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Social science meets computer science at Yahoo


Shortly after Carol Bartz took over as chief executive of Yahoo Inc. early last year, she met with Prabhakar Raghavan for an overview of the Sunnyvale Web giant’s research division. As the head of Yahoo Labs ran through the catalog of computer scientists on staff, Bartz turned to him and asked: “Where are your psychologists?”

This is a prime example of where social science builds upon computer engineering, Raghavan said. While a search algorithm figures out which online documents refer to Madonna the pop star and which refer to the Virgin Mary, it takes sociologists talking to real people to discover that when they enter the search term they almost always just want to listen to a song, watch a video or buy concert tickets.

Another outgrowth of Yahoo Labs was a new feature in its chat application, Yahoo Messenger, added in April. The scientific literature and Yahoo’s own studies have consistently shown people are more engaged with content, such as a television show, when they’re sharing the experience with another person. There’s a social obligation to keep watching that doesn’t exist when someone is sitting home alone.

Based on this insight, Yahoo created the Zync feature allowing two people chatting in Messenger to watch a video at the same time within the application. A follow-up study after the launch found people spent significantly more time chatting and trading links – a sort of reciprocal gift giving – than in standard chat sessions.

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