The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art

Does collaboration result in higher quality creative works than individuals working alone? Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art? Although these questions lie at the heart of conversations about collaborative production on the Internet and peer production, it can be hard to find research settings where you can compare across both individual and group work and across both code and art. We set out to tackle these questions in the context of a very large remixing community.

Remixing in Scratch
Example of a remix in the Scratch online community, and the project it is based off. The orange arrows indicate pieces which were present in the original and reused in the remix

Continue reading “The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art”

Microsoft Research, FUSE Labs Internship Opportunities

FUSE Labs at Microsoft Research is looking for interns for 2013. For these positions, we are looking primarily for graduate students from Computer Science, Information Science, Design, and other multidisciplinary fields with a focus on social computing and social media.

FUSE Labs is a research and development lab at Microsoft Research focused on the design, study, and development of socio-technical systems. We are interested in building systems and studying them critically. Our goals are to contribute to the academic community as well as to invent the next generation of social technologies. Some of the topics that are currently of interest for FUSE Labs are communities of interest, civic media, social computing, hyperlocal media, information visualization, big data, and machine learning applied to social data. That said, we are open to a diversity of methodologies.

Next year, we are planning to have a cohort of interns working collaboratively on a civic media project. The goal of the project is to have meaningful societal impact by developing new tools to empower citizens, such as tools to visualize, aggregate, and enable collaboration among citizens locally and around the world.

The internships are 12-week paid internships in Redmond, Washington. The expected outcome of the internship is a prototype and a publishable scholarly paper for an academic journal or conference such as CHI, CSCW, ICWSM, WWW, and USIT. Interns are expected to collaborate with researchers, interns, and other members of the lab, give short presentations, and contribute to the life of the community. The goals of the internship are to help the intern advance their own career, encourage interdisciplinary collaboration, and contribute to FUSE Labs’ research efforts. There are also opportunities to engage with product groups at Microsoft.

Preference will be given to intern candidates who are interested in public-facing research and have a track record of academic publishing and/or systems building. Interns will benefit most from this opportunity if there are natural opportunities for collaboration with other interns and researchers.

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

Application Process

  1. Fill out the online application form. Make sure to indicate that you prefer FUSE Labs 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 us an email with the subject “Intern Application” that includes the following four things:
    1. A brief description of your dissertation project.
    2. An article you have written (published or unpublished) that shows your writing skills and interest in this area.
    3. A copy of your CV
    4. A pointer to your website, portfolio, or other online presence (if available).
    5. A short description of 1-3 projects that you might imagine doing as an intern at FUSE Labs.

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

Previous Intern Testimonials

“My internship at Microsoft Research surpassed all of my expectations in the best way possible. I spent 12 weeks surrounded by motivated and curious students and researchers who were not only interested in helping me develop an interesting research project, but also interested in helping me develop as a researcher. Everyone I engaged with, from my mentor to team members to our group manager, spent time getting to know me and made me feel like a valued member of the MSR family. At FUSE Labs, I was able to contribute to a number of projects beyond my own intern project, all of which gave me valuable experience working with different types of groups within MSR (design, development). I left my internship with a deep respect for the research and researchers at Microsoft Research, as well as a number of new friends.” Behzod Sirjani, PhD student at the School of Communication at Northwestern University

“The summer I spent at Microsoft Research was one of the best grad school experiences I have undertaken: fun, challenging and rewarding. As someone with a computer science background with interests in big data and social media, this internship gave me an opportunity to explore the vast data sources that Microsoft Research maintains. More importantly, the experience with MSR helped me build connections with word-class scholars and fellow interns with different backgrounds. Overall, it was a terrific experience for me as a researcher as well as a thinker.” Yuheng Hu, PhD student of Computer Science at Arizona State University

FUSE Labs is an excellent place to experience the intersection of design, research, and social computing. I had the great opportunity to collaborate with a talented team who not only supported me in the development and refinement of my process and skills, but also willingly debated with me on the correct pronunciation of the word ‘gif.’ A Microsoft Research internship is the perfect balance: extremely beneficial and valuable with just a touch of nerdy!”
Sarah Hallacher, student at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, Tisch School of the Arts at NYU

Cross-posted at:

Panel discussion on the #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement – Sep 20, 5pm at the NERD Center

In collaboration with the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Microsoft Research New England is hosting a discussion about the #YoSoy132 activist movement. Open to the public.

What: #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement

When: Thursday September 20 at 5:00 PM

Where: Microsoft Conference Center (Barton Room) located at One Memorial Drive, First Floor, Cambridge, MA

Photo: (c) Omar Torres/AFP/Getty


The role of social media in movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street has been much discussed, and such “hashtagged” social movements continue to appear in multiple latitudes. The panelists will discuss the development of the #YoSoy132 movement, “I am 132” in English, an ongoing student-led activist group that fights for democracy and against media bias in an apparent attempt to impose the next president of Mexico during the recent 2012 general election. The movement embodies the collision between centralized traditional media and distributed social media, and reveals the limitations of social media in reaching beyond those who are already networked. The panelists include a member of the #YoSoy132 and researchers investigating networked social movements.


Sasha Costanza-Chock is a researcher and mediamaker who works on civic media, the political economy of communication, and collaborative design for media justice and communication rights. He is Assistant Professor of Civic Media at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, Co-PI of the Center for Civic Media, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Sasha has been a part of the Independent Media Center network, the Allied Media Conference, and VozMob, among other projects. For more info see Twitter: @schock

Antonio Attolini Murra is a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México majoring in political science and international relations and the spokesperson of his university’s Local Assembly in the student movement #YoSoy132. He has participated in several conferences about transnational organized crime and political reforms in Mexico. In 2011, he was elected Secretary General of his university’s Model of United Nations. He writes in his school’s newspaper, specialized publications, and online news portals such as Animal Político and ADN Político. Antonio is an avid social media user and blogs at Twitter: @antonioattolini

Mayo Fuster Morell does action research in the field of social movements (Global Justice Movement, Free Culture Movement, and recent mobilization wave of “Indignados” in Spain), online collaborative communities, and, public policies. Mayo  concluded her PhD at the European University Institute, and published a book on the influence of Free Culture Movement for the emergence of 15M/Indignados mobilization in Spain. She is currently a fellow at the Berkman center for Internet and Society, a researcher at the Institute of Government and Public Policies (Autonomous University of Barcelona), and a member of the Internet and policy steering committee of the European Council of Political Research. As part of her academic work, she is a promoter of Networked Politics collaborative action research, and the International Forum on Building Digital Commons. For more info see: Twitter: @Lilaroja

Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a social computing researcher at Microsoft Research and an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His research focuses on the design and study of social media systems that support collaboration for creative expression and civic engagement. His current research looks at the use of social media in crises, such as in the Mexican Drug War. Andrés’ work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and Wired. Andrés holds a PhD and a Masters from the MIT Media Lab, and a Bachelor’s from Tecnológico de Monterrey. For more info see: Twitter: @andresmh

Arrival Guidance

Upon arrival at One Memorial Drive, kindly approach the Lobby Floor Security Desk; identity yourself, show your picture ID and sign the Building Visitor Log.

Turn This into That: a Remixing Experiment

Two sides of social production: crowdsourcing and remixing

Networked technologies have facilitated two forms of social production: remixing and crowdsourcing. Remixing has been typically associated with creative, expressive, and unconstrained work such as the creation of video mashups or funny image macros that we often see on social media websites. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has been associated with large-scale mechanical work, like labeling images or transcribing audio, performed as microtasks on services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. So the stereotype is that remixing is playful, creative, expressive, but undirected and often chaotic, while crowdsourcing is useful to achieve actual work but it is monotonous, and requires (small) financial incentives.

Crowdsoucing Creativity: “Mixsourcing”

The space between remixing and crowdsourcing has partially been explored. For example, one could argue that Wikipedia exists in a unique space in between these two ideas as it relies on some, albeit small, degree of human creativity, requires no financial incentives, and leverages large numbers of contributors who are encouraged to tweak one another’s submissions. However, Wikipedia’s texts are mainly functional, purposely devoid of any personal expressiveness, and constrained by the task at hand.

On the more creative end of the spectrum, artists have explored the use of crowdsourcing, such as the Johnny Cash Project and the Sheep Market, and researchers have evaluated the uses of creative crowdsourcing for design. We wondered then, if there is a way to create a generic platform to perform creative and artistic work in a more directed, crowdsourcing-like way, some kind of “bounded creativity,” which we called “mixsourcing.”

The mixsourcing of a “Moonicorn”

We decided to play with this idea of mixsourcing through an exercise that involved giving people a creative, yet directed task. The exercise consisted first in creating a novel piece of content, an image, to serve as a creative seed and then ask specific people, using plain old e-mail, to turn it into something else, i.e., to remix it. The task was specifically crafted for each individual based on their interests, which we knew through pre-existing personal relationships with them.

The seed content used in this first exercise was an image, hand-drawn by one of the researchers, showing of a unicorn with a moon as a head. We sent the email to a group of friends, appealing to their social relationship as a group and with one of the researchers; each person was offered a task: an invitation to turn the “moonicorn” into something based on what we knew they were good at:

“Hello my dear friends! […] I’m writing to see if you can help me with my summer project […] I gave you all top secret assignments below. If you can help, it would mean so so so so so much to me. You don’t have to spend a ton of time on it. And I’ll throw a boozy thanks-you party next week when I’m in town. I couldn’t ask for a better lump of friends. Much love from the west coast.

This is my moonicorn:

Jables: please create a moonicorn cocktail recipe.

Celia: please create an iPhone video documenting the rare, nut-eating moonicorn, played by @Ian


Jables not only created his moonicorn cocktail, he also prepared one, took a picture of it, and emailed a make-believe recipe to accompany the beverage:

The Sanguine Moonicorn

6oz Fresh Moonicorn Blood.

1oz Pure Moonicorn Tears [hold for virgins]

Topped with Moonicorn Sweetbreads, Moonicorn Gonad, Moon Cheese, and an olive.

Cleansed by fire and served over ice, with a Moonicorn Jerky Moon Dagger.

Celia and Ian also completed their collaborative task and produced a short video. Similarly, we received remixes in the form of a fiction article, a felt toy, and a music mix. Here is a collage of all the remixes people produced:

The moonicorn experiment was quite successful, as more than half of the people actually completed their remix. A lot of them spent quite a bit of time on it and were very keen on narrating their creative process as much as they were in sharing their finished work.

Subsequently, we decided to recreate a similar exercise on a larger scale. This failed, however. We used a school mailing list and a group on Facebook, but both failed to attract many participants. The message in both cases did not include personalized tasks and the groups included many strangers. Hence, we hypothesized that there were three key attributes for the success of the first experiment:

  1. Pre-existing personal relationships.
  2. Well-crafted, personalized tasks directed at specific individuals, compared to the diffusion of responsibilities, well-described in the social psychology literature.
  3. Detailed tasks. The messages to broader group were to open putting a burden of choosing on the remixers.

Turn This Into That

Using the insights gained from the previous exercises, we began to envision a mixsourcing platform to enable people to create and participate in remixing exchanges like the moonicorn one.

We called the platform “Turn This Into That,” as it describes the system’s premise.

To convey the spirit of the social relationships that we thought were instrumental to the success of the first exercise, we decided to build the system on a postcard metaphor.

People can send postcards challenging one another to turn something into something else, and the responses themselves can also be thought of as postcards. Furthermore, given the interest people showed in talking about their process the submissions provide space and encouragement for people to address the whys and the hows of their challenges and their remixes. Also, the challenges are specific in terms of what the remix should be, a photo for example, yet it leaves the choice of what to do up to the remixer.

Practically speaking, we aimed for this platform to merely be the embodiment of a mechanism to provide creative sparks, playfulness, and interactions among people without actually having to deal with the complexities of creating tools or even repositories for the content itself. Our system would rely completely on the social media ecosystem for all that, and Turn This Into That would create the linkages.

Before implementing the actual system we built a semi-functional prototype, and we would like to invite you to use it and give us feedback.


Turn This into That is a project by FUSE Lab‘s intern Sarah Hallacher, in collaboration with Jenny Rodenhouse and Andrés Monroy-Hernández.

Cross-posted at FUSE Labs blog

The Problem with Crowdsourcing Crime Reporting

There has been some excitement about the idea of using technology to address the problems of the Mexican Drug War. As someone involved in technology, I find it inspiring that other techies are trying to do something to end the conflict. However, I also worry when I read ideas based on flawed assumptions. For example, the assumption that “good guys” just need a safe way to report the “bad guys” to the cops reduces the Mexican reality to a kid’s story, where lines are easily and neatly drawn.

So, here are a few reasons why building tools to enable citizens to report crime in Mexico is problematic and even dangerous.

  1. Anonymity does not depend only on encryption. Criminals do not need to rely on advanced crypto-techniques when information itself is enough to figure out who leaked it. Similar ideas are being discussed by researchers trying to figure out how to identiy future Wikileaks-like collaborators, something they call Fog Computing. The point is, the social dynamics around the Drug War in Mexico mean that people are exposed when they post something local. In an era of big data, it’s easy to piece things together, even if the source is encrypted. And, sadly, when terror is your business, getting it wrong doesn’t matter as much.
  2. Criminal organizations, law enforcement, and even citizens are not independent entities. Organized crime has co-opted individuals, from the highest levels of government down to average citizens working with them on the side– often referred to as “halcones.”
  3. Apprehensions do not lead to convictions. According to some data, “78% of crimes go unreported in Mexico, and less than 1% actually result in convictions.” Mexico is among those countries with the highest indices of impunity, even with high-profile cases such as the murder of journalists.  All this is partly because of high levels of corruption.
  4. Criminal organizations have already discovered how to manipulate law enforcement against their opponents–there is even a term for it: “calentar la plaza“– the sudden increase of extreme violence in locations controlled by the opposite group, with the sole purpose of catching the attention of the military, which eventually takes over, and weakens the enemy.

The failure of crowdsourcing became evident only a few weeks ago with a presidential election apparently plagued with irregularities. Citizens actively crowdsourced reports of electoral fraud and subsequently uploaded the evidence to YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. Regardless of whether those incidents would affect the final result of the election, the institutions in charge seem to have largely ignored the reports. One can only imagine what would happen with the report of highly profitable crimes like drug trafficking.

Crowdsourcing is not entirely flawed in the Mexican context, though. We have seen people in various Mexican cities organize organically to alert one another of violent events, in real time. But these urban crisis management networks do not need institutions to function. However, law enforcement does, unless one is willing to accept lynching and other types of crowd-based law enforcement.

In sum, as Damien Cave mentioned, what Mexico needs is institutions, and the people willing to change the culture of impunity. Technologies that support this kind of change would be more effective than those imagined with a “first world” mindset.

Thanks to danah boyd for helping me think through some of these ideas.

Socl Data Available… for Science!

The incredible growth and presence of social technologies in all aspects of life translates into large data sets that help researchers understand human behavior, social system design, and the development of digital culture. However, as John Markoff points out in a recent NYT article, most of these data are “forbidden to researchers.”

Among the reasons for this lock down are cost, privacy, and industrial secrecy. Indeed, it is difficult to put together and maintaining these data sets from social computing services in a way that complies with those services’ privacy policies, protects competitiveness, and does not drain strained resources.

Despite these challenges, there have been several efforts by different organizations to share data with researchers. For example, Reddit, StackExchange, Yelp, and Wikipedia, have put the time and effort to release data sets for the research community.

During the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit last week, FUSE Labs announced to the participants of the Social Media Workshop that it will be releasing log or instrumentation data from Socl, a website that lets people share their interests using search. Despite having been unveiled only a few months ago, Socl already has several hundred thousand users who have contributed a large number of aesthetically pleasing posts. We hope that access to this data will help researchers investigate the birth of an online community, and that it can also help the research community engage in a conversation about open data from social media systems.

If you have ideas on how to use Socl data for your research, please get in touch at

Is Anonymous vetting presidential candidates?

Anonymous Hispano's announcement on Twitter

Anonymous Hispano, the Spanish-speaking branch of the famous hacker collective, issued a statement a few weeks ago announcing that, despite their efforts, they “could not find any evidence of corruption” to incriminate the Mexican presidential candidate López Obrador. The group prefaced their message by clarifying that they “do not have any partisan agenda and do not support any one” of the candidates. The message ended with an invitation to followers to send evidence of corruption; a second tweet quickly followed, inviting the public to submit evidence of corruption of any candidate, suggesting specific hashtags for each of them.

The newspaper El Economista spoke with collective members and reported that Anonymous Hispano acknowledged having hacked into López’s financial accounts without finding any transactions that would indicate wrong-doing:

[T]the collective broke into the computer systems linked to payments or any kind of money transactions, or political influence, stored in the digital files of AMLO [the candidate’s initials] and his colleagues, and found nothing incriminating him, so the collective is still looking.

The statement received a fair amount of attention beyond the Twitter-sphere, reaching influential political blogsReddit, and mainstream news media.

Beyond the supposed lack of evidence against this particular politician, or whether Anonymous actually hacked into his accounts, there are a few aspects of this story that I find particularly interesting.

First, the coverage of Anonymous’s evidence-free statement might indicate a substantial amount of symbolic capital accumulated by this group. For example, they could have released evidence of their breaking into the candidate’s accounts; however, they confined themselves to a statement on Twitter. In the sciences, negative results are almost never reported, and more generally, the lack of evidence for something does not prove or disprove anything. So why did they get media coverage? One possible explanation is that Anonymous, after a long (by Internet standards) history of hacktivism, has accumulated the necessary credibility to pull this off. Do they have enough symbolic capital to achieve this in a country with stronger institutions? What would have happened if they had issued a similar statement about a US presidential candidate?

Second, an obvious question: why this candidate? One possible answer is that this could be a means to publicly vet and, in a way, endorse this candidate by using their tools at their disposal. It is hard to know if there a direct link between Anonymous Hispano and the rest of Anonymous, but it would be interesting to see if this signals a direct incursion on mainstream politics in the future.

Third, does this represent a move from public shaming to public endorsement? For the most part, Anonymous hacktivism has focused on public shaming by “doxing” government officials and corporations. I think this might be the first time Anonymous has changed their method, resembling a role more common to governmental transparency organizations. It was interesting that none of the reactions I read raised any questions about the ethics of hacking into politicians’ accounts.

One thing is clear to me: traditional institutions need to figure out how to grapple with Anonymous, or collectives inspired by them, as their presence and political power is only going to increase in the future.

Cross posted at Culture Digitally.
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Are Internet companies using us to fight against SOPA?

Like many of my colleagues I oppose to SOPA and PIPA. I have been a proponent of Free Culture for many years (which I know is funny to say next to the Microsoft logo) and I have studied young people’s perceptions of intellectual property because I find the topic fascinating and extremely important. However, there is a lingering thought that grew out of conversations with my friend Benjamin Mako Hill back when net neutrality was the debate du jour. Basically I can’t stop wondering if companies are just using us to fight these debates.

It seems to me that lot of these tech debates are fights between companies with opposing business models: in the case of Net Neutrality it is Internet companies vs telcos, in the case of SOPA/PIPA it is media companies vs Internet companies. However, both of these debates are often framed as it they were “the people” vs the evil companies and their lawmakers. I suspect that at some point the interests of the same Internet companies we are indirectly helping today will no longer be in the best interest of the rest of us. What will we do then? What will happen when it is oil companies asking for support against weapons companies? Will we always need to find opposing companies that can help us fight back? 

In Defense of Friction

1903 telephone operator (John McNab on Flickr)

There is no doubt that technology has made my life much easier. I rarely share the romantic view that things were better when human beings used to do the boring tasks that machines now do. For example, I do not think there is much to gain by bringing back the old telephone operators. However, there are reasons to believe social computing systems should not automate social interactions.

In his paper about online trust, Coye Cheshire points out how automated trust systems undermine trust itself by incentivizing cooperation because of the fear of punishment rather than actual trust among people. Cheshire argues that:

strong forms of online security and assurance can supplant, rather than enhance, trust.

Leading to what he calls the trust paradox:

assurance structures designed to make interpersonal trust possible in uncertain environments undermine the need for trust in the first place

My collaborators and I found something similar when trying to automate credit-giving in the context of a creative online community. We found that automatic attribution given by a computer system, does not replace the manual credit given by another human being. Attribution, turns out, is a useful piece of information given by a system, while credit given by a person, is a signal of appreciation, one that is expected and that cannot be automated.

Slippery when icy - problems with frictionless spaces (ntr23 on Flickr)

Similarly, others have noted how Facebook’s birthday reminders have “ruined birthdays” by “commoditizing” social interactions and people’s social skills. Furthermore, some have argued that “Facebook is ruining sharing” by making it frictionless.

In many scenarios, automation is quite useful, but with social interactions, removing friction can have a harmful effect on the social bonds established through friction itself. In other cases, as Shauna points out, “social networking sites are good for relationships so tenuous they couldn’t really bear any friction at all.”

I am not sure if sharing has indeed been ruined by Facebook, but perhaps this opens new opportunities for new online services that allow people to have “friction-full” interactions.

What kind of friction would you add to existing online social systems?