09/19/2012 05:55 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Can Social Networks Rapidly Expand Knowledge?

How many of our friends and neighbors are aware of California's Proposition 30? Despite the high stakes and its potential impact on everyone from students and parents to business leaders, many Californians are not yet aware of it. Can social networks rapidly expand knowledge about timely issues like this?

In 2009, the DOD launched an experiment to see if social networks could be mobilized to address time-critical tasks. Within three days, a team from MIT recruited thousands of people to help, and they successfully located the DOD's 10 red weather balloons within nine hours. The key to their success was their offer to share the $40,000 in prize money, not only with the 10 people who first reported the balloons, but also with those that recruited them, and those that recruited those people, and so on up the tree.

Such "recursive incentive mechanisms" are well-known in marketing as pyramid schemes, but they are also useful to extract information from social networks. A Nature article published last week shows that social media, in particular messages from close friends, can have a small but significant influence on voting behavior which can make a difference in tight races. Polls show that voters who are aware of Proposition 30 are split at close to 50/50.

Can an intangible incentive structure be designed to rapidly mobilize citizens to learn about a pressing issue? My colleagues and I at the University of California's CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative are studying this question with a timely new project to study how knowledge spreads across populations.

The website for the Proposition 30 Awareness Project allows visitors to register their awareness, then receive a custom web link to share with their friends and family using email, Facebook or Twitter. Visitors can return at any time to monitor their growing "influence graph" and track their influence score. After the election, the website will list the 50 Most Influential People.

Influence in the Prop 30 Awareness Project is computed using a variant of the Kleinberg and Raghavan algorithm, where each visitor's influence increases by one point for each person they recruit, by half a point for every person those people recruit, and so on down the line.

"Clearly, social media can influence people but we're still learning how to measure social impact," said social entrepreneur Craig Newmark, founder of "It looks like the California Proposition 30 Awareness Project can really help."

Our project, based at UC Berkeley, is the first step toward a general-purpose tool that will allow citizens to initiate their own awareness campaigns on any issue. The first example emphasizes awareness of Proposition 30 and does not advocate a position. It includes links to the California Voters Guide and to campaigns on both sides of the issue. Visitors may also indicate their position for or against the proposition and join an online discussion afterward.

Anyone can participate in the study by visiting the Proposition 30 Awareness Project website.