New Microsoft lab in New York City to study social media and social science

Microsoft is opening up a new laboratory in New York City that will focus on the intersection of social media and social science:

Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City, headed by ex-Yahoo senior scientists. The star crop of researchers includes sociologist and network theorist Duncan Watts, computational scientist David Pennock, and machine learning expert John Langford…

Microsoft’s research hubs are behind several of the company’s successful products. The Kinect and Bing were both developed for years as research projects before Microsoft turned them into products…

The NYC lab recruits bring in mathematical and computation tools that could work magic with existing social media research already underway at Microsoft Research, led by folks like Gen-fluxer danah boyd. “I would say that the highly simplified version of what happens is that data scientists do patterns and ethnographers tell stories,” boyd tells Fast Company. While Microsoft Research New England has strengths in qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics, “We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us,” boyd explained in a blog post announcing the NYC labs.

Data available via social networks like Twitter and Facebook finally offer a discrete measure of how people interact with one another, and how influence flows through their web of social links. As Watts explains it: “We want to understand how these phenomena work, we have to take a very large scale view of the world but have to refine our viewing a very fine grained way.”

Microsoft has hired 15 founding members (8 of those names are public), but that number is likely to grow in the coming months “like a university department in good times,” Chayes said. (Microsoft Research’s other units vary in size from 40 to 400 members of staff). The lab will draw on collaborators at the University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers, Princeton, New York University, and Columbia who’ve expressed an interest in working with the NYC labs.

This sounds like a fascinating opportunity to bring together a number of notable researchers across disciplines to tackle new issues and data.

I wonder how many academics would bristle at this news simply because of the connection to Microsoft, the supposedly big bad company that has tried to force its way in the computing world and is seen less favorably than “cooler” firms like Yahoo, Google, and Apple. At the same time, it is only with the resources available at these sorts of companies that you could put together labs like this and grant employees (Google is particularly famous for this) time to do their own creative work. How much of the work in this lab will be expected to be funneled into Microsoft products versus the general world of academia? Well-known researchers like danah boyd and Duncan Watts have made it work in the past but how different is it to work for a corporation versus an academic institution? I assume there must be some nice perks, including salary…

Finding sociology in summer camp romances

One thing I thoroughly enjoy about sociology is that you can find topics to study anywhere people are. Witness this example of a sociologist tackling romances in the laboratory of summer camp:

Faith wasn’t ready to be exclusive with Colyn. There were lots of boys at summer camp, and the seventh-grader wanted the chance to date some of them before the session ended. The thing was, Faith wasn’t so keen on the idea of Colyn going out with any other girls but her, and she protested when her friends told her she was being jealous and unreasonable. As she made her case, those of Faith’s fellow campers who were within earshot stared at her and shook their heads, muttering, “It’s not fair.” Nearby, a sociologist named Sandi Nenga sat with a notebook and wrote down every detail.

Nenga’s notes would eventually form the basis of an academic paper entitled “The Age of Love: Dating and the Developmental Discourse in a Middle School Summer Camp.” In the paper, the Southwestern University sociology professor describes infiltrating the children’s ranks and watching closely as they developed dating rituals and norms. “Simply keeping track of the beginning and ending of relationships constituted a significant portion of each day in the camp,” she found.

Nenga’s study might be a little jarring to those of us who remember going to summer camp as kids, and it’s not because we can’t vouch for her findings from personal experience. Rather, it’s because using summer camp as a place to study children has likely never occurred to most of us. But where we see boys and girls swimming in lakes and singing songs around the campfire, social scientists like Nenga see a research opportunity: an organized group of humans-in-training who have been made to grapple with one another in a strange new place. Where we see kids trying to make friends and getting crushes on each other, they see a controlled environment in which the inhabitants feel very much free—but can be observed and studied the entire time.

Like hot-rod mechanics eyeing an exceptional motor vehicle, in other words, social scientists look at summer camp and see a truly remarkable lab.

The rest of the article contains a fascinating overview of summer camp research which dates back decades. This reminds me of Ann Swidler’s idea of “unsettled times” where humans have to interpret new situations which involve following old strategies of action or developing new solutions.

I tell my students that sociology is valuable wherever people are doing things. I just hope Nenga was able to avoid “jargonized wishful thinking” in this intriguing research setting.