Monday, March 12, 2007

Sociology at Microsoft

Microsoft looking at how people interact on Internet ...

"Marc Smith, the senior research sociologist at Microsoft Research, believes that now is a good time to practice his trade. Thanks to the Internet, there is unprecedented access to sociological data. And thanks to computers, sociologists are better able to sift through that data, find trends, and test models.

At Microsoft, Smith uses public Internet data to look at the social phenomenon of online communities, and he tries to make them better for people and better for business. He recently gave a presentation regarding his work at Microsoft's TechFest in Redmond, WA, an annual event at which Microsoft researchers from around the world share their latest work. Technology Review caught up with Smith to ask him about the field of cybersociology.

Technology Review: What's your background, and why does it make you a good sociologist for Microsoft?

Marc Smith: I was trained in collective action dilemma theory--the study of how we all get along. I looked at all the problems and opportunities that occur when groups of people get together to get things done. It really appealed to me because I wondered what the Internet would do to human societies. If you look out on the Net, almost all of the interesting phenomena is the result of groups of people coming together: news groups, e-mail, blogs--people coming together to answer questions and to create software and huge collections of photography. But it doesn't always work. The question becomes, What makes some collective actions more successful than others?

TR: What sort of projects do you work on at Microsoft?

MS: It could be anything. What I've made it about is tool building and data analysis; the effort is largely around making better tools for seeing online communities. We've gathered a lot of public behavioral data from online communities and analyze it to find patterns that we can associate with interesting social-science phenomena and that are relevant to business."    (Continued via Technology Review)    [Usability Resources]

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