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Towards a new kind of social network

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Four institutions, including the Ecole des Mines de Nantes, are working on "spontaneous" social networks dedicated to happenings, with a limited life span. A subject about which relatively little is known.

Looking into a new type of social network, for a specific event (a sporting event or a cultural event), offering functions adapted to needs : such is the task that has been undertaken by a research consortium which brings together four institutions of higher education (Télécom Saint-Etienne, INSA Lyon, the Université de Bretagne Sud and the Ecole des Mines de Nantes) and one company (Chronocourse). This work is supported by the ANR (National Association for Research), and will recieve funding of 500,000 euros, until January 2017.

For the most part, current digital social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn...) are designed for managing contacts – either the general public or professionals. A few, such as Youtube or Deezer, concern a particular subject – sharing videos, and music. With "spontaneous and ephemeral social networking" (SESN), the approach is completely different : the information exchanges are about a single event, in a limited space, for a limited time. "These networks give rise to a number of questions, observes François de Corbière, lecturer in the Social Sciences and Management Department at the Ecole des Mines de Nantes. How relevant is the information exchanged ? How can the information be accessed and by whom ? What added value do they give ? How can they affect the actions of the different stakeholders ?"

For major events (football championships, Formula 1 or the Olympic games), the spontaneous and ephemeral social networks seem unable to compete with traditional social networks or sport mass media sites, with their forums and online chat rooms. On the other hand, medium scale events, generating a lot of interest but getting relatively little publicity, lend themselves well to the development of these new networks. The research consortium chose running events as a theme for the test project, in partnership with the ChronoCourse company, an events service provider for this type of event.


Promising opportunities, but many issues to be tackled


What are the benefits of these ephemeral networks for the different stakeholders - organizers, runners, journalists, spectators ? How might they change routines and practices ? What markets will develop ? It is too early to say, but already different avenues have appeared : after a race for example, runners can access the information they are interested in, view photos, exchange videos, etc. The organizers on the other hand can manage the online entries for the race, and provide a tracking system with automatic bib number recognition… This tool also provides trainers with personalised race tracking. Some of these services could lead to income generating activities, paving the way for new services...

In the medium term, the research consortium is thinking about providing an open source code   with a view to using it for other events - festivals for example, or local celebrations. Startups may be set up, working on the development of new features... In short, spontaneous and ephemeral social networking seems to have great potential, but there remains much to be done. For example, what about customer loyalty for network ? While there are great opportunities, identifiers will have to be created, and consequently anonymity will no longer be possible….

For the moment, the number one priority is to choose the technical solutions. Connected objects could be used to produce and share information on spontaneous and ephemeral social networks. With the anticipated growth of the 5G network, mobile phones will be able to communicate peer-to-peer, or via a temporary server. To talk about an event, spontaneous and ephemeral social network users will simply download a generic application on their smartphone using a wifi connection, and choose their plugins (with specific functions) tailor-made for that event.

"Each of the four institutions contributes its own specific expertise, explains François de Corbière. UBS deals with the ground level software network, Télécom St-Etienne deals with recommender algorithms (spreading the 'like's), lNSA de Lyon works on the software infrastructure and the man-machine interface... On the information systems management side, myself and Aurélie Girard, a colleague from LEMNA, are interested in the value of information on social networks.This collaboration has been a fascinating experience. But there is still a long way to go, and questions to be answered, and the subject remains wide open." The first presentation of the team's work has been programmed at the ANR in November.

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