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The new face(s) of computing

If Microsoft is going to be relevant to the next generation of computer users, who better to pay attention to than the leading expert on how the next generation is using social networks?

BY  Heather Ford , 1 June 20100 comments

danah boyd is the new face of technology research at Microsoft.danah boyd is the new face of technology research at Microsoft.

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It’s rare that you see high-tech research labs employing social scientists, especially those that are interpreting what some think of as trivial social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace. But that’s exactly what the newly minted Microsoft Research lab in New England did when it hired danah boyd last year.

Says boyd: “The Cambridge lab is very small. It’s the newest lab and it’s filled with mathematicians and theoretical computer scientists. There are only eight of us right now. I’m the only social scientist.”

The fact that boyd is the only social scientist in the lab is not the only reason why she is so unique. Starting with her name, which she changed to lower case, “to reflect my mother’s original balancing and to satisfy my own political irritation at the importance of capitalisation,” she originally wanted to be an astronaut but after an injury became interested in the internet.

She’s had a whirlwind academic career since, first studying computer science at Brown, going on to do her Master’s in sociable media at the MIT Media Lab, and finally receiving her PhD from the UC Berkeley School of Information. She is known for her research and commentary on American youth culture and the use of social network sites by American youth. She’s been profiled in the New York Times and has also advised companies like Yahoo!, Intel, and Google on social media.

Privacy is not dead

boyd’s current research centres on the issues of publicity and privacy, visibility and surveillance, and structural inequality in youth and social media.

“I get into topics like online safety and privacy and sociality and learning. All as it circles around these core dimensions.

So I’m interested in why people engage in public, what they’re trying to achieve; how people model privacy and work to enact it; what they do when others see them and how they react.”

She recently gave the keynote speech at the South by South West (SXSW) event in Austin, Texas, where she challenged Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s recent declaration that ‘privacy is dead’.

“No matter how many times a privileged, straight, white, male technology executive pronounces the death of privacy, Privacy Is Not Dead. People of all ages care deeply about privacy. And they care just as much about privacy online as they do offline,” she asserts.

She talked about the Google Buzz privacy fail, saying that the outrage showed that people care deeply about privacy and control.

“Don’t get me wrong – plenty of people will use the service and it will be extremely popular, but this doesn’t mean Google didn’t screw up. They’re taking a hit in terms of trust, because not everyone benefi ted from what they did.”

Race shapes the social ‘net boyd says she’s concerned about the so-called ‘techno-utopians’ who proclaim that technology is democratising the world around us. “I look at the myths that we have – like the internet being the great equaliser – and think about what this means for the evolution of social media.”

One of her upcoming publications is entitled White Flight in Networked Publics? How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement with MySpace and Facebook.

She says that the title is meant to be provocative. “In this article, I explore the themes I’ve been discussing for years, but focus specifically on the language that young people used to differentiate MySpace and Facebook and how that language can be understood through the historical dynamics of segregation in the US.”

In her blog, boyd talks about how difficult it was to write this. “When the ‘digital divide’ conversations started up, folks boiled down the discussion to being one of access. ‘If only everyone had access, everything would be hunkydory’.

We’re closer to universal access today than ever before, but access is not bringing us the magical utopian panacea that we all dreamed of.”

Access is not the whole story, says boyd. “Don’t get me wrong – access is important. But I’m much more concerned about how racist and classist attitudes are shaping digital media, how technology reinforces inequality, and how our habit of assuming that everyone uses social media just like we do reinforces social divisions that we prefer to ignore. This issue became apparent to me when doing fieldwork because of the language that young people were using to differentiate MySpace and Facebook. Adoption differences alone were never the whole story.”

New agenda

boyd says she has ‘zero regrets’ about joining Microsoft Research. “I came to MSR because it’s one of the best places in the world to do research. I have the freedom to do the research that’s important and I’m evaluated based on publishing. So it all fits into a model that we know and understand in academia. It’s ideal.”

According to Jennifer Chayes, Microsoft Research New England MD: “Microsoft Research New England focuses on interdisciplinary work, integrating the more mathematical and algorithmic sciences with both the social sciences and aspects of the biomedical sciences. Our work includes applied projects in areas such as economics, social media, and health care, as well as more theoretical projects in areas such as mathematics and cryptography. The researchers in our lab collaborate closely with the vibrant local academic community.” Says boyd: “The key to an interdisciplinary lab is making sure that different approaches to similar problems are in conversation. It’s about being curious and seeing connections. My labmates and I all work on topics related to networks, but how we approach this fundamentally differs. Most of them are interested in modeling networks; I’m interested in understanding how people live networks as part of their lives. But it’s fun to talk with one another and see the connections.”

She says that Microsoft has taken note of the fact that social media has gained traction globally and that the intersections between technology and society are valuable areas of research.

“Rick Rashid – the head of MSR – thinks that accounting for social dynamics is crucial to the future of computer science. I couldn’t agree more. We only really disagree on whether or not I count as a computer scientist,” she grins.

If it produces more of the great insights coming out of New Haven, we don’t really care what danah boyd is called.



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