Portrait of Tarleton Gillespie

Tarleton Gillespie

Senior Principal Researcher


Tarleton Gillespie is a Senior Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research New England, part of the Social Media Collective, Microsoft Research’s team of sociologists, anthropologists, and communication & media scholars studying the impact of sociotechnical systems on social and political life. Tarleton also retains an affiliated Associate Professor position with Cornell University, where he has been on the faculty for nearly two decades.

Tarleton’s current work investigates how social media platforms and other algorithmic information systems shape public discourse. His latest book, Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media (Yale University Press, 2018) examines how the content guidelines imposed by social media platforms set the terms for what counts as ‘appropriate’ user contributions, and ask how this private governance of cultural values has broader implications for freedom of expression and the character of public discourse. The book was a finalist for the 2019 PROSE Award from Association of American Publishers (AAP).

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His widely cited 2010 essay, “The Politics of ‘Platforms’” helped focus critical, sociological attention on social media platforms as an emerging technical and symbolic figure in the new media landscape, highlighting the industry’s efforts to carefully craft their position in society and their responsibilities. His 2014 essay “The Relevance of Algorithms” provided an early map for the sociological analysis of algorithms; in it he asked how algorithms embedded in social media and search engines organize information based on implicit and unexamined assumptions about popularity, relevance, and value. His work offers a vocabulary for a society in which social media platforms and other algorithmic information providers are now deeply woven into the lives of users and into the public institutions on which they depend.

His first book, Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture, (2007, MIT Press) examined the controversies around digital copyright and DRM, revealing the political, economic, legal, and cultural arrangements it required. It won the Outstanding Book Award for 2009 from the International Communication Association (ICA) and from the CIT division of the American Sociological Association (CITASA). He is the co-editor (with Pablo Boczkowski and Kirsten Foot) of Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society (MIT, 2014). University Press. He also co-founded the scholarly blog Culture Digitally, that developed out of two NSF-funded workshops.

His research has appeared in New Media & Society; Social Media & Society; The International Journal of Communication; Big Data & Society, Information, Communication, & Society; American Behavioral Scientist; The Information Society; Internet Policy Review; Limn; and Social Studies of Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Slate, Vox, Salon, the Neiman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic online, and he has been quoted in Wired, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed, BBC Radio, and NPR.

Tarleton received his Ph.D. in Communication from the University of California, San Diego (2002); he also has a M.A. in Communication from UCSD (1997) and a B.A. with honors in English from Amherst College (1994). In 2011-12 he was awarded funding from the European Institutes for Advanced Study (EURIAS) to be a Residential Research Fellow at the Collegium de Lyon, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, France.