University of Pittsburgh
October 29, 2009

Swarm Intelligence: Pitt's School of Information Sciences Launches Pittsburgh Cultural Web Site Mixing Citywide Event Listing, Social Networking Experiment

PittCult presents a study in building digital communities while letting the public browse and post Pittsburgh events, write reviews, and rendezvous with friends
Contact:  412-624-4147

PITTSBURGH-To stay abreast of Pittsburgh's many cultural affairs, the devout sophisticate must stay busy scouring the listings while also tuning an ear to social chatter. The University of Pittsburgh's School of Information Sciences has launched a new Web site intended to let social butterflies flitter more easily between box-office postings and the word on the street by combining a citywide events calendar with a social networking site á la Facebook.

"PittCult" provides a central listing where users post and browse hundreds of local happenings drawn from the city's array of museums, galleries, theaters, and dance companies. Events can be viewed by type, venue, or the local organization presenting them. People who register on "PittCult"-which has amassed 150 hits a day and 91 members since its debut last month-also can craft profiles that allow them to specify the kinds of events they favor as well as create and join groups of like-minded users. Patrons can recommend events to one another, write reviews, and rate the personal tastes and reliability of fellow "PittCult"-ers. The site is free, open to the public, and available on the School of Information Sciences Web site at pittcult.sis.pitt.edu

But "PittCult" is more than just a calendar-it also is an experiment in building digital communities, explained information sciences professor Peter Brusilovsky, whose doctoral student Danielle Lee created the site for her doctoral dissertation. "PittCult" relies entirely on the willingness of its members to participate because of their common interests, said Brusilovsky, who studies digital "societies," social Web sites, and human-computer interactions.

Users post events they read or hear about elsewhere, and they interact based on their similar (or conflicting) tastes. The site becomes a kind of informational ant colony wherein individuals perpetuate and expand the community, Brusilovsky said: As more people post events and interact, the more useful "PittCult" becomes and the more enticing it is to others looking to be in the cultural know. He compares "PittCult" to a traditional events calendar, a static list that relies (typically) on information from a limited group of people and provides no opportunity for the people who see it to interact.

"Our site, like Facebook or Google, spreads information through 'swarm intelligence,' when a large group works to keep one another informed," Brusilovsky said. "There are so many things happening in this city, but there is no central repository. With "PittCult," the community makes sure an event is posted and that the right people get the right information. It's essentially word-of-mouth, which is typically the most effective communication, except that social networks connect more people than real places do."

"PittCult" is the most recent event site to come out of Brusilovsky's lab. He and information sciences graduate student Chirayu Wongchokprasitti created the site CoMeT (Collaborative Management of Talks), a resource for sharing and learning about seminars, lectures, and symposiums hosted at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University. He also helped create a social network for the June 2009 User Modeling, Adaptation, and Personalization (UMAP) conference held in Italy, for which he is a conference committee member.

"PittCult" will most likely provide a more complete idea of how digital communities interact because it taps into the more popular world of arts and culture, Brusilovsky said.

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10/30/09/tmw