.

And now there are discussions of a kind on LinkedIn and Facebook relating to O.R.; very few people are contributing ... even to the group that hates linear programming.

As an example of a concept used in O.R., both of these recognise that their users form a graph, with each friendship represented by an edge between the nodes of people. So there are suggestions of people that you may know who are two edges away from you. I laugh at some of these. I am "friends" with my wife's sister and her children. But I don't know their circle of friends in the place where they live, even though Facebook tells me that we have many mutual friends. Facebook has an app which plots a friend graph, which in my case is reasonably small. It has several cliques. But I would know that without the app.

So, for O.R., following the new social networks are probably not cost-effective. All in all, I hope that O.R. people will continue to network at conferences, study groups and lectures, and that they will always be both social and sociable events.


Paul Rubin said...

Ah, yes, "snail mail". I vaguely remember the concept. :-)

More seriously, a somewhat hidden virtue of social nets (including sci.op-research) for some of us is that it allows us to interact with other operations researchers more frequently than the occasional conference. For people lucky enough to be in OR departments, or in regular face-to-face contact with OR people in other organizations, the social nets may indeed by a waste of time. For isolated academics and practitioners, the social nets can serve as grounding wires.

Ben Garber said...

The INFORMS Google+ stream appears to be fairly interactive. If the group were able to coordinate more "hangouts" I think this could be a valuable tool for the field.

Conferences are good, but what about OR practitioners in companies that don't spring for conferences?

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