Tag Archives: MSR

Bringing Research to Bear on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors (a.k.a. “child sex trafficking”)

I believe that technology can be leveraged to empower people in amazing ways, but I also recognize that it can also be used in deeply disturbing ways. All too often, when we as a society see technology being used in horrible ways, we want to blame and ban the technology. As a researcher invested in leveraging the visibility of ugliness to make serious cultural change, my role is to step back and see if we can understand better what’s going on in order to more significantly impact the issue at hand.

I know that technology is being used in the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. I also know that many people have responded to the visibility of “child sex trafficking” on commercial websites by wanting to shut down those commercial websites. Seeing horrible things makes people want to act, which is fantastic. Unfortunately, without focus, those actions can be counterproductive. As a researcher dedicated to ending crimes against children, my goal is to make sure that we understand what we’re doing so that we actually address the core of the problem, not just the most visible symptoms of it. Unfortunately, we know very little about how children are advertised, bought, sold, and exploited through the use of technology. There are plenty of anecdotes, but rigorous data is limited. This I realized was something that I could help with. As a researcher, my goal has been to try to untangle the complex ecosystem and obtain data that can help us actually go after the root of the problem.

I worked with Heather Casteel and Mitali Thakor to construct a framing document to ask challenging questions about how technology is being used in human trafficking and, specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Microsoft Research Connections (Rane Johnson-Stempson), the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit (Samantha Doerr, Bill Harmon, and Sue Hotelling), and I put together an RFP last December asking for researchers to submit proposals about how they would research and address some of the hard puzzles in this ecosystem. We were surprised – and delighted – to get far more viable, thought-provoking, and important proposals than we could fund. After a difficult decision process, we decided to fund six projects that are intended to bring important research to bear on this important issue. The grant recipients we funded are as follows:

  • Dr. Nicole Bryan, Dr. Ross Malaga, and Dr. Sasha Poucki of Montclair State University and Dr. Rachel Swaner of the Center for Court Innovation, for research on how networked technologies, including the Internet, mobile phones, and social media, are used by “johns” to procure children for sexual purposes.
  • Dr. Susan McIntyre of Calgary, Alberta, Dr. Dawne Clark of Mount Royal University, and Norm Lewis research assistant at Mount Royal University, for research on the role of technology in the recruiting, buying, and selling of victims in the sex trafficking industry.
  • Professor Mary G. Leary of the Catholic University of America, for a comprehensive assessment of judicial opinions on child sex trafficking issued over the last ten years.
  • Dr. Kimberly Mitchell of the University of New Hampshire Crimes Against Children Research Center, for research on technology’s role in facilitating child sex trafficking and understanding the benefits and obstacles for law enforcement.
  • Dr. Jennifer Musto of Rice University, for research on how law enforcement leverages the benefits and overcomes the obstacles of using technology in combating the trafficking of children for commercial sexual exploitation.
  • Dr. Anna W. Shavers, Dr. Dwayne Ball, Professor Matt Waite, Professor Sriyani Tidball, and Dr. David Keck of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for research into identifying the clandestine language used in web advertising of child sex trafficking and conceptualizing intelligent software to identify such online advertisements.

My hope is that these amazing scholars will investigate these challenging issues and provide new data and analysis so that we can develop sound socio-technical interventions that really work to address the core issue: the commercial sexual exploitation of minors. Through this process, I also hope that we can begin to develop a meaningful research community to really tackle these challenging intellectual and analytic puzzles from multidisciplinary perspectives.

It’s been awe-inspiring to watch so many different organizations and institutions work on combating human trafficking – government agencies, NGOs, advocacy organizations, and corporations. My hope is that this research will provide insight into these discussions so that we can develop new tactics and strategies for helping those who are marginalized and victimized. Additionally, I hope that the development of a research community in this area will help provide a locus to which practitioners and advocacy groups can turn to develop viable interventions.

I look forward to working with these scholars and going deeper into these issues in my own research.

Microsoft Research opens New York City lab

I am giddy with pleasure to share Jennifer Chayes’ announcement that Microsoft Research is opening a new lab in New York City that will be filled with computational social science types. The New England lab that I call home combines qualitative social science, empirical economics, machine learning, and mathematics. We’ve long noted the need for data science types who can bridge between us. And now, to my utter delight, a new lab is emerging to complement our lab. The folks who are going to serve as the founding members of the new NYC lab are computer scientists, physicists, experimental economists, and data scientists. Many of them are interested in social network analysis and big data problems but – or shall I say crucially – they all see the value in collaborating with ethnographers. In other words, we’re building a cross-lab team that’ll create new possible interdisciplinary collaborations that make my heart go pitter patter.

The new team will include Duncan Watts, David Pennock, John Langford, Jake Hofman, Dan Goldstein, Sid Suri, David Rothschild, and Sharad Goel. For the social scientists out there who were oohing and awing when we announced that MSR hired Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary Gray, just imagine the amazing connections that can occur when you mix these computational social scientists and the great group of researchers we have at the Social Media Collective. ::giggle::bounce:: <evil grin>

Here’s to new relationships connected through Amtrak!

Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, Mary L. Gray to Join Microsoft Research

::bounce:: I am *ecstatic* to announce that Nancy Baym, Kate Crawford, and Mary L. Gray are all joining Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, MA. See Jennifer Chayes’ announcement. ::bounce::

Three years ago (this week), I joined Microsoft Research to help integrate social scientists and computer scientists. I have known about and admired MSR since my undergraduate days when I was studying computer science. From the perspective of a researcher, it seemed like heaven-on-earth. As I slowly shifted disciplines, I was saddened to think that I had moved myself away from MSR so I was utterly delighted when, in 2008, I learned that Jennifer Chayes wanted to start a lab that brought computer scientists and social scientists together in new ways. I was even more ecstatic when she invited me to help with this endeavor. Over the last three years, I’ve invited numerous scholars to come to MSR as visitors, postdocs, and interns. In particular, I’ve focused on bringing in social scientists from fields that haven’t commonly been in conversation with industrial researchers. This loose network of folks have come to be known as the “Social Media Collective.” Much to my absolute pleasure, Nancy, Kate, and Mary are going to come to MSR to join the Collective.

The Social Media Collective focuses on research related to socio-technical issues, primarily from a social scientific perspective. Most of us use qualitative research methods, but there are also quantitative, computational, and experimental folks among us. We primarily look at topics related to the rise of social media, but we do so from a variety of different disciplinary lenses. Our work tends to have implications for a wide array of audiences: scholarly, technical, policy, business, and public. Nancy, Kate, and Mary are three of the leading scholars in this arena and I’m ecstatic that they’ll be coming to MSR to advance this line of inquiry.

  • Nancy Baym is a communication scholar, currently at University of Kansas. She helped define the field of internet studies with her work on personal connections, fandom, and online communities.
  • Kate Crawford is a media studies scholar, currently at the University of New South Wales. She weaves together a diverse set of interests to examine mobile media, intimacy, and listening, with an eye towards public policy implications.
  • Mary L. Gray is an anthropologist, currently at Indiana University. Her work on rural queer youth has helped complicate our understandings of marginalized populations’ use of technology.

Each of these phenomenal scholars has a long history of helping us understand the relationship between technology and society and I’m sooo soooo soooo excited that they’re coming to MSR. As all of you who know me know, I love MSR. I also love Nancy, Kate, and Mary. So the combination makes me feel like a kid in a candy store.

MSR is a truly special place: an interdisciplinary home base for folks who are interested in studying issues related to technology. I still remember the day that Nancy, Kate, and Mary came back from talking to a group of computer scientists and mathematicians about the very meaning of “communication.” Needless to say, social scientists don’t use that term in the same way as mathematicians. But instead of being horrified, these three were glowing because they ended up diving deep into the kind of intense conversations that only scholars relish. That’s when I knew that MSR was the place for them.

Microsoft Research is so lucky that Nancy, Kate, and Mary are coming to MSR. And I’m super lucky that I’m going to have three more awesome colleagues. ::bounce::

Social Science PhD Internships at Microsoft Research New England (Spring & Summer 2012)

Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for PhD interns to join the social media collective for Spring and Summer 2012. For these positions, we are looking primarily for social science PhD students (including communications, sociology, anthropology, media studies, information studies, etc.). The Social Media Collective is a collection of scholars at MSRNE who focus on socio-technical questions, primarily from a social science perspective. We are not an applied program; rather, we work on critical research questions that are important to the future of social science scholarship.

MSRNE internships are 12-week paid internships in Cambridge, Massachusetts. PhD interns at MSRNE are expected to devise and execute a research project during their internships. The expected outcome of an internship at MSRNE is a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference of the intern’s choosing. The goal of the internship is to help the intern advance their own career; interns are strongly encouraged to work towards a publication outcome that will help them on the academic job market. Interns are also expected to collaborate with full-time researchers and visitors, give short presentations, and contribute to the life of the community. While this is not an applied program, MSRNE encourages interdisciplinary collaboration with computer scientists, economists, and mathematicians. There are also opportunities to engage with product groups at Microsoft, although this is not a requirement.

Topics that are currently of interest to the social media collective include: privacy & publicity, internet public policy research, online safety (from sexting to bullying to gang activities), technology and human trafficking, transparency & surveillance, conspicuous consumption & brand culture, piracy, news & information flow, and locative media. That said, we are open to other interesting topics, particularly those that may have significant societal impact. While most of the researchers in the collective are ethnographers, we welcome social scientists of all methodological persuasions.

Applicants should have advanced to candidacy in their PhD program or be close to advancing to candidacy. (Unfortunately, there are no opportunities for Master’s students at this time.) While this internship opportunity is not strictly limited to social scientists, preference will be given to social scientists and humanists making socio-technical inquiries. (Note: While other branches of Microsoft Research focus primarily on traditional computer science research, this group does no development-driven research and is not looking for people who are focused solely on building systems at this time. We welcome social scientists with technical skills and strongly encourage social scientists to collaborate with computer scientists at MSRNE.) Preference will be given to intern candidates who work to make public and/or policy interventions with their research. Interns will benefit most from this opportunity if there are natural opportunities for collaboration with other researchers or visitors currently working at MSRNE.

Applicants from universities outside of the United States are welcome to apply.


The Social Media Collective is organized by Senior Researcher danah boyd (http://www.danah.org) and includes Postdoctoral Researchers Mike Ananny (http://www.stanford.edu/~mja/), Alice Marwick (http://www.tiara.org/), and Andrés Monroy-Hernández (http://www.mit.edu/~amonroy/). Spring faculty visitors will include T.L. Taylor (IT University of Copenhangen) and Eszter Hargittai (Northwestern University). Summer visitors are TBD.

Previous interns in the collective have included Amelia Abreu (UWashington information), Scott Golder (Cornell sociology), Germaine Halegoua (U. Wisconsin, communications) Jessica Lingel (Rutgers library & info science), Laura Noren (NYU sociology), Omar Wasow (Harvard African-American studies), and Sarita Yardi (GeorgiaTech HCI). Previous and current faculty MSR visitors to the collective include: Alessandro Acquisti, Beth Coleman, Bernie Hogan, Christian Sandvig, Helen Nissenbaum, James Grimmelmann, Judith Donath, Jeff Hancock, Kate Crawford, Karrie Karahalios, Lisa Nakamura, Mary Gray, Nalini Kotamraju, Nancy Baym, Nicole Ellison, and Tarleton Gillespie.

If you are curious to know more about MSRNE, I suspect that many of these people would be happy to tell you about their experiences here. Previous interns are especially knowledgeable about how this process works.


To apply for a PhD internship with the social media collective:

1. Fill out the online application form: https://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/jobs/intern.aspx Make sure to indicate that you prefer Microsoft Research New England and “social media” or “social computing.” You will need to list two recommenders through this form. Make sure your recommenders respond to the request for letters.

2. Send an email to msrnejob -at- microsoft-dot-com with the subject “SMC PhD Intern Application: ” that includes the following four things:
a. A brief description of your dissertation project.
b. An academic article you have written (published or unpublished) that shows your writing skills.
c. A copy of your CV
d. A pointer to your website or other online presence (if available).
e. A short description of 1-3 projects that you might imagine doing as an intern at MSRNE.

We will begin considering internship applications on January 10 and consider applications until all social media internship positions are filled.


“The internship at Microsoft Research was all of the things I wanted it to be – personally productive, intellectually rich, quiet enough to focus, noisy enough to avoid complete hermit-like cave dwelling behavior, and full of opportunities to begin ongoing professional relationships with other scholars who I might not have run into elsewhere.”
— Laura Noren, Sociology, New York University

“If I could design my own graduate school experience, it would feel a lot like my summer at Microsoft Research. I had the chance to undertake a project that I’d wanted to do for a long time, surrounded by really supportive and engaging thinkers who could provide guidance on things to read and concepts to consider, but who could also provoke interesting questions on the ethics of ethnographic work or the complexities of building an identity as a social sciences researcher. Overall, it was a terrific experience for me as a researcher as well as a thinker.”
— Jessica Lingel, Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

“Spending the summer as an intern at MSR was an extremely rewarding learning experience. Having the opportunity to develop and work on your own projects as well as collaborate and workshop ideas with prestigious and extremely talented researchers was invaluable. It was amazing how all of the members of the Social Media Collective came together to create this motivating environment that was open, supportive, and collaborative. Being able to observe how renowned researchers streamline ideas, develop projects, conduct research, and manage the writing process was a uniquely helpful experience – and not only being able to observe and ask questions, but to contribute to some of these stages was amazing and unexpected.”
— Germaine Halegoua, Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison

“The summer I spent at Microsoft Research was one of the highlights of my time in grad school. It helped me expand my research in new directions and connect with world-class scholars. As someone with a technical bent, this internship was an amazing opportunity to meet and learn from really smart humanities and social science researchers. Finally, Microsoft Research as an organization has the best of both worlds: the academic freedom and intellectual stimulation of a university with the perks of industry.”
— Andrés Monroy-Hernández, Media, Arts and Sciences, MIT

Seeking: Technical Research Assistant for Adhoc Tasks at MSR

This position has been filled.

Microsoft Research New England is seeking an undergraduate research assistant to help out with assorted tasks for 10-20 hours/week to assist Dr. danah boyd, a social media researcher who investigates youth engagement with various genres of new media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Xanga, etc.).

An RA who would enjoy this job would be technically proficient, a quick technical learner, able to change direction when something comes up, and curious to learn more about technology studies research. Projects might include tracking web content related to ongoing research projects, organizing research bibliographies, writing simple scripts to parse online data, managing mailing lists and blogs, etc.

The ideal candidate will have basic scripting skills and be familiar with Web2.0 technologies to find innovative solutions to various challenges. The ideal RA would be comfortable navigating both Microsoft Server and UNIX-based systems. Some tasks require familiarity with HTML, CSS, Javascript, SQL incarnations, Movable Type, etc. or the ability to quickly learn these languages/platforms. Others would require the candidate to find 3rd party software that could help address the challenge. In short, this position is meant for someone who is a webgeek.

The RA would be required to do most work from the Microsoft Research office in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA but some tasks can be completed remotely. An undergraduate at a nearby university would be most appropriate for this position, although non-student locals may be considered. The position will be managed through contingent staff agency for Microsoft Research and will pay $15-$20/hour.

To apply, please send a copy of your resume and a cover letter to Paul Oka (poka@mit.edu) and CC danah boyd. Feel free to contact Paul with any questions you might have.

(See also: hiring Research Assistant/Intern for Online Safety Literature Review)

This position has been filled.