danah boyd joins Microsoft Research — computer science *is* a social science

Guess who has a post-dissertation job? [Yes, that implies I’m actually going to finish this *#$@! dissertation.] ::bounce:: In January, I will be joining the newly minted Microsoft Research New England in Boston, MA. w00000t!!!!! I couldn’t be more ecstatic.

— danah boyd, I will be joining Microsoft Research in January, apophenia, September 2008

Breaking through barriers is what research is all about. We’re going to New England to break through barriers between core computer science and social sciences, and to do fundamental research that can lead to deeper insights and better computing experiences in an increasingly online world.”

—   Jennifer Chayes, Managing Director, Microsoft Research’s newly-opened New England lab, September 2008

OK, maybe this is obvious to everybody outside the field of computer science; but within the field, we are in the process of a major paradigm shift — when I get excited, I describe it as a Kuhnian “scientific revolution in progress”, which might be stretching things, but just a little.  Computer scientists have historically identified either as mathematicians (ah, the purity) or physicists (pretty good purity and much better government funding); but if you look at the kinds of problems we are trying to solve now (bunches of different aspects of the security problem, privacy, usability of pervasive computers, changing business models, e-voting) it seems pretty clear that the key issues relate to people and the way they communicate and organize themselves, rather than discovering the underlying physical laws of the universe — in short, the domain of social sciences.

— Jon Pincus, Computer science is really a social science (draft), BillG ThinkWeek paper, January 2005

w000000t indeed.  The new Microsoft Research lab is exciting news on its own, and with danah’s announcement as well all I can say is wow.  Intersecting knowledge and networks from Jennifer, Butler Lampson and the other excellent CS and theory researchers and practitioners at the lab, and now danah — who’s one of the hubs of the next-generation research community still largely unknown to most “mainstream” computer scientists, and is one of the few people who foregrounds gender, race, class and other aspects of diversity in her work as much as I do … wow.  Can’t wait to see what they come up with.

On a personal level, I have to admit that my excitement’s tempered with other reactions. First of all, it brings up a lot of my past issues with Microsoft — and specifically Microsoft Research. While I got a lot of positive reactions to that paper, MSR’s institutional attitude at the time was that this  wasn’t significant research, and as a result I got a bad annual review. When I considered going back to MSR in mid-2007, despite the long-standing tradition of a right of return for a researcher at my level who took a job in “the product groups”, I was told that there wasn’t likely to be open headcount for me.  Yeah, it’s nice to see them coming around to the idea, but I still do feel badly treated: punished, rather than rewarded, for the kinds of ground-breaking research MSR was set up to pursue.

There’s also a definite feel of a personal path not taken.  Jennifer, along with social computing researchers like Mary Czerwinski and Lili Cheng, was one of the few people in MSR who got what I was doing.  I first remember talking with her and Christian Borgs about this in early 2006 after a visiting lecture by John Hopcroft.*  After that, we briefly discussed whether her group would be a good home for me (although as VP Dan Ling said, it wasn’t obvious where I’d be able to publish the kind of research I was thinking of).  Instead, I decided to take a strategy role in Microsoft’s Online Services Group, and while I still do some research** it hasn’t been my main focus since.  I’d be a very different person if I had stayed in MSR …

All that said, this is a great outcome. A new research lab with incredible staff and MSR-style funding to be looking at computer science as a social science … gotta like that!   At the personal level, I’m much happier not being at Microsoft; and in terms of the path not taken, well, the strategy consultant/activist/author stuff I’m currently doing is a far better fit for me than a researcher or software architect role.  On top of that, danah is a far better researcher than I am, with far more growth potential, so it’s a good deal from Microsoft’s perspective as well.

For a taste of danah’s work, see Best of Aphophenia.  A couple of my faves are just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” (co-written with Nicole Ellison), and Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace — all of which should be required reading for every social computing researcher or software engineer, as well as every online political activist.   Her talk at the MSRNE lab opening on Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era is another good place to start.

In the 2005 paper, I suggested that the field of computer science was in the midst of a major paradigm shift, perhaps even a scientific revolution — I love it when I get to use the word Kuhnian! If so, this week — with this as a major part of the The Economist’s framing and publication of The New School (see Andre Gironda’s review for more) — may be remembered as a major milestone for the rebels.

— Jon Pincus, Indeed: The Economist on “computer science as a social science”, March 2008

I think we’re winning 🙂


PS: the publication of the papers on Information Security as a Social Science (co-authored with Sarah Blankinship of Microsoft) and Computer science as a social science: applications to computer security (with Sarah as well as Tomasz Ostwald, also of Microsoft) continues to inch closer … for now, see the 2006 Data Devolution keynote of Sarah’s and my work for a summary

* during the lecture, I had used techniques from standpoint epistemology to notice that an algorithm he was discussing would tend to underestimate the impact of interdisciplinary research — and that this marginalization of intersections and outliers was part of a general trend of solutions to high-dimension graph problems.  For those who don’t know the computer science research field, when somebody like me who doesn’t know much about graph theory can make an interesting point about a lecture by a titan of the field like John Hopcroft, that’s a big deal — strong evidence that the social science techniques I was advocating really can shed new insights.

** for example, ReflectionsGender, race, age, and power in online discussions, chapter n and n + 1Cognitive diversity in the 2008 US election, and the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy page on dealing with hate speech and trolls