SMC is looking for a postdoc. Apply now!

APPLICATION DEADLINE: December 1, 2020

The Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research New England (MSRNE) is looking for a two-year social media postdoctoral researcher. This position is an ideal opportunity for a scholar whose work draws on communication, media studies, anthropology, sociology, and/or science & technology studies to bring empirical and critical perspectives to bear on complex socio-technical issues. We also consider applications from candidates that might bridge SMC with one or more areas of the MSRNE lab, including machine learning and statistics, economics and computational economics, theoretical mathematics, and computational biology.

Postdoctoral researchers receive a competitive salary and benefits package, and are eligible for relocation expenses. Postdoctoral researchers are hired for a two-year term appointment following the academic calendar, starting in July 2021. The position is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Social Media Collective is comprised of full-time researchers, postdocs, visiting faculty, Ph.D. interns, and research assistants. Current projects in New England include:

– How do people build social capital with each other in remote and hybrid work, and how do those processes facilitate or harm inclusion? (Nancy Baym)

– How do social media platforms, through algorithmic design and content policies, serve as custodians of public discourse? (Tarleton Gillespie)

– What are the cultural, political, and ethical implications of on-demand platform economies as new forms and sites of semi-automated, globally-distributed digital labor? (Mary L. Gray)

– how do discourses and designs of ideal social media habits function within apparatuses of platform capitalism? (Niall Docherty)

SMC postdocs may also have the opportunity to visit and collaborate with researchers in our sister labs in New York City and Montreal.

Microsoft Research provides a vibrant multidisciplinary research environment, with an open publication policy and close links to top academic institutions around the world. The postdoctoral research positions offer emerging scholars an opportunity to develop their research career and to interact with some of the top minds in the research community.


Qualifications

Required Qualifications:

  • PhD in anthropology, communications, media studies, sociology, science & technology studies, or a related field. 
  • A research program demonstrated by journal and conference publications.

Preferred Qualifications:

  • A strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation.
  • Strong communication skills.
  • The ability to work in a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary environment.
  • Demonstrated leadership potential in research.

Responsibilities

Postdoctoral researchers define their own research agenda. Postdocs are expected to be lively contributors to discussions in the SMC research group, and the MSR New England lab.

The ideal candidate may be trained in any number of disciplines, but should have a strong social scientific or humanistic methodological, analytical, and theoretical foundation, be interested in questions related to technology or the internet and society or culture, and be interested in working in a highly interdisciplinary environment that also includes computer scientists, mathematicians, and economists.


Application process

Submit an online application here. [11/18/20 – updated link]

To get started with your application, press the “Apply now” button. When prompted, upload your CV and provide names and contact information of three referees; one of your letter writers must be your dissertation advisor.

In addition, you must upload the following 3 documents, as attachments, to your online application:

1. a single research statement (4 page maximum length) that does the following:

  • outlines the questions and methodologies central to your research agenda (~ two pages);
  • offers a description of how your research agenda relates to research conducted by the Social Media Collective (~ one page);
  • provides an abstract and chapter outline of your dissertation (~ one page)

2+3. two writing samples: journal articles, book chapters, or equivalent (uploaded as two separate attachments).

Remember to press the “Submit” button at the last screen.

Requests for recommendation letters will be automatically sent to your list of referees on your behalf. NOTE: THE APPLICATION SYSTEM WILL NOT REQUEST REFERENCE LETTERS UNTIL AFTER YOU HAVE SUBMITTED YOUR APPLICATION! We recommend that you warn your letter writers in advance, so they will have their letters ready to submit as soon as they receive the prompt. The email they receive will tell them they have two weeks to respond, but consideration of application begins very quickly after the deadline – so submitting early will give them adequate time to get their letters to us. Please make sure to check back with your referees to ensure they received the request for letters of recommendation and that they sent them. You can also check the progress on individual reference requests at any time by clicking the “status” tab within your application page.

To be assured of full consideration, all of your materials need to be submitted by December 1, 2020. For more information, see here.If you have any questions about the application process, you can contact Tarleton Gillespie at tarleton@microsoft.com and please include “SMC postdoc” in the subject line.

Microsoft is an equal opportunity employer. All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to age, ancestry, color, family or medical care leave, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, medical condition, national origin, physical or mental disability, political affiliation, protected veteran status, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, or any other characteristic protected by applicable laws, regulations, and ordinances. We also consider qualified applicants regardless of criminal histories, consistent with legal requirements.

If you need assistance and/or a reasonable accommodation due to a disability during the application or the recruiting process, please send a request via the Accommodation request form.

More than tools: who is responsible for the social dilemma?

The Social Dilemma has been causing a stir, somewhat ironically, on social media lately. While the film’s topic is timely, and explored with applaudable intentions, its subject matter is mishandled. For all of its values, and all of its flaws, the film’s diagnosis of social media is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of technology. Its recommended path to recovery, as a result, leads to a dead-end. Until we think of technology not as a tool but as a set of relations, we will never truly grasp the problems with which The Social Dilemma is concerned.

Jim Dine, 1973, "No Title"
Jim Dine, 1973, “No Title”

This feature length documentary turns primarily to tech industry insiders, as well as a few computer scientists, economists, and social psychologists, to spell out the dangers, which appear to be many, of our current entwinement with social media platforms today.

Glitzy infographics correlate the advent of social media with increased anxiety, depression, and self-harm in US teenagers – supposedly because platforms so easily allow us to compare ourselves to one another online. Sliding scales represent how the algorithmic filtering of information on social media increases political polarization – by only presenting self-reinforcing information to users, so it goes, social media are damaging to rational deliberation. And, in a rather confusing turn, human actors personify the technological nudges of the social media user interfaces – showing how our actions, and our very thoughts, are shaped by persuasive computer design.

The Social Dilemma argues that social media platforms are designed to manipulate us, capturing our attention for their economic gain. The longer we interact with platforms, the more data we produce, the more accurate a prediction of our behaviours can be established. These user profiles can then be sold individually or as part of demographics to marketers and advertisers wishing to reach specific audiences online.

To guard against such dangers, the documentary implores viewers to “take back control” of their lives online. A little self-discipline in how we use social media can help – limit your time spent scrolling? Turn off your push-notifications? Perhaps don’t stalk your ex’s new life, zombie-like, right before bed? However, while such actions are a start, the film’s experts argue, full control can only be achieved through complete disconnection from social media altogether.

Notwithstanding the validity of the “evidence” the documentary mobilises to justify its claims, or its tendency to trust those in the tech industry to know how to mend what they themselves have wrought, The Social Dilemma actually reveals a bigger issue at the core of our relationship with social media – one that individual, behavioural changes alone won’t fix. In our debates surrounding the impacts, potentials and perceivable “dangers” of social media today, we continue to rely upon an out-dated and redundant “tool-view” of technology.

To anyone who has paid even the scantest notice of the news in recent years, the negative effects of social media and the attention economy– in personal, political, and social spheres, are easily grasped. But the way The Social Dilemma makes its case for “manipulation” is flawed, obscuring the real, and much more profound, stakes of our deal with social media today.

To be “manipulated” suggests that users are being diverted from a course of action they would otherwise have taken. This implies a pre-existing individual, already happily furnished with their own desires, and with full capacity to enact them as they please. Social media, in this framework, is the diverting, deceiving technology that takes individuals away from their “true” interests. By falling prey to the nudges of social media, and giving in completely to what they are predicted to want, users are stopped from acting wilfully, as they otherwise would.

Yet when have human beings ever been fully and perfectly in control of the technologies around them? Is it not rather the case that technologies, far from being separate from human will, are intrinsically involved in its activation?

French philosopher Bruno Latour famously uses the example of the gun to advance this idea, which he calls mediation. We are all aware of the platitude, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. In its logic, the gun is simply a tool that allows the person, as the primary agent, to kill another. The gun exists only as an object, through which the person’s desire of killing flows. For Latour, this view is deeply misleading.

Instead, Latour draws our attention to the way the gun, in translating a human desire for killing into action, materializes that desire in the world: “you are a different person with the gun in your hand”[1], and the gun, by being in your hand, is different than if it were left snuggly in its rack. Only when the human intention and the capacities of the gun are brought together can a shooting, as an observably autonomous action, actually take place. It is impossible to neatly distinguish the primary agents of the scene. Responsibility of the shooting, which can only occur through the combination of human and gun, and by proxy, those who produced and provided it, is thus shared.

With this in mind, we must question how useful it is to think about social media in terms of manipulation and control. Social media, far from being a malicious yet inanimate object (like a weapon) is something more profound and complex: a generator of human will. Our interactions on social media platforms, our likes, our shares, our comments, are not raw resources to be mined – they simply could not have occurred without their technical mediation. Neither are they mere expressions of our autonomy, or, conversely, manipulation: the user does not, and cannot, act alone.

Instead, with this idea of mediation, neither human individuals, nor the manipulative design of platforms, seductive they may be, can be the sole causes of the psychological and political harm of social media. Rather, it is the coming together of human users and user-interfaces, in specific historical settings, that co-produce the activity that occurs upon them. We, as users, as much as the technology itself, therefore, share responsibility for the issues that rage online today.

However, we are not responsible in the terms of control that the talking heads of The Social Dilemma argue for. This is certainly not to side-step the culpability of those (overwhelmingly white, male Californians) who own, design, and release social media technologies. Understanding who profits from social media, and the normative cultural worldviews they peddle, is crucial. Rather, in recognising the complexity of this “socio-technical” relationship – between designers, users, interfaces, and algorithms – we can move beyond the unhelpful binary of cause and effect. A move away from deterministic thinking would widen our view, to consider the problems raised in The Social Dilemma in a more nuanced way.

For example, rather than seeing the ostensible crisis in mental health faced by teenagers as caused by social media self-comparison, we can investigate how other socio-political factors –  gender, race, and class inequities for instance, material conditions, as well as actual governmental policy decisions, entangle with social media to contribute to our feelings of individual and collective wellbeing. As opposed to considering social media filter bubbles and echo chambers as causing political polarization (as if it were merely a matter of access to the right information), we can instead ask in what ways our fractured political climate actually reflects the systemic failures of neoliberal ideology, lasting institutional racism, and patriarchal nation-statehood.

If we are to pursue these more complex, more progressive, discussions, it is necessary to re-frame social media as something more than a mere “tool”. Rather than simply leave it to former tech industry insiders to spell out the ills of social media in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, we must engage with thinkers from a diverse range of backgrounds to look to the historical conditions of social media’s origins, while always questioning the economics and cultural politics of its global dissemination.  We must personally examine how our own thoughts and actions are subtly shaped by social media’s design, while taking time to listen to marginalized individuals and communities who are impacted the most by the violence produced through social media today. And by seeing technology as a relation, by sharing responsibility in this way, we lift the burden of fixing the problem from the individual user alone, and discard the moralizing discourses such a burden brings.


[1] Latour, B. (1994) On Technical Mediation Common Knowledge Fall Vol.3, no 2. Pp. 32-33