Monday, January 7, 2008

Enemybook Gives Computer Science a Bad Name

A few days ago The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a piece on Enemybook. I know what you're thinking- it's about time, right?

What's interesting is the reader response to their article. The comments section sparked a debate about whether computer science deserves to be called a science. Normally I don't like to get embroiled in such debates, but in this case, I'm tempted. One of the commentators compared me to a drug user, while another commentator compared me to someone who develops drugs (specifically anti-viagra).

Now let me clear up some misconceptions. Though I am on drugs most of the time, when I'm not, I am indeed hard at work designing drugs to cause impotence (I'm almost done- I call them SSRIs. They're sure to be a huge hit.).

Second, the question "Does computer science deserve to be called a science?" is the wrong one to ask. The real question is "Does the research done by computer scientists have value?" The existence of Enemybook is largely irrelevant to that question, since Enemybook is not at all indicative of the research done by computer scientists. I'm an academic, and I made Enemybook, but I did so as a side project, not an academic pursuit (not yet, anyway). From a sociological perspective, social and anti-social networks may very well be worthy of academic inquiry. But it's not the kind of thing most computer scientists study. My own research to date has been on algorithms, a rather different area (for the curious, you can find my papers here). Criticizing all of computer science because you don't like Enemybook makes about as much sense as criticizing all of chemistry because you don't like a particular chemist's cooking.

Other posts in the comments section talked about freedom of speech and privacy concerns. Though I don't think these issues are much different for Enemybook than they are for Facebook itself, they are complex issues and I don't want to comment on them glibly. I'm glad people are thinking about them though. After all, the real intent of Enemybook is to first make you laugh, then make you think. Let's hope the Ig Nobel prize committee is listening.

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