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MedUni Vienna physicists measure human society in online world

(Vienna, 19 July 2010) Researchers from the Institute of the Science of Complex Systems at the Medical University of Vienna report on a breakthrough in sociophysics: for the first time, all of the socioeconomic processes in a human society with more than 300,000 individuals have been measured with scientific precision.

Over four years the physicists Michael Szell, Renaud Lambiotte and Stefan Thurner collected data from the online game PARDUS (www.pardus.at) developed by Szell. This is a massive multiplayer online game which gives the players the chance to 'live' an alternative life - a second life. The fully recorded data contains practically every social, economic, political, altruistic or aggressive action of each one of the 300,000 individual players. The first findings from this huge social science 'experiment' on social networks and their influence on social dynamics appear in the latest edition of the renowned specialist journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Friendships, hostilities, trade, aggression and communication are the foundations of human societies. These relationships were analysed with network theory-based methods. The mutual influence of such fundamental connections between different kinds of social networks was clarified in particular. So far such statements could be made only as speculation because of the lack of sufficient data. With its measurements the team of researchers has now issued precise statements on a series of sociological hypotheses for the first time. "We measure how social tensions build up and are resolved, how friendships grow, what typical hostile networks look like, what influence communication has on trade, how aggressive behaviour is punished by the group, etc." explains Michael Szell.

"Our ultimate goal is to use this online world to help us reveal 'laws of nature' about human group behaviour to learn how to deal better with mass phenomena in the 'real world'. So far these are still relatively not understood, and range for example from voter dynamics, economic crises and social unrest on to migration flows and the spread of disease," says Stefan Thurner. Instead of questionnaires - as used previously in social sciences - the scientists use their huge data records from their online world and demonstrate the potential of such 'socioeconomic laboratories' to find out about the sociological and economic behaviour of the human species.

About the authors
Michael Szell is a researcher at MedUni Vienna and the developer/operator of PARDUS, Renaud Lambiotte is a post-doctoral student at Imperial College, London, Stefan Thurner is Professor of the Science of Complex Systems at MedUni Vienna and part-time professor at the Santa Fe Institute, USA.