Portrait of Mary L. Gray

Mary L. Gray

Senior Principal Researcher


I’m a Senior Principal Researcher at MSR and a Faculty Fellow at Harvard University, affiliated with E.J. Safra Center for Ethics and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. I maintain a faculty post in the School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering, with affiliations in Anthropology and Gender Studies, at Indiana University.

My research in a nutshell?

I study people’s everyday uses of technologies, particularly among people with limited or marginalized access to digital media and the internet.

I’ve collaborated 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 media research and the implications of 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.

My first book, In Your Face: Stories From the Lives of Queer Youth (Routledge Press), concentrated on contemporary gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-identifying (LGBT) youth experiences in the United States. That led me to wonder: what’s life like for youth who don’t have easy access to queer communities and resources typically associated with cities through out the United States? Where, when, and how do youth in the rural United States acquire the language for their queer senses of self? And with the rapid but unequal incorporation of digital media into the lives of youth and their support agencies, what difference does the Internet’s increasing presence—and presumed ubiquity—make to these youth negotiating their sense of sexuality and gender ?

I spent 2001-2007 looking at how young people, living along Kentucky’s Appalachian borders, use media to negotiate identity and visibility in this rural region of United States. Specifically, I studied how rural LGBT youth and their advocates use local support agencies, peer networks, and the internet as sites and technologies of sexual and gender representation–what I refer to as queer identity work. My book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (New York University Press, 2009) shares what I learned from rural queer youth and their adult allies and offers their lessons for political organizers and media activists everywhere. And the volume, Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies (New York University Press, 2016), co-edited with Colin R. Johnson and Brian Gilley, assembles a stellar group of emerging and established scholars to expand on the value of looking at rurality as both a framework and political touchstone for queer theory and praxis.

Since joining Microsoft Research, I’ve shifted to working on the social impact of digital labor through the case of on-demand labor—small tasks sourced, scheduled, distributed and completed online, done in minutes for pennies a pop. In collaborations with computer scientists, I’ve focused on asking: Who are the people who make this work possible? What does labor mean when it is “taskified” and humans are embedded in a system of code and computation that asks them to remain invisible as part of the service they provide? In May 2019, computer scientist Siddharth Suri and I published five years of collaborative research in the book, Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass published by HMH Books. Our research team combined methods from anthropology and computer science, to amass the largest data set about on-demand work ever collected. We conducted hundreds of in-person interviews and more than 10,000 surveys of workers in the US and India. We also measured the workflow data of 4 different on-demand platform businesses, studied their policy landscape, and performed dozens of experiments to understand API-driven office work and how it shapes the lives and productivity of on-demand workers. You can find our public papers and talks at: www.ghostwork.info/articles

I have one other passion/obsession: studying how ethics, compliance routines and computer science research produce norms of vulnerability and risk in research involving human subjects. 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. I serve on the Executive Board of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R) and am a past board member of the American Anthropological Association.

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.