Dr. Nancy Baym, Principal Researcher from Microsoft Research
Episode 41, September 12, 2018
Dr. Nancy Baym is a communication scholar, a Principal Researcher in MSR’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, lab, and something of a cyberculture maven. She’s spent nearly three decades studying how people use communication technologies in their everyday relationships and written several books on the subject. The big take away? Communication technologies may have changed drastically over the years, but human communication itself? Not so much.
Today, Dr. Baym shares her insights on a host of topics ranging from the arduous maintenance requirements of social media, to the dialectic tension between connection and privacy, to the funhouse mirror nature of emerging technologies. She also talks about her new book, Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences and the Intimate Work of Connection, which explores how the internet transformed – for better and worse – the relationship between artists and their fans.
Nancy Baym: It’s not just that it’s work, it’s that it’s work that never, ever ends. Because your phone is in your pocket, right? So, you’re sitting at home on a Sunday morning, having a cup of coffee and even if you don’t do it, there’s always the possibility of, “Oh, I could Tweet this out to my followers right now. I could turn this into an Instagram story.” So, the possibility of converting even your most private, intimate moments into fodder for your work life is always there, now.
Host: You’re listening to the Microsoft Research Podcast, a show that brings you closer to the cutting-edge of technology research and the scientists behind it. I’m your host, Gretchen Huizinga.
Host: Dr. Nancy Baym is a communication scholar, a Principal Researcher in MSR’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, lab, and something of a cyberculture maven. She’s spent nearly three decades studying how people use communication technologies in their everyday relationships and written several books on the subject. The big take away? Communication technologies may have changed drastically over the years, but human communication itself? Not so much.
Today, Dr. Baym shares her insights on a host of topics ranging from the arduous maintenance requirements of social media, to the dialectic tension between connection and privacy, to the funhouse mirror nature of emerging technologies. She also talks about her new book, Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences and the Intimate Work of Connection, which explores how the internet transformed – for better and worse – the relationship between artists and their fans. That and much more on this episode of the Microsoft Research Podcast.
Host: Nancy Baym, welcome to the podcast.
Nancy Baym: Nice to be here.
Host: So, you’re a principle researcher at the MSR lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not to be confused with the one in Cambridge, England. Give our listeners an overview of the work that goes on in New England and of your work in particular. What are the big issues you’re looking at? Why is the work important? Basically, what gets you up in the morning?
Nancy Baym: So, the lab in New England is one of Microsoft’s smaller researcher labs. We’re very interdisciplinary, so, we have people in my basic area which is social media and social issues around technology from humanistic and social scientific perspectives. And we have that alongside people working on machine learning and artificial intelligence, people working on economics, people working on cryptography, people working on math and complexity theory, people doing algorithmic game theory, and then we also have a bioinformatics and medicine component to this program also. So, we’re really interested in getting people from very different perspectives together and listening to each other and seeing what kinds of new ideas get sparked when you get people from radically different disciplines together in the same environment and you give them long periods of time to get to know one another and get exposed to the kinds of work that they do. So, that’s the lab as a whole. My group is… we call ourselves the Social Media Collective, which is a, sort of, informal name for it. It’s not an official title but it’s sort of an affectionate one. There are three core people here in our New England lab, and then, which would be me, Mary Gray and Tarleton Gillespie, and then we have a postdoc and we have, in the summer, PhD interns, we have a research assistant, and we’re all interested in questions around how people use technologies, the kinds of work that people do through technologies, the kinds of work that technologies create for people, and the ways that that affects them, their identities, their relationships, their communities, societies as a whole.
Host: You know, as you talk about the types of researchers that you have there, I wonder, is New England unique among the labs at Microsoft?
Nancy Baym: I think we are, in that we are more interdisciplinary than many of them. I mean our Redmond lab, obviously, has got people from a huge range of disciplines, but it’s also got a huge number of people, whereas we’re a much smaller group. We’re on one floor of a building and there are, you know, anywhere from twenty to fifty of us, depending on how many visitors are in the lab and how many interns are around or what not, but that’s still a really small fraction of the Redmond group. So, I think anybody in a particular field finds themselves with many fewer colleagues from their own field relative to their colleagues as a whole in this lab. Whereas, I think most of our labs are dominated much more by people from computer science. Obviously, computer science is well-represented here, but we have a number of other fields as well. So, I think that foregrounding of interdisciplinarity is unique to this lab.
Host: That’s great. So, the social science research in the context of social computing and social media, it’s an interesting take on research in general at Microsoft, which is a high-tech company. How do you think the work that you do informs the broader work of Microsoft Research and Microsoft in general?
Nancy Baym: I would like to think that the kinds of work that I do, and that my colleagues are doing, are helping the company, and technology companies in general, think in more sophisticated ways about the ways that the technologies that we create get taken up and get used and with what consequences. I think that people who build technologies, they really want to help people do things. And they’re focused on that mission. And it can be difficult to think about, what are all the ways that that might get taken up besides the way that I imagine it will get taken up, besides the purpose that I’m designing it for? So, in some sense, I think part of our group is here to say, here’s some unexpected things you might not be thinking about. Here’s some consequences, or in the case of my own work, I’d like to think about the ways that technologies are often pushing people toward more connection and more time with others and more engagement and more sharing and more openness. And yet, people have very strong needs for privacy and for distance and for boundaries and what would it mean, for example, to think about how we could design technologies that helped people draw boundaries more efficiently rather than technologies that were pushing them toward openness all the time?
Host: I love that. And I’m going to circle back, in a bit, to some of those issues of designing for dialectic and some of the issues around unintended consequences. But first, I want to talk about a couple books you wrote. Before we talk about your newest book, I want to spend a little time talking about another book you wrote called Personal Connections in the Digital Age. And in it, you challenge conventional wisdom that tends to blame new technologies for what we might call old problems. Talk a little bit about Personal Connections in the Digital Age.
Nancy Baym: That book came out of a course that I had been teaching for, oh gosh, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years, something like that, about communication and the internet, and one of the things that tends to come up is just what you’re talking about. This idea that people tend to receive new technologies as though this is the first time these things have ever been disrupted. So, part of what that book tries to do is to show how the way that people think and talk about the internet has these very long histories in how people think and talk about other communication technologies that have come before. So, for example, when the telephone was invented, there was a lot of concern that the telephone was going to lead to social disengagement, particularly among women, who would spend all the time talking on the phone and would stop voting. Um… (laughter) which doesn’t sound all that different from some contemporary ways that people talk about phones! Only now it’s the cell phones that are going to cause all that trouble. It’s that, but it’s also questions around things like, how do we present ourselves online? How do we come to understand who other people are online? How does language change when it’s used online? How do we build relationships with other people? How do we maintain relationships with people who we may have met offline? And also, how do communities and social networks form and get maintained through these communication technologies? So, it’s a really broad sweep. I think of that book as sort of the “one stop shop” for everything you need to know about personal connections in the digital age. If you just want to dive in and have a nice little compact introduction to the topic.
Host: Right. There are other researchers looking into these kinds of things as well. And is your work sort of dovetailing with those findings in that area of personal relationships online?
Nancy Baym: Yeah, yeah. There’s quite a bit of work in that field. And I would say that, for the most part, the body of work which I review pretty comprehensively in Personal Connections in the Digital Age tends to show this much more nuanced, balanced, “for every good thing that happens, something bad happens,” and for all of the sort of mythologies about “its destroying children” or “you can’t trust people you meet online,” or “people aren’t their real selves” or even the idea that there’s something called “real life,” which is separate from what happens on the internet, the empirical evidence from research tends to show that, in fact, online interaction is really deeply interwoven with all of our other forms of communication.
Host: I think you used the word “moral panic” which happens when a new technology hits the scene, and we’re all convinced that it’s going to ruin “kids today.” They won’t have manners or boundaries or privacy or self-control, and it’s all technology’s fault. So that’s cool that you have a kind of answer to that in that book. Let’s talk about your new book which is super fascinating: Playing to the Crowd: Musicians, Audiences and the Intimate Work of Connection. Tell us how this book came about and what was your motivation for writing it?
Nancy Baym: So, this book is the result of many years of work, but it came to fruition because I had done some early work about online fan community, particularly soap opera fans, and how they formed community in the early 1990s. And then, at some point, I got really interested in what music fans were doing online and so I started a blog where I was posting about music fans and other kinds of fans and the kinds of audience activities that people were doing online and how that was sort of messing with relationships between cultural producers and audiences. And that led to my being invited to speak at music industry events. And what I was seeing there was a lot of people with expertise saying things like, “The problem is, of course, that people are not buying music anymore, so the solution to this problem is to use social media to connect with your audience because if you can connect with them, and you can engage them, then you can monetize them.” And then I was seeing the musicians ask questions, and the kinds of questions that they were asking seemed very out-of-step with the kind of advice that they were being given. So, they would be asking questions like, do I have to use all of the sites? How do I know which ones to use? So, I got really interested in this question, of sort of, what, from the point of view from these people who were being told that their livelihood depends on creating some kind of new social relationship using these media with audiences, what is this call to connect and engage really about? What does it feel like to live with that? What are the issues it raises? Where did it come from? And then this turned into a much larger-scoped project thinking about musicians as a very specific case, but one with tremendous resonance for the ways that so many workers in a huge variety of fields now, including research, feel compelled to maintain some kind of visible, public persona that engages with and courts an audience so that when our next paper comes out, or our next record drops, or our next film is released or our next podcast comes out, the audience is already there and interested and curious and ready for it.
Host: Well let me interject with a question based on what you said earlier. How does that necessarily translate into monetization? I can see it translating into relationship and, you know, followership, but is there any evidence to support the you know…?
Nancy Baym: It’s magic, Gretchen, magic!
Host: OK. I thought so! I knew it!
Nancy Baym: You know, I work with economists and I keep saying, “Guys, let’s look at this. This is such a great research problem.” Is it true, right? Because you will certainly hear from people who work at labels or work in management who will say, “We see that our artists who engage more do better.” But in terms of any large scale “what works for which artists when?” and “does it really work across samples?” is, the million-dollar question that you just asked, is does it actually work? And I don’t know that we know the answer to that question. For some individuals, some of the time, yes. For the masses, reliably, we don’t know.
Host: Well and the other thing is, being told that you need to have this social media presence. It’s work, you know?
Nancy Baym: That’s exactly the point of the book, yeah. And it’s not just that it’s work, it’s that it’s work that never, ever ends. Because your phone is in your pocket, right? So, you’re sitting at home on a Sunday morning, having a cup of coffee, and even if you don’t do it, there’s always the possibility of, “Oh, I could tweet this out to my followers right now. I could turn this into an Instagram story.” So, the, the possibility of converting even your most private, intimate moments into fodder for your work life is always there, now. And the promise is, “Oh, if you get a presence, then magic will happen.” But first of all, it’s a lot of work to even create the presence and then to maintain it, you have to sell your personality now. Not just your stuff. You have to be about who you are now and make that identity accessible and engaging and what not. And yet it’s not totally clear that that’s, in fact, what audiences want. Or if it is what audiences want, which audiences and for which kinds of products?
Host: Well, let’s get back to the book a little bit. In one chapter, there’s a subsection called How Music Fans came to Rule the Internet. So, Nancy, how did music fans come to rule the internet?
Nancy Baym: So, the argument that I make in that chapter is that from the earliest, earliest days of the internet, music fans, and fans in general, were not just using the internet for their fandom, but were people who were also actively involved in creating the internet and creating social computing. So, I don’t want to say that music fans are the only people who were doing this, because they weren’t, but, from the very beginnings of online interaction, in like 1970, you already had the very people who are inventing the concept of a mailing list, at the same time saying, “Hey, we could use one of these to exchange Grateful Dead tickets, ‘cause I have some extra ones and I know there’s some other people in this building who might want them.” So, you have people at Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence laboratory in the very beginning of the 1970s saying, “Hey, we could use this enormous amount of computing power that we’ve got to digitize The Grateful Dead lyrics.” You have community computing projects like Community Memory being launched in the Bay Area putting their first terminal in a record store as a means of bringing together community. And then, from those early, early moments throughout, you see over and over and over again, music fans creating different forms of online community that then end up driving the way that the internet develops, peer-to-peer file sharing being one really clear example of a case where music fans helped to develop a technology to serve their needs, and by virtue of the success of that technology, ended up changing not just the internet, but industries that were organized around distributing cultural materials.
Host: One of the reviewers of Playing to the Crowd, and these reviews tend to be glowing, right? But he said, “It’ll change the way we think about music, technology and people.” So, even if it didn’t change everything about the way we think about music technology and people, what kinds of sort of “ah-ha findings” might people expect to find in the book?
Nancy Baym: I think one of the big ah-has is the extent to which music is a form of communication which has become co-opted, in so many ways, by commercial markets, and alongside that, the ways in which personal relationships and personal communication, have also become co-opted by commercial markets. Think about the ways that communication platforms monetize our everyday, friendly interaction through advertising. And the way that these parallel movements of music and relational communication from purely social activities to social activities that are permeated by commercial markets raises dialectic tensions that people then have to deal with as they’re continually navigating moving between people and events and circumstances and moments in a world that is so infused by technology and where our relationships are infused by technology.
Host: So, you’ve used the word “dialectic” in the context of computer interface design, and talked about the importance of designing for dialectic. Talk about what you mean by that and what kinds of questions arise for a developer or a designer with that mind set?
Nancy Baym: So, “dialectic” is one of the most important theoretical concepts to me when I think about people’s communication and people’s relationships in this project, but, in general, it’s a concept that I come back to over and over and over, and the idea is that we always have competing impulses that are both valid, and which we have to find balance between. So, a very common dialectic in interpersonal relationships is the desire to, on the one hand, be connected to others, and on the other, to be autonomous from others. So, we have that push and pull between “I want us to be part of each other’s lives all the time, and also leave me alone to make my own decisions.” (laughter) So that dialectic tension is not that one is right and one is wrong. It’s that that, and, as some of the theorists I cite on this argue, probably infinite dialectic tensions between “I want this, but I also want that” and it’s the opposite, right? And so, if we think about social interaction, instead of it being some sort of linear model where we start at point A with somebody and we move onto B and then C and then D, if we think of it instead as, even as we’re moving from A to B to C, that’s a tightrope. But at any given moment we can be toppling into one side or the other if we’re not balancing them carefully. So, if we think about a lot of the communication technologies that are available to us right now, they are founded, often quite explicitly, on a model of openness and connection and sharing. So, those are really, really valuable positions. But they’re also ends of dialectics that have opposite ends that are also very valid. So, all of these ways in which we’re pushed to be more open, more connected, to share more things, they are actually always in conflict within us with desires to be protective of other people or protective of ourselves, to have some distance from other people, to have autonomy. And to be able to have boundaries that separate us from others, as well as boundaries that connect us to one another. So, my question for designers is, how could we design in ways that make it easier for people to adjust those balances? In a way, you could sort of think about it as, what if we made the tightrope, you know, thicker so that it were easier for people to balance on, and you didn’t need to be so good at it, to make it work moment-to-moment?
Host: You know, everything you’ve just said makes me think of, you know, say, someone who wants to get involved in entertainment, in some way, and one of the plums of that is being famous, right? And then you find…
Nancy Baym: Until they are.
Host: …Until you are… that you don’t have control over all the attention you get and so that dialectic of “I want people to notice me/I want people to leave me alone” becomes wildly exacerbated there. But I think, you know, we all see “over-sharers,” as my daughter calls, them on social media. It’s like keep looking at me all the time. It’s like too much information. Have some privacy in your life…
Nancy Baym: Well you know, but that’s a great case, because I would say too much information is not actually a property of information, or of the person sending that information, it’s a property of the person receiving that information. Because, in fact, for some, it’s not going to be too much information. For some, it’s going to be exactly the right amount of information. So, I think of the example, of, from my point of view, a number of people who are parents of young children post much too much information on social networks. In particular, I’m really, really turned off by hearing about the details of their trivial illnesses that they’re going through at any given moment. You know, I mean if they got a real illness, of course I want to hear about it, but if you know, they got a fever this week and they’re just feeling a little sick, I don’t really need daily updates on their temperature, for instance. Um… on the other hand, I look at that, and I say, “Oh, too much information.” But then I say, “I’m not the audience for that.” They’ve got 500-600 friends. They probably put that there for grandma and the cousins who actually really do care. And I’m just not the audience. So, it’s not that that’s too much information. It’s that that information wasn’t meant for me. And instead of blaming them for having posted it, maybe I should just look away and move on to the next item in my feed. That’s ok, too. I’m sure that some of the things that I share strike some people as too much information but then, I’ll tell you what, some of the things that post that I think of as too much information, those are often the ones that people will later, in other contexts, say, “Oh my gosh, it meant so much to me that you posted about… whatever.” So, you know, we can’t just make these judgements about the content of what other people are producing without understanding the contexts in which it’s being received, and by whom.
Host: That is such a great reminder to us to have grace.
Nancy Baym: Grace for other people, that too, yeah.
Host: You’ve been watching, studying and writing about cyberculture for a long time. Going back a ways, what did you see, or even foresee, when you started doing this research and what if anything has surprised you along the way?
Nancy Baym: Well, it’s a funny thing. I mean, when I started doing this research, it was 1991. And the landscape has changed so much since then, so that the kinds of things that I could get away with being an insightful scholar for saying in 1991 are practically laughable now, because people just didn’t understand, at that time, that these technologies were actually going to be really socially useful. That people were going to use these technologies to present themselves to others, to form relationships, to build communities, that they were going to change the way audiences engaged, that they were going to change politics, that they were going to change so many practices of everyday life. And I think that those of us who were involved in cyberculture early, whether it was as researchers or just participants, could see that what was happening there was going to become something bigger than it was in those early days.
Host: I ask all of the researchers that come on the podcast some version of the question, “Is there anything that keeps you up at night?” To some degree, I think your work addresses that. You know, what ought we to be kept up at night about, and how, how ought we to address it? Is there anything that keeps you up at night, or anything that should keep us up at night that we should be thinking about critically as we’re in this landscape now?
Nancy Baym: Oh gosh, do any of us sleep anymore at all? (laughter) I mean I think what keeps me up nights is thinking, is it still ok to study the personal and the ordinary when it feels like we’re in such in extraordinary, tumultuous and frightening times, uh, nationally and globally? And I guess what I keep coming back to, when I’m lying awake at 4 in the morning saying, “Oh, maybe I just need to start studying social movements and give up on this whole interpersonal stuff.” And then I say to myself, “Wait a minute. The reason that we’re having so much trouble right now, at its heart, is that people are not having grace in their relations with one another,” to go back to your phrase. That what we really, really need right now more than anything is to be reconnected to our capacity for human connection with others. And so, in that sense, then, I kind of put myself to sleep by saying, “OK, there’s nothing more important than actual human connection and respect for one another.” And so that’s what I’m trying to foster in my work. So, I’m just going to call that my part and write a check for some of those other causes I can’t contribute to directly.
Host: I, I love that answer. And that actually leads beautifully into another question which is that your social science work at MSR is unique at industrial research labs. And I would call Microsoft, still, an industrial, you know, situation.
Nancy Baym: Definitely.
Host: So, you get to study unique and challenging research problems.
Nancy Baym: I have the best job in the world.
Host: No, I do, but you got a good one. Because I get to talk to people like you. But what do you think compels a company like Microsoft, perhaps somewhat uniquely, to encourage researchers like you to study and publish the things you do? What’s in it for them?
Nancy Baym: My lab director, Jennifer Chayes, talks about it as being like a portfolio which I think is, is a great way to think about it. So, you have this cast of researchers in your portfolio and each of them is following their own path to satisfying their curiosity and by having some of those people in that portfolio who really understand people, who really understand the way that technologies play out in ordinary people’s everyday lives and lived experiences, there may be moments where that’s exactly the stock you need at that moment. That’s the one that’s inflating and that’s the expertise that you need. So, given that we’re such a huge company, and that we have so many researchers studying so many topics, and that computing is completely infused with the social world now… I mean, if we think about the fact that we’ve shifted to so much cloud and that clouds are inherently social in the sense that it’s not on your private device, you have to trust others to store your data, and so many things are now shared that used to be individualized in computing. So, if computing is infused with the social, then it just doesn’t even really make sense for a tech company to not have researchers who understand the social, and who are studying the social, and who are on hand with that kind of expertise.
Host: As we close, Nancy, what advice would you give to aspiring researchers, maybe talking to your 25-year-old self, who might be interested in entering this field now, which is radically different from where it was when you started looking at it. What, what would you say to people that might be interested in this?
Nancy Baym: I would say, remember that there is well over a hundred years of social theory out there right now, and the fact that we have new communication technologies does not mean that people have started from scratch in their communication, and that we need to start from scratch in making sense of it. I think it’s more important than ever, when we’re thinking about new communication technologies, to understand communication behavior and the way that communication works, because that has not fundamentally transformed. The media through which we’ve used it has, but the way communication works to build identity, community, relationships, that has not fundamentally, magically, become something different. The same kind of interpersonal dynamics are still at play in many of these things. I think of the internet and communication technologies as being like funhouse mirrors. Where some phenomena get made huge and others get made small, so there’s a lot of distortion that goes on. But nothing entirely new is reflected that never existed before. So, it’s really important to understand the precedents for what you’re seeing, both in terms of theory and similar phenomena that might have occurred in earlier incarnations, in order to be able to really understand what you’re seeing in terms of both what is new, but also what’s not new. Because otherwise, what I see a lot in young scholarship is, “Look at this amazing thing people are doing in this platform with this thingy.” And it is really interesting, but it also actually looks a whole lot like what people were doing on this other platform in 1992, which also kind of looks a lot like what people were doing with ‘zines in the 1920s. And if we want to make arguments about what what’s new and what’s changing because of these things, it’s so important that we understand what’s not new and what these things are not changing.
Host: Nancy Baym, it’s been an absolute delight talking to you today. I’m so glad you took time to talk to us.
Nancy Baym: Alrighty, bye.
To learn more about Dr. Nancy Baym, and how social science scholars are helping real people understand and navigate the digital world, visit Microsoft.com/research.