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WHOIS: Danah Boyd, MSR Social Scientist

Today we'll chat with Danah BoydDanah is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Mass., exploring social media. You can read more about Danah in this NY Times article posted this week.  

How did you get into technology?

As a child, I remember playing a few computer games and I had fun writing complex programs using LOGO, but it was my brother who was in love with computers.  I had limited interest in them.  Then, frustrated that my brother's computer was taking up the phone line by making weird sounds, I marched into his room and demanded to know what he was doing.  He showed me Usenet and IRC.  Computers became much more interesting to me once I realized that they were made out of people.

What was your first computer? 

An Apple Macintosh.

Tell us how you came to work at Microsoft?

I actually interviewed at Microsoft after finishing every degree.  When I finished my bachelor's in computer science, I was given a job offer at Microsoft to work on Passport.  Instead, I chose to go to MIT.  After I finished my master's, I thought I was done with school, but the Microsoft recruiter told me that she thought I belonged in graduate school and should come back to Microsoft to work in Research when I was done with my PhD.  I didn't plan on doing my PhD, but six months later, I ended up back in graduate school. 

As I was finishing my PhD, I decided that I didn't want to go on the job market.  I was planning on taking a postdoc in order to focus on new research before looking at faculty jobs.  During a trip to Seattle, I got a phone call from Linda Stone (former VP at MSFT) who knew I was in Seattle because of Dopplr.  She told me that I should come to dinner.  There, she introduced me to Jennifer Chayes and Christian Borgs - who were starting the new lab at the time - and told them that they should hire me.  I laughed at Linda and told them all that I was not on the job market.  Yet, I immediately clicked with Jennifer and Christian and they convinced me to come interview. 

I've always adored Microsoft Research.  It's reputation is phenomenal in computer science worlds.  And I realized that there was the potential of making that true in the social sciences as well.

What surprised you about working at Microsoft?

I'm consistently amazed at the support that I receive and the freedom that I have to continue doing my research. I fall in love with Rick Rashid and Jennifer Chayes on a daily basis. 

Tell us about what you consider "networked publics". 

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice.

What are some of the events in social networking that stand out to you as most interesting?

I realize why the "big" stories are most interesting to others, but I'm a social scientist.  I'm most in love with the small things, the everyday, the mundane, the sad. 

For example, I've been spending the week reading about Ashley Billasano who tweeted her story before she committed suicide.  It's a heartwrenching story where she highlights how the system failed her.  She told her story - publicly - because no one else would listen to her.  This story kills me. 

The internet mirrors and magnifies everyday life.  It reveals the good, bad, and ugly of what happens all around us.  That's what I find most interesting.

One of the bigger changes is that news is increasingly starting with Twitter and expanding virally. What advice can you give a newsroom to benefit from social media and not be duped by a hoax? 

Fact-checking is more important today than ever before.  It's also the case that people want to control their own stories.  Historically, we needed intermediaries to publicize our words.  Today, we have new possibilities of building our own audiences.  At the same time, we need investigative reporting more now than ever before. 

How has worldwide social connections changed 'growing up'? 

While there's the possibility of connecting to anyone, most young people actually communicate with the people that they know from school, afterschool activities, religious institutions, summer camp, etc.  The technologies are powerful, but they aren't connecting people in the ways that you might imagine.

What do you think is a good age for youths to start using social networking? 

This is a family decision.  It all depends on what's appropriate for the individual child.  As with everything, maturity is not a magical process that happens at a distinct age.

What advice would you give adolescents who are eager to start using social networks?

Whenever you share on social media, you're always navigating multiple audiences.  You aren't just talking to your friends; you're also talking to your grandmother, youth minister, and coach, even if they can't currently see what you're posting.  Think about how each message might get misinterpreted in unexpected ways and work hard to present yourself in a way that you're proud of.

What advice would you give parents whose children are eager to start using social networks? 

Digital parenting works best when there are open lines of communication.  Make sure that you're in constant conversation with your child about what she or he is doing.  Ask questions.  Recognize that your child often knows more about the technology than you do but that you have greater perspective.  Work to learn from each other.

Do you see a point in the future where two classes -- those who participate in social networks and those who don't -- have unequal opportunities?

Most folks love to highlight the democratizing potential of social media, but in fact, these technologies often reinforce existing inequalities and create new ones even as they break down existing barriers.  

For companies that have been slow to adopt social networking, what are the biggest benefits they may be missing and how do you suggest they start learning about this space?

The key to social media is to be authentic.  This doesn't mean try to be authentic or perform authentic-ness.  But actually be authentic.  Be a human, not a robot.  Sadly, most companies tend to treat it as another broadcast or publishing venue and there's no humanity to what their employees post. 

Who are some of the people you enjoy reading most on Twitter? 

My favorite people?  My close friends. 

What are some of your favorite sites? 

I'm actually really boring.  I'm a news junkie so I read multiple newspapers (online) each day.  And I go to Twitter every day.  But otherwise, it's more sporadic.  I really miss the days when I could just surf the internet but I sadly lack the time to be able to do that so I rely heavily on friends to send me fun things.

What is the last book you read and your favorite book of all time? 

Last fun book: "Ready Player One."  Soooo much fun!  Favorite book of all time: "Stone Butch Blues".

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