Some highlights from the Microsoft Research Social Computing Symposium

After weeks of unseasonable temperatures, western MA finally got some snow yesterday morning, just enough to make me miss my train to New York City. So I was late for Microsoft’s Social Computing Symposium at ITP at NYU, missing my friend Dina Mehta’s talk. So I’ve been thwarted in my ambitions of blogging all the conversations taking place here, and I’ll instead offer some snippets of talks I caught.


Jenna Burrell studies cybercafes in west Africa, particularly in Ghana. So she was very interested when a wave of stories about “the dark side of the information age” reported on corrupt recyclers selling containers of used computers to unscrupulous dealers in Ghana and Nigeria, who dumped the machines into local waste facilities, causing serious environmental harm.

This didn’t read quite right to her, as she’s been studying “the career of the obsolete computer in Ghana”. The computers in most Ghanaian cybercafes are reused computers, Pentium 3 or 4 series. They frequently come with property tags – she shows us a CRT monitor with tags identifying it as the property of the US Environmental Protection Agency. While there’s probably a fascinating story about how that monitor made it from the EPA to an Accra cybercafe, she makes the point that it’s a working monitor – it’s been reused, not recycled. It’s not in a dump, it’s in active use.

There’s not a direct channel from the port to the dump site, she suggests. Second hand computers work their way through the economy. The best used computer dealers identify lots of machines with the same configuration and appearance so they can sell higher quality, tested goods to businesses and cybercafes. Other dealers work on the lower end, selling individual, unmatched computers. The machines that don’t work at all are sold to scrap metal dealers, mostly members of the Dagomba tribe, a northern tribe that tends to be economically disadvantaged in Accra.

Do computers end up in the dump? Yes. But it’s not as simple as the dumping of ewaste in Ghana, where waste is being inflicted on poor people. It’s people’s desire for computers, a legitimate desire, that creates a complex commercial ecosystem.


Samantha Doerr helps us understand what the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit does. The answer: they take down botnets, and they spend a lot of time fighting child sexual exploitation.

In the time before the internet, she tells us, child porn was not very common. You might be a creep, but it’s very hard to find other creeps to share pictures with. While she’s careful not to condemn the Internet, Doerr notes that child porn is getting much more common, as well as more extreme and violent. A man was recently arrested in Seattle for posession of more than a million sexual images of children. It’s becoming more common to find images of infants of toddlers… because they can’t tell anyone about the abuse they’re experiencing.

Doerr’s strategy is to make it more difficult to share child porn. Her chief weapon is Microsoft’s Photo DNA technology. Photo DNA creates a hash of an image that can match other images even when the format changes or the image is being resized. Her team has identified some of the worst child porn images, ones where the children exploited have been identified, are confirmed as being under 13 and are being abused. Microsoft now checks these hash signatures against photos uploaded to Skydrive, indexed on Bing or transmitted by Hotmail, and Facebook is announcing adoption of the same possibility/

Doerr wonders whether we can win against child pornography. Microsoft recognizes the complexity of the challenge, and has just issued an RFP for research on the topic. Her goal is to change the dynamics of the equation. Child trafficking is on the rise because it’s currently more economical than selling drugs – if we can make child exploitation more difficult and less profitable, that would be a win.


Del Harvey has built the safety team at Twitter, working since 2008 to eliminate spam and other forms of abuse from the service, while trying to respect user needs. Working on the front lines of the service, she has a unique perspective on “unintended usage and unexpected consequences”, or as she puts it, “users do the darndest things”.

Many of the behaviors we associate with twitter – retweeting, hashtags, @reply messages – were not created by Twitter’s programmers, but were emergent behaviors created by Twitter users. When users start doing something novel on Twitter, it’s her job to look closely at the new behavior and ask, “Should you be doing that? How are you doing that?”

Where this job gets truly tricky is when users engage in behavior likely to get them suspended by Twitter’s automated algorithms. If you message someone multiple times, are you engaging with the, or harassing them? It might be one thing if someone messages you a dozen times, and another if they message a celebrity a dozen times – a form of showing their devotion and fandom. Some people send themselves multiple @replies, using Twitter as a form of bookmarking.

The easiest way to eliminate spam is to identify spammy URLs and block people who retweet them. But this works very badly when people retweet spam and add snarky comments to it. “Nothing pisses off a user as much as complaining about spam and suspending them for spamming”

Why do some users take all the trending topics and put them into sentences? Del isn’t sure, but it’s become a pretty popular practice, and it makes it unwise to block people who simply use lots of TTs in a post. Sometimes her team is able to anticipate behaviors – it seemed likely that people would try to report users as spammers to silence them. (Twitter has systems in place that makes this unlikely to be effective.) But what do you do with users telling Twitter to report their accounts as spammers, a behavior that’s unexpected and inexplicable.

Del’s talk gets a lot of laughs of the “users do the darnedest things” variety, but there’s a serious message. Her job, as she thinks of it, is to “try to figure out when users are experiencing unintended negative consequences” and mediate the consequences.


In an Ignite talk, Alex Leavitt offers a great example of the ways in which media is moving from individual platforms to existing in ecosystems. He introduces us to Hatsume Miku, an open source fandom and culture based around a vocal synthesizer program. The character of Hatsume Miku is a teal-haired anime popstar, whose songs are written by an army of fans who record her music, build complex music videos for her, and throw concerts in the physical world featuring the best of those videos. It’s hard to understand the sheer scale of the phenomenon – Leavitt notes that Hatsume Miku just appeared in Japanese Playboy, both in drawn form and as the photographs of a leading live action Hatsume Miku cosplayer.

The video system, built around a program called Miku Miku Dance, is one of the most stunning aspects of the phenomenon – Leavitt tells us it’s the #1 3D software package in Japan. Point a camera at you and your friends and you’re converted into Anime characters which move their mouths and limbs in sync with your actions.

The ecosystem exists through an integrated commenting and attribution system that allows people to publish on appropriate platforms, like YouTube, while ensuring followers of the community know about the individual publications.


Always the provocateur, Clay Shirky is predicting the demise of another industry: street level retail. His argument begins by noting the similarity of streetscapes in New York City, a repeating loop of drug stores, mobile phone shops and banks. As higher end businesses move to selling primarily on the web, lower-margin businesses move into retail space, a process that can’t continue forever.

Shirky suggests that New York made two major errors in repurposing urban space. The first was in insisting that loft space, used to manufacture products like belt buckles, must continue to be zoned industrial, just in case the belt buckle industry returned to the city. It took thirty years, he notes, before New York loosened those restrictions and let first artists, then ordinary people live in loft space. The second transformation has been the disappearance of the working waterfront. For years, New York was a center of global shipping. But in the container age, that shipping has moved far south of the city, and New York took a long time to realize that infrastructure dedicated to shipping needs to be repurposed into waterfront open and green space.

If street level retail is dying (and here, I assume, Clay will write something at length making a compelling case for this, as his 5 minute version is pretty hasty), will we react quickly enough to fill the spaces? Clay remembers purchasing comics at his local comic shop. It wasn’t a great retail experience – the selection was small – but it was a great community experience, an opportunity to gather with other similarly oriented nerds. Can cities like New York figure out how to transform street level retail into street level community space?


Mimi Ito wants help solving the problems of education. She notes that there’s a 50% high school dropout rate for black and latino youth, and reminds us that this isn’t okay – it’s creating problems of social stratification and inequality that we’ll be facing for years.

The sort of folks in this meeting are the educational 1%. We are learning elites who know how to mobilize the internet and develop professional identities. To help students engage with education, we need to help them develop the same sort of skills we rely on.

Ito has been interviewing people who learn by exploring passions online. She tells us of a webcomics creator, who while he attended college, taught himself what he knew about creating comics from his online encounters. He discovered the medium online, developing a passion, and began learning to create by following tutorials and how-tos online. In the process, he connected with a community of the likeminded and passionate. Ito calls this “connected learning”, learning in which embracing your passions allows you to connect with others and learn with them.

The Internet has lowered barriers to acquiring knowledge and expertise, but kids often have not deciphered the puzzle. We need to build better platforms that connect people around interests. Ito suggests that while Facebook connects you with the people you went to school with and Twitter with the folks you wish you went to school with, we need infrastructure that connects you with the people you want to learn from or want to teach.


Andrés Monroy Hernandéz studies the use of social media in conflict situation. He’s especially focused on narcoviolence in his native Mexico, and notes that in the country, he’s seen increasing adoption of social media aligned with an increase in stressful situations. In cities like Monterrey, not only is drug violence an everday occurance that impacts bystanders, it’s a force so powerful, it’s driven traditional media away. Reporters will not cover drug violence for fear of being killed or kidnapped. As a result, people are using Twitter and Facebook to create immediate alerts of violence in specific cities and neighborhoods.

This means that when you leave your house for work in Monterrey, you check a twitter tag like #mtyfollow to ensure that there’s not an active “balacera” – shooting – on the path you plan to take. Hernandéz has collected 300,000 #mtyfollow tweets and shows us a quick overview – the language is a language of violence and warnings. It’s centered on a very few people who consistently tweet about breaking news and others who amplify the stories.

Those using social media to report narcoviolence in Monterrey face at least two enemies. The government is worried about control over information and recently jailed two Twitter users for allegedly spreading misinformation. The cartels themselves are killing people who are using social media to document their actions – he shows us a banner hung next to the head of a Twitter reporter, warning others not to use social media to track drug violence. Citizen responses are not totally impotent in the face of these attacks – a group called CIC is using Ushahidi to collect and track tweets, offering a graphical map of violence in the city and a portrait of life during wartime.


Vastly more good stuff that I was able to cover in one post. Looking forward to today’s talks (right after the one I give this morning…!)

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