Research Profile: Blogs and Wikis

Professor Eleni Stroulia studies how businesses are using blogs and wikis.

Blogs and wikis are used to build communities, and businesses think they may be able to use them to build a new sense of loyalty among their customers.

- Dr. Eleni Stroulia, Professor of Computing Science, University of Alberta

In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki shares a surprising statistic about the TV showWho Wants to Be a Millionaire. When contestants asked experts to answer questions, the experts were right 65% of the time. But when contestants asked a crowd—the studio audience—the crowd was right 91% of the time.

The online crowd may have a lot of the answers too. University of Alberta (U of A) computing science professor Dr. Eleni Stroulia and her students have found a relationship between blog movie hype and how well movies perform at the box office.

The researchers are also interested in how web-based software can serve the online crowd better. So, they’re developing smarter systems for organizing the unwieldy webs that wikis and blogs can become when they grow large.

Here’s some of the work that Stroulia and her students have done with blogs and wikis.

Blog Research: Movie Success

The blogging phenomenon is only about 10 years old, but it is quite the strapping 10-year-old. Technorati, an Internet tracking company, reports that it tracks over 75 million blogs (2007). Also, each day, 1.6 million blog entries are posted.

Blogs are frequently updated online journals. They can be written by individual bloggers or groups of bloggers, and many focus on subjects like movies. Blogs are different from wikis in that visitors can’t come along and change the entries; they can only comment on them.

As blogs grow ever more prevalent, businesses are wondering how they can use blogs (and wikis) to make money.

“Statistics have shown that customers who buy from all channels — online catalogues, real stores — buy more,” says Stroulia. “So businesses are interested in maintaining a community and engaging customers through all channels. The question is: would wikis or blogs do that?”

“There are two ways businesses might use (wikis and blogs),” she says. “One is to analyze them to figure out what customers believe, and the other is to use them to make your customers behave in the way you want them to.”

Stroulia and her students explored the first possible use by looking for a correlation between blog movie hype and movie success. “Our idea was to predict the success of a certain product,” says Cleo Espiritu, a U of A master of computing science graduate.

The research team chose five large movie blogs. They designed “crawlers” that gathered data by systematically examining every entry in a blog. Then they sent the crawlers crawling.

“Ultimately we found that the number of entries regarding movies on their release week and one week after their release week was the most important part of predicting success,” says Espiritu. “Seeing how many people talk about the movie during these two weeks can give you a pretty good idea of how the movies do in the box office.”

She adds that the team later analyzed 10 movie blogs and got similar results.

Although the team found a correlation, Stroulia says it’s hard to say if blog movie hype actually predicts box office success or if it merely reflects box office success.

The research team also designed the crawlers to create handsome topic maps of the movie blog data. These maps, which display the data visually, are a carry-over from an earlier project involving wikis.

Wiki Research: Efficiency and Education

The blog’s sibling is the wiki. The only wiki most people have heard of is Wikipedia, but there are many others.

Unlike Wikipedia, many wikis specialize in a certain subject, and many are not open to the general public. For example, private wikis are used by businesses as a communication tool for employees and customers.

“I first started using wikis to collaborate with my students,” says Stroulia. “I just started loving the tool. I think it has great potential as a means to functionally exchange ideas.”

Although wiki software enables even a computer novice to contribute to a wiki entry, it could do a better job of ensuring that wiki content is easy to navigate. So, Stroulia’s team created a tool to help wiki visitors find information faster and avoid getting lost inside the wiki labyrinth. The tool is called ENWiC (EduNugget Wiki Crawler).

ENWiC crawls through a wiki to find out what topics of information are where. Then it creates a topic map, a graphic organizer, of the information in the wiki. “By having this visual map,” says Stroulia, “you have more context about where you’re going instead of just clicking links.”

With and without the help of ENWiC, test subjects searched a wiki for information. “The people (using ENWiC) were able to answer some of the complex questions faster, because they had the clue about where the information was and how to find it,” says Stroulia.

In addition to creating topic maps, ENWiC can also create several other graphic organizers of the wiki content. These graphic organizers align with Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of understanding.

Bloom theorizes that different graphic organizers correspond with different levels of understanding. For example, spider maps illustrate Bloom’s knowledge level, which he defines as the lowest level of understanding and basically the memorization of facts.

The team bestowed ENWiC with the ability to make graphic organizers relevant to Bloom because ENWiC has potential as an educational tool, says Stroulia, particularly for engaging students in increasingly complex levels of understanding.

Stroulia and her team are planning future projects about using wikis in education.

Article and photos by Erin Ottosen, 2007.