The world of social media is full of riddles: What is Twitter’s role in the Mexican drug war? How is Facebook altering teen romance? Can we track the spread of the flu through clues left on the Internet?
Such are the kinds of questions occupying some of the Boston area’s brightest minds. Social media is no longer just for sharing photos and updating your status; it has become the stuff of serious scholarship as the Internet serves as a virtual petri dish for studying, in real time, changing attitudes and behaviors.
Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology each have dozens of scholars conducting research on social media. IBM’s local lab has a team of academics focused on social networking for business, and Google Inc. has its own specialists working out of its Kendall Square office. Most recently, Microsoft Research New England created a social media research lab by hiring some of the discipline’s best-known scholars.
The group’s arrival among the engineers and mathematicians at Microsoft Research’s airy, glass-walled lab overlooking the Charles River not only underscores the eagerness of tech companies and academic institutions to figure out where the explosion in social media is taking all of us, it also cements Cambridge’s place as the hub of inquiry in this growing field.
“Boston has a critical mass of tech companies, universities, computing power, and big brains to pull this off,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project in Washington, D.C.
For anyone who doubts the merit of spending hundreds of hours and millions of dollars to research social media, consider some numbers: Facebook now has almost 1 billion users, Twitter has grown to more than 500 million, and nearly half of all American adults, according to Pew, have smartphones keeping them tethered to our social networks no matter where they are.
Forming a social media research group “would not have made sense before we became tied to our cellphones and our online presence,” said Jennifer Chayes, managing director of Microsoft Research New England. “The interplay between social science and technology is incredibly important to understand how people use technology.”
Academics are filling up scholarly publications such as the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication with articles on “The Role of Social Network Sites in Romantic Relationships: Effects on Jealousy and Relationship Happiness” and “Does Blogging Empower Women? Exploring the Role of Agency and Community.”
Danah Boyd, one of the members of Microsoft’s social media team, has made a name for herself by investigating how teenagers use social networks such as Facebook.
Her forthcoming book is called “Growing Up with Social Media: How Networked Technologies Are — and Aren’t — Changing Everyday Teen Life.” She also recently co-authored a paper that mined tweets to understand the benefit of social networks like Twitter for Mexicans who were trying to get information about the country’s deadly drug war.
These researchers are anything but academic lightweights. One of Boyd’s Microsoft colleagues, Nancy Baym, has penned or edited four books on social media, including “Personal Connections In The Digital Age.”
She was most recently a professor at the University of Kansas.
As a social media researcher for Microsoft, Baym said her job is not that different from being in academia. “I feel like our job here is to be curious, to ask interesting questions, and pursue answers to them,” Baym said. “If you put mathematicians and communication experts together, maybe in 10 years they will have some insight that will revolutionize the way we think about computing.”
Boyd and Baym, as well as their team members Kate Crawford and Mary L. Gray, were trained in media studies and social sciences but have essentially become anthropologists of the digital age.
The field “is growing, and growing rapidly, but it’s going to gocrazy very soon,” said Marc Smith, cofounder of the Social Media Research Foundation, a Belmont, Calif., nonprofit. “The majority of our socialization is flowing through machines, and that opens up great opportunity and many concerns.”
At the IBM lab in Cambridge, about 25 researchers who range in specialties from cultural anthropologists to computational scientists are studying how businesses use social networks.
This is not a purely academic exercise, said Alistair Rennie, general manager of social business for IBM. “It’s always been very much focused on what our clients are trying to do to change the way they work.”
It was not that long ago that this sort of research seemed exotic. “Twenty years ago there were researchers like me who said we would be using computers for social interaction, but most people thought that was ridiculous,” said Judith Donath, a former MIT Media Lab professor and currently a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
MIT conducted some of the first research on social media in the early 1990s when researchers started investigating online communities connecting via rudimentary networks and dial-up connections.
Then in 1998, Donath founded the Sociable Media Group at MIT to conduct advanced studies into issues of identity and technology. Boyd was one of her students.
Many of the school’s computer science professors supported studying the social implications of computing, said Sherry Turkle, a MIT professor and author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”
When Turkle arrived at MIT 30 years ago she noticed the intense relationships students had with their machines. Now, she said, those connections are apparent almost everywhere. “This is a technology that doesn’t change just what we do, it changes who we are in the most intimate ways.”
The growing interest in studying social media is not all anthropological or psychological, said Sandy Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. “There’s a need for really quantitative predictive science here, too.”
Researchers from his group are looking for ways to analyze all the social bits of data people are generating on their smartphones and social networks. Some of this, he said, could eventually be used to signal patterns occurring in the real world — like the spread of illnesses.
“We are just beginning to figure out what it’s useful for,” said Pentland.
Michael B. Farrell can be reached at michael.farrell