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Back to the City of Dreaming Spires for a DPhil

This September I will be going back to Oxford to do a DPhil. I will study the appearance of critical mass in budding on-line political communities.

Online communities can greatly impact society, as the recent events in the Middle East, and the rise of global online social movements such as Occupy Wallstreet, suggest. But in order to thrive, and become a community at all, online communities have to attain a critical mass of initial users. The central problem of which is that until a certain number of participants are present, joining the community is not going to affect outcomes, or be socially rewarding to newcomers.

Also, more in general, the exact factors that determine growth in the early stages of online communities, are still ill understood. Even internet giant Google has failed to attain critical mass for some of its platforms, such as Google Wave.

For my DPhil I will contrast budding political communities that turn out to become successful (grow or continue to exist) with those that fail. More specifically, it will be examined whether the founders and early participants of successful online political communities, differ, either individually or in their position in social networks, or whether it are the early communities as a whole that differ, for example in community-level dynamics.

Contrary to the traditional belief in the impact of leaders, the answer to this question is not a given, as studies of `leaderless’ online movements, and smart-mobs, suggest. Also, several theories suggest the possibility that founders of successful communities could be socially indistinguishable from those of communities that fail. See my full proposal for more information.

I have a scholarship from the Economic and Social Research Council, and will be doing my DPhil at the Oxford Internet Institute, where I also did my masters. The OII is an interdisciplinary research-centre of the the University of Oxford, focusing on Social Science research applied to the Internet. My supervisor will be Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, who is doing fascinating research on the growth of online political communities, and other aspects of online political interactions.

I will be leaving a great job at a great startup for this, but then one sometimes has to make difficult decisions in order to pursue a dream: that of doing (great and relevant) research, and becoming an academic.

Panorama of Oxford, and the entrance to 1 St Giles, where the Oxford Internet Institute is based