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Mary L. Gray

March 27, 2012

How social media shapes our lives

At the end of 2010, only 30 percent of the world’s population had Internet access, according to a report by the International Telecommunication Union. This seems a strange statistic to those of us who have ubiquitous Internet access, who may decline to stay in a particular hotel or eat at a certain restaurant because we won’t have wireless. Being connected technologically has become the essence of 21st-century life.

But Mary L. Gray knows better. A professor of communication and culture and now the newest Senior Researcher at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based lab Microsoft Research New England, Gray’s work caught the attention of Microsoft Research because she studies people on the margins of information access. Specifically, she studies mobile and digital media and how it helps those who feel stuck in a particular location access public space. Gray asks questions about how location and time still seem to matter even as we have reached an era where we seem to move around with more and more ease.

Gray’s work considers people all over the world: People from the Central Mongolian plateau live in the least computer accessible place in the world; Indonesian youth who use Foursquare to check into places that they can’t possibly access (called jumping); and gay youth from rural America, who use technology to connect to each other. Gray’s focus on worldwide access is very pertinent to Microsoft’s research team.

“In some communities, one person may have an Internet-enabled cell phone, and it is treated like pay phones used to be treated. Everyone may have internet access via that one phone, but that’s a very different way to think about both information access and the technologies needed to provide ‘public’ access’ to it,” Gray says.

Gray is especially interested in how issues of access and mobility affect people in the United States. She researches how the Internet and social media transform the lives of populations of youth that tend to be depicted as “stuck,” such as gay youth in rural areas. She looks at how the “it gets better” YouTube phenomenon was, in some ways, better equipped to help disenfranchised youth than traditional brick-and-mortar nonprofit advocacy groups. “What does it mean, to live in a world designed for mobility if you feel stuck?” Gray asks.

Gray came to IU Bloomington in 2004 after completing her Ph.D. in communication at University of California at San Diego. She turned her dissertation on gay youth and digital media into her award-winning book Out in the Country (New York University Press). This book led Gray toward further interests in mobile technology and access, which eventually brought Gray to Microsoft Research.

According to their website, Microsoft Research, funded by Microsoft Corp., is dedicated to conducting both basic and applied research in computer science and software engineering. Organized much like Bell Laboratories, Microsoft researchers focus on more than 60 areas of computing and collaborate with leading academic, government, and industry researchers. Microsoft Research has eight locations worldwide and a number of collaborative projects that bring together the best minds in computer science to advance a research agenda based on their talents and interests.

Glancing at the long list of Microsoft researchers located around the world, it’s immediately clear that these researchers (mostly men) represent computer-science research genius. Gray’s addition to the Microsoft New England Social Media research team expands the group of humanists recruited by Microsoft Research. Gray is especially excited about her addition to the team because it indicates that Microsoft Research has come to recognize that the study of the humanities is vital to encouraging people to think creatively about our world.

“For too long we have behaved as though we study the humanities just because that’s what cultured people do. Instead, Microsoft Research recognizes a vital truth: that the humanities teach us to think in different ways about technology, culture, and society,” says Gray. “Thinking about ourselves and our technology culturally, humanely, might just spark the idea that sends us down new and better paths, which is a worthy investment to make.”

Gray’s appointment at Microsoft Research allows her to remain on the faculty of the Department of Communication and Culture in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, where she also serves as an adjunct with gender studies, anthropology and American studies. She plans to return to campus every other year to teach and to continue to mentor and train graduate students who are working at the intersections of cultural meaning and communication technologies.

Microsoft Research makes no dictates about what Gray can or should study. She is free to follow her own interests wherever they lead her. Microsoft Research simply wants to tag along for the ride.


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