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Microsoft research tackles teen social networking

New research lab in Cambridge, Mass., brings together experts in computer and social sciences

September 23, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Microsoft Corp. is throwing computer scientists and physicists together with economists and psychologists in its new East Coast research facility.

On Monday, the software giant opened the doors to Microsoft Research New England in Cambridge, Mass., hoping to take advantage of brain trusts like nearby MIT, Boston University and Harvard. This is Microsoft's sixth research lab and the first on the east coast of the United States.

"All the stars aligned on this," Jennifer Chayes, managing director of the lab, told Computerworld. "I think it is really the time to bring together the harder sciences -- the algorithmic and mathematical science part of computer science and physics -- together with the social sciences, like economics and psychology. There are so many potential applications with those areas. The algorithm people have been going off on their own, and the social sciences people have had a lot of insights, but it hasn't been so integrated."

Chayes said she's hoping that this new facility will be something of an incubator, giving the different researchers and scientists a place to mingle and see where their research paths might converge. At this point, the facility has a team of 33 researchers, students and interns. She noted that she has brought together people from MIT, Harvard, Stanford University and Hebrew University.

One of the people that Chayes brought to the new research center is Danah Boyd, who Chayes describes as an ethnographer. Boyd is known as one of the world's experts on the behavior of U.S. adolescents on the Web. Chayes noted that Boyd has interviewed thousands of adolescents and has spoken at the last three world economic forums.

"Here we can come up with math models that account for her observations about the way social networks are layered, and that there are different kinds of friendships," said Chayes. "You have friends from high school who you haven't seen. You have colleagues on there and family on there. It's all these different networks. We need a way to handle them differently, model them differently."

Chayes also noted that the size of someone's list of social networking "friends" shrinks as they grow older. She explained that with teenagers, much of their social status depends on the sheer number of their connections. As you get older, you gain more status or fulfillment by your achievements and not just your list of e-mail addresses.

Researchers aren't necessarily building a new social networking site for Microsoft, according to Chayes. Instead, she said, they're doing fundamental research that Microsoft could use in a variety of situations someday.

Cambridge-based researchers will also be working on working rules of human behavior into cryptography models. They will also be looking into the economics of ad auctions, how to best process massive amounts of data and computer vision.

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