Portrait of Mary L. Gray

Mary L. Gray

Senior Researcher


I’m a Senior Researcher at MSR. My research in a nutshell?

I have a study of the people who offer projects and the workers who provide labor through Mechanical Turk. There’s a conversation in media studies right now about “immaterial labor” as part of the new economy of digital media (so, fans contribute lots of content to their favorite celebrity’s blog or Facebook page or gamers modify the games they play but they’re not really “hired” to do this “work”–and it’s not always clear what kind of work vs. play this is). I want to look at this other world of labor to find out who “Mechanical Turks” are, what motivates “buyers” and “sellers” of MTURK skills, and what kind of labor they feel they’re exchanging. The project offers a way to think through the politics and ethics of MTURK and the material labor it reflects.

I am currently collaborating on research projects that range from looking at the practices of “jumping”—illegitimate check-ins at places a player could not physically be—among locative media Foursquare fans; how college students use the television program “Glee” as a transmedia object in their everyday life; and analyzing online lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) online advocacy campaigns, like the “It Gets Better” anti-bullying campaign launched on YouTube in 2010, as forms of “queer infrastructure” that extend—but also confound—brick and mortar non-profit advocacy groups less equipped to use the viral capacity of the Internet.

My single-authored work takes up interests in how we do ethnographically-informed social media research and the implications of social media in the lives of those who have limited access to it or contribute to information and data economies in ways that often go unnoticed. For example, drawing on my past and current research, I’m looking at the role of “big data” in human communication research and technology studies and the value of anthropology, as a particular kind of “big data,” that warrants more attention. I argue that we need different kinds of data, from the statistically to the ethnographically significant, more collaborative approaches to how we arrive at what we know, and critical analysis of the cultural assumptions embedded in the data we collect. I hope to persuade researchers who aspire to build technologies for human communication that we must imagine “big data” as an on-going process of modeling, triangulation, and critique rather than a static data set we can output to a flat file.


Overall, my research illustrates the productive frictions, ebbs, and flows that bind social life and technological innovation, whether we have direct access to these innovations or not.


Social Media Collective

Established: July 6, 2010

Over the last decade, social media has become a central part of people's engagement with technology. From email to Twitter, mobile phones to Facebook, people are using a vast array of social technologies as a part of their daily lives.…





I studied anthropology before receiving my Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California at San Diego in 2004. I draw on this interdisciplinary background to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. My most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press), which won awards from scholarly societies in Anthropology, Media Studies, and Sociology, examined how lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender young people negotiate and express their identities in rural parts of the United States and the role that digital media play in their lives and political work. I served on the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association from 2008 until 2010 and, now, hold a seat on that Association’s Committee on Public Policy. I maintain an appointment as an Associate Professor of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, with adjunct appointments in American Studies, Anthropology, and Gender Studies.

My research project, “Vulnerable Subjects,” analyzes how university-based research has come to depend on compliance cyberinfrastructures—the distributed and networked hardware, software, and human resources that organize interactions among Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), researchers, and research participants. Specifically, I’m examining how these cyberinfrastructures shape definitions of “human subjects” and “vulnerable populations.” These definitions, fundamental to the management of all social research since the introduction of federal guidelines regulating research ethics, are far from self-evident or static. Seemingly banal cyberinfrastructures literally define the ideal human subject through designation of what is ethically untenable research. I focus on the implications of these practices and their impact on emerging media research in university settings, particularly the directions of ethnographically informed scholarship.

My next book project (tentatively titled Stuck? Theorizing Mobility in a Networked Age) looks at how people use emerging media on-the-go to connect to each other and place themselves in their social environments, particularly in technologically impoverished areas. I am particularly interested in how notions of social and economic mobility, woven into mobile media design and access policies, collide with technological, economic, and spatial barriers to shape people’s experiences of mobility and public presence. At its heart, Stuck is a story about the persistent importance of location and place in a time when the designs of mobile media suggest it should matter less. It asks us to consider what people do at these crossroads of expectations around mobility.