When computer science assistant professor of the practice Jeffrey Forbes saw how intensely his students engaged with the social networking website Facebook, he knew he had stumbled on a research opportunity—and a teaching tool.

“I was traveling with a group of students, and I remember we walked by a computer lab, and a student walked in and went straight to her Facebook page,” Forbes said. “She didn’t check her e-mail, she didn’t do anything else. If she only had five minutes, it was important for her to check her Facebook page.”

Forbes soon began using the massive amounts of networking data on Facebook as the basis for class assignments in his introductory classes.

Now, Forbes and some of his students have taken the Facebook networking experience one step further. They created a new music networking tool called Duke Scrobbler that tracks people’s music listening history from iTunes and their iPods. This allows users to share information about their music listening habits, uploaded directly to their Facebook accounts.

“It’s intriguing, first of all, just how much information people give out about themselves. There’s a lot that can be done here, because by using Facebook, the students have given us access to something that would be incredibly hard to get otherwise,” Forbes said. “As a computer scientist, you look at this as an incredible data set and think, how can we use it?”

Duke Scrobbler was adapted from Audio Scrobbler, an open source tool that powers the music networking site Last.fm.

“We thought, why reinvent that [for music] when practically everybody here at Duke is already using Facebook,” says Zachary Marshall, one of the three Duke undergraduate computer science majors who worked on the Scrobbler project.

The Center for Instructional Technology (CIT) funded the project’s development by three seniors who are computer science majors mentored by Forbes. Additional support came from Bell South and IBM.

Dametrious Peyton started work on it in the summer of 2006. Then last fall, Marshall and Beth Trushkowsky and took the project over and came up with the idea of integrating Scrobbler with Facebook.

Duke Scrobbler, which works like a Facebook add-on, allows users to find others with similar musical taste, to see what songs are most popular with their friends and others on campus.

No actual music files are shared online via Scrobbler — only when and how often songs are played. That information is stored on user’s iPod and iTunes library. A search box allows users to look for particular artists and song titles, and to view the Facebook profiles of likeminded music fans. Users may then choose to “facebook” or “friend” them, which means to add that person to their Facebook social network.

“We’re creating new avenues for people to meet other people,” Marshall said. “On a college campus where the music scene is usually a little bit more intense, you get people who are interested in certain types of music. It’s exciting to be able to connect with other people, especially if it’s just one other girl or guy at school that likes that group. [With Scrobbler] they’re able to connect. Sometimes that connection is pretty cool to make.”

Marshall said he thinks such social mapping is precisely the appeal of online networks.

“It allows you to map out and recognize the relationships you have in the real world,” he said. “That’s what the excitement is for a lot of students. There can be very personalized spaces, but they are also spaces that you share with other people. This online metaphor of a meeting place, a marketplace, is what really drives people to sites like Facebook and MySpace.”

“Students like seeing what other people are up to,” Forbes added. “One way of doing that is looking at what music they are currently listening. And you can see how someone’s music taste changed over time. These are all things that we can do, because there is a way to interface with all the Facebook information.”

The project is still in the development stage with somewhere between one and two hundred users. As more people sign up, the statistical data generated will get more useful. (Currently Billy Joel dominates the site’s most played music.)

“It’s a good project to do for independent study, because it’s self-motivated and you learn a lot on the way,” Trushkowsky said. “Professor Forbes is good at showing you a little bit and then having you figure out the rest on your own.”

In the future, the team hopes to develop what are called “collaborative filtering techniques” to generate recommendations of songs and musicians for Scrobbler users.

Trushkowsky and Marshall continue to tinker with Scrobbler in their spare time, adding new features. But once they graduate, Forbes will be seeking new independent study students to carry it on.

“There are probably some students who would love to mess around with this,” Forbes said. “This is part of a larger effort in the department where we’re rethinking how computer science should be introduced. The traditional way of introducing computer science is here are some data processing problems. Do some programming.

“That’s producing good computer scientists, but it’s not appealing to as many students as we would like,” Forbes said. “Using students’ interest in this science of networks is one way to introduce them to what computer science is about.”

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