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Giving “book group” a whole new meaning

Northeastern University’s world-renowned network scientist, Albert-László Barabási, will explore the predictability of human behavior in his new book, “Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do,” set to be published April 29. But first, he is launching a groundbreaking viral Web experiment that will add another layer to our understanding of how networks work. Plus, it promises to be fun.

Barabási, distinguished professor of physics and the founding director of the Center for Complex Network Research at Northeastern, has put the entire book online — it went live April 8 athttp://brsts.com/ — but with all 84,237 words covered up.

The text can only be unlocked by visitors to the Web site. Each visitor chooses to “adopt” one word anywhere in the book’s 271 pages, and that word is then revealed to every participant. Individual participants can have additional words revealed only to them by using points earned through inviting friends to join or by guessing a blocked-out word correctly.

Barabási’s goal is to study how a worldwide network of people, working through this viral process, ultimately unlocks the entire book. He said the experiment is also a challenge to visitors to see who can unlock all the text first, and he is anxiously awaiting the world’s reaction to his project. Barabási said he and his team will use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word, but they expect the experiment to get out primarily through word-of-mouth.

“Will it be fast? Will it take two days or three months? I have no idea. It’s an experiment,” he said.
The inspiration for the concept, Barabási said, came in part from, “The Million Dollar Homepage” — a Web site created in 2005 by a student in England. Looking to pay for college, the student charged $1 per pixel for companies to advertise on his site.

Barabási recalled that he regretted not grasping the opportunity to launch a viral campaign around his seminal earlier work, “Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life.” This time around, he said, “I lost my shyness.”

“If you believe something is cool, you have to take risks,” Barabási added.

In this latest book, Barabási dissects behavioral trends that can be predicted through humans’ repetitive patterns, namely from measureable data collected from mobile electronic devices that shed light on email, phone calling and travel habits. Barabási believes humans’ increasing use of technology has made that predictability more apparent than ever before, given the availability of such data.

The purpose of the book, Barabási said, is not to make any predictions about how people will behave. Instead it asks, “What does it mean for us to be predictable?”