González-Bailón Joins the Annenberg Faculty

In 2013 the Annenberg School welcomed Assistant Professor of Communication Sandra González-Bailón. Fresh from a stint as a Research Fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, González-Bailón is a sociologist interested in social media, communication networks, and political engagement.

Professor González-Bailón says she became interested in digital media because it mediates many socially relevant dynamics – from how we gain access to information, to how we self-organize without a central organization. She adds that digital media also offers data that can help us gain a deeper understanding of how we interact and communicate, as well as what the effects of that communication are on a collective or societal level.

“I am particularly interested in how social networks make our decisions interdependent – how they constrain or facilitate the flow of information, or encourage chain reactions that turn individual decisions into collective behavior,” she says, noting that the recent wave of political protests around the world offer an empirical setting to test the idea of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. “Networks hold the key to understanding why individual actions can lead to outcomes that are unexpected or difficult to predict.”

González-Bailón plans to continue her current research projects on social media and political protests, online networks and information diffusion, and agenda-setting dynamics as assessed through the lens of previously unavailable data. She says that she hopes her research will help improve understanding of how people can coordinate their actions without a central authority overseeing the process from above.

“Learning what mechanisms drive the dynamics of these sorts of decentralized systems can help us design better tools for governance and democratic engagement,” she explains.

She also offers a glimpse into a nascent research project focused on how online networks operate in the presence of censorship and lack of political freedom. The central question: how does information diffuse online through networks of communication that are constantly monitored and targeted to prevent information flow?

“I’m interested in how the network reacts and adapts to these exogenous interventions,” she adds.

González-Bailón says Annenberg is the perfect place to base her research on how people use digital technologies to communicate.

“With its long-standing tradition in the field, its multi-disciplinary faculty and its unmatched resources, the Annenberg School for Communication offers an unparalleled environment to dissect the drivers and consequences of digital communication in this era of constantly pulsating information sources,” she states.

She says she is especially looking forward to collaborating with colleagues throughout the University – even those in far-flung disciplines like computer science and physics.

“Annenberg and Penn are distinctive for their genuine support of multi-disciplinary work, and for encouraging thinking outside the box and trespassing the boundaries of traditional approaches,” she says, stressing her belief that the best ideas and deepest insights arise at the intersection of different disciplines and from the confluence – and sometimes battling views – of different approaches and abstract modes of thinking.

“By working together, we can contribute to the foundations of a new language in the form of shared research agendas and priorities,” she says.

In addition to research, González-Bailón will teach Introduction to Networks in the Spring 2014 semester. The aim of the course is to introduce the science of networks, which offers the language and the tools to map and dissect the invisible structure of interdependence that links people together. Students will gain the necessary literacy to read, interpret, and design network-based research. They will learn how to go from concepts to metrics and will draw and interpret networks through the lens of substantive research questions. The course will pay special attention to the empirics of network science and will set the foundations for more advanced work on networks.

As a transplant to the City of Brotherly Love, González-Bailón says she is excited to take advantage of all the culture and vibrancy this urban center has to offer.

“Philadelphia strikes me as a sleeping beauty that is still waking up,” she concludes. “I like the city’s transformative energy and the many gems hidden behind unpretentious facades.