Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Social Computing at the Media Lab

Online Communities

As part of my research at the Media Lab, I have explored how the social and technical infrastructure of online communities contribute to their successes and failures. I am fascinated by the culture that emerges out of these online spaces. I have been doing this work in the Scratch Online Community, a website I developed with my colleagues in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, where close to one million children from around the world have created, shared, and remixed more than two million animations and video games.

More recently, I've started to study other online communities as well. This summer, as part of a Media Lab-CSAIL student collaboration, we published a study on the role of online anonymity and ephemerality in a large and controversial discussion board. Like many others, I've been intrigued by the intersection of social media and civic engagement. Recently I wrote a short piece that examines the use of social media in the continuing drug war in Mexico. The original blog post, titled Shouting Fire in a Crowded Hashtag was later republished on ReadWriteWeb, which attracted some interest. Here are some of the highlights.

Shouting Fire in a Crowded Hashtag

One of the many casualties of Mexico's continuing violence has been freedom of the press. The local media are caught in a battle between censorship and control from both drug cartels and local governments. Some newspapers, in order to stay safe, have officially announced a policy of self-censorship when it comes to reporting drug war-related news. Because the mainstream media can no longer fulfill its role of informing citizens, people have turned to social media. Last year I started to collect tweets related to the Mexican violence. I decided to do some simple word-count analysis in one of the data sets, and found how people follow a hashtag or keyword to report warnings and request confirmation from others about shootings in various parts of the cities affected by the violence. In several cities, these hashtags have emerged as a shared news resource where many people contribute what they see and hear to help one another. I also found how a handful of often anonymous people have become reliable information hubs that send and receive thousands of messages from other citizens. Twitter has now become one of the primary sources of citizen-driven news in Mexico. Many people don't leave work or home before checking Twitter to know which areas to avoid. Having this information can actually save people's lives.

While I was doing this analysis, rumors broke out on Twitter among users in the Mexican city of Veracruz: children were being kidnapped by one of the drug cartels. The governor dismissed the rumors on his Twitter account, but by then the city had already turned into chaos. Parents in panic left work to get their children from school, causing massive traffic jams, and there was generalized panic. It is still unclear what actually happened that day, but the official version is that the rumor was completely false. The government filed terrorism charges against 16 of the Twitter users that spread the rumor. Three of them are now in jail facing sentences of up to 30 years. The Mexican Twittersphere and organizations like Amnesty International have voiced concerns on the excessive use of power.

Where does the Media Lab fit in all this?

I think this particular case of the role of social media in the Mexican drug war emphasizes some of the many challenges and promises of social technologies. As these social computing systems permeate most spheres of life–from education, to civic engagement, to entertainment, to science–the role of technology designers goes beyond any traditional discipline. This is why I think the Media Lab is in a privileged position to have a big impact in this area. Beginning with the work of Judith Donath in the 1990s, the Lab already has a long history of research in this area.

As my time at the Lab is coming to an end, I am excited to see people like César Hidalgo, Sep Kamvar, and Ethan Zuckerman join the faculty and continue this work by approaching this complex and exciting research area with interesting and different perspectives. This work requires a diversity of approaches, from building systems to studying them and their social impact. I look forward to seeing where this work goes over the next few years.

Andrés Monroy-Hernández is finishing his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. You can follow him on Twitter.

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