Twitter is giving $10 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over the next five years to study patterns of public discourse on the Internet, and potentially to build technology that will make online civic action more effective. The research will happen as part of the MIT Media Lab under a vaguely ominous moniker—the Laboratory of Social Machines—and will be headed by Deb Roy, an associate professor at MIT who already spends one day a week serving as Twitter’s chief media scientist.
The idea of sifting through tweets for patterns and insights is hardly new. The company made $70 million in 2013 licensing use of its so-called fire hose—the entire, massive flow of tweets flowing through its servers. Commercial and academic research comes out regularly, shining light on the six types of Twitter conversations, the impossibility of keeping political affiliations hidden on the network, or which countries are the saddest. “There are a lot of people at Twitter who are interesting in leveraging Twitter for social good,” says Roy. “This serves as kind of an outlet for that.”
Roy’s team is also studying the ways people communicate on open websites like Reddit and Wikipedia, and on traditional news sources. One major theme the lab will explore: the tendency of social media to be better at generating negative energy than positive energy. “It’s better at disrupting or stopping things, or having your voice heard,” says Roy. “It’s harder to harness that into sustained change. It’s not like there’s a silver bullet in technology, but there may be tools that can start to get beyond that disruptive potential.” He also says the lab could build tools for journalists that would help them monitor trends in media as a way to inform their coverage.
Depending on how each is structured, neither idea sounds far from the types of products Twitter might consider building itself. It wouldn’t be the first time that Roy’s academic work ended up inside Twitter’s walls. Previous research at MIT led him to build a social television analytics company called Bluefin Labs. He ended up working at Twitter when it bought Bluefin last February.
Twitter’s financial commitment is substantial for MIT: The Media Lab’s annual operating budget is about $45 million. Much of that money comes from other large tech companies like Google, Microsoft, and Intel. This kind of corporate funding for academic research can come with tensions. An apparent decision by Stanford not to use money from Google for privacy research raised eyebrows when it was disclosed last week. MIT says the new lab will have complete operational and academic independence.