Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Noted Social Network Researcher Duncan Watts Leaves Yahoo

Duncan Watts, the social science researcher who has been at Yahoo since 2007, has left the company.

Yahoo confirmed the departure. Watts has reportedly joined Microsoft’s research organization, but the software company declined to comment.

Watts, who is an Australian with degrees in physics and applied mechanics, researches social networks and collective dynamics. He lives in New York and played a role in the creation of The Huffington Post, after writing the influential book, “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.”

Watts’s departure is one of many within Yahoo’s once-vaunted search business, including Yahoo Labs head Prabhakar Raghavan, who went to Google.

Watts’s recent research has tended toward disproving common assumptions about how people and groups behave, as demonstrated on social networks online.

For instance, he looked at influence on Twitter (hint: he’s not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s concept of influencers, as described in “The Tipping Point”), the likeliness of cooperation on the Web (apparently, it’s not as dependent on others’ behavior as previously assumed), and diversity of opinions about politics among friends (a Facebook study showed friends disagree more than they think they do).

In fact, Watts wrote a whole book about how people’s attempts to make sense of the world and how we relate to each other are often wrong — and because our online interactions can be recorded and studied, those assumptions can increasingly be disproved. It’s called “Everything is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer.”

Here’s a video of me interviewing him about it from last year:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik