Asia's social media trends under the microscope

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


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Asia's first social media laboratory is being set up at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

It plans to take a two-pronged approach to its investigation of social media. First it will collect data from the free flow of information generated by sites such as Facebook and Twitter to uncover trends, analysis and predictions that would be useful for advertising and business.

Second, it will develop technology such as smartphone applications or touch-screen technology that laboratory director and HKUST visiting professor Dr James She says will ultimately 'bring the digital into the daily physical life'.

'Asia houses most of the world's population, so studying social media here will be very exciting and important,' She said.

The laboratory would focus on studying emerging Asian social media and trends, using sites such as the mainland's weibo and Hong Kong's OpenRice restaurant review website.

The professor says that social media is a rich treasure trove of information for sociology researchers and advertisers.

'Traditional media, including magazines, billboards or even internet sites, use authorised information and broadcast it to everyone,' said She. 'Social media is different. Any consumer can also be the producer - it's a collaborative effort. Many people take part in generating the information that is broadcast.'

Social media had become a fact of life, She said. People discuss various topics on open online forums, record themselves singing the latest Britney Spears song and upload it onto YouTube, give restaurant recommendations on local foodie website OpenRice and share their travel stories via Twitter.

She will be joined in the laboratory by another professor as associate director, six postgraduate student researchers and eight undergraduate researchers. Most will do research on social media and 'cyber-physical systems' - or how the digital world relates to our life and environment.

Since preparations started in April, the laboratory has received up to HK$3 million worth of sponsorship and donations, some in the form of state-of-the-art technology, and some as cash to support staff.

The laboratory will open in February, but the Post took a peek at the facility and the work it will undertake.

She demonstrated a smartphone programme. With just a flick of the wrist, the phone in this reporter's hand was able to register or download a picture of autumn leaves that was playing on one of the laboratory's TV screens.

This type of technology could be expanded to allow people to buy products they see advertised, and pay for them through their phones.

Another product in development is a portable infrared device, made up of two poles, that can turn any glass surface into a giant touch screen.

'All the gadgets you see in futuristic sci-fi films - we are realising today,' She said. 'Regardless of whether you accept [technology and social media] or not, it's better to understand it and use it than ignore it.'