A study of some 500,000 emails from inside Enron reveals patterns of information sharing around an office.
When we think about the social media that dominate online, we tend to come up with brand-name sites: Facebook, of course, followed by Twitter and LinkedIn, with maybe Google+ and Pinterest rounding out the list. But all of these, none stands up to the nameless giant that underpins our daily online interactions: email. It connects nearly everyone online: 92 percent of online adults use email, and the remaining eight percent, I think it's safe to say, probably aren't really "online" all that much.
As a social network, email allows unstructured poking ("Call me! EOM"), photo sending, and link sharing. And perhaps more than any other technology we use online, captures our actual social network; we use it to communicate with everyone from the babysitter to the boss. Surely, the billions of messages sent each day are a source of information about every aspect of human interaction, if only some researchers somewhere could get their hands on them.
Well, of course, there are good reasons why they can't. But there is at least one instance where a solid and comprehensive set of emails has become available to researchers, and they are making the most of it. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission posted more than 500,000 emails from inside Enron in the years leading up to and including its collapse. These emails, sent by 151 people between 1997 and 2002, contain clues to how a modern (okay, modern-ish) office place functions, the way people communicate, and the paths along which information flows. A new study of these missives (pdf) from two researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, picks apart these emails to learn about how gossip is used and spread within a company.