Over five years, the university’s researchers will organize a vast quantity of content from Twitter, Reddit and other online forums and build new communication tools that journalists, policy experts and researchers can use to uncover new patterns and trends.
The new MIT lab is called the “Laboratory of Social Machines.”
MIT will access data from Gnip, a Twitter-owned website that stores a vast database of historic tweets. Twitter has previously awarded smaller sums of funding to academic institutions in a program known as “Twitter Data Grants”, but the MIT grant is significant due to its size and scope.
There is an “openendness” to the research, said Deb Roy, an associate professor at MIT’s Media Lab, which is dedicated to projects at the convergence of technology, science and design. Roy said he has a close relationship with Twitter, in part because his former company Bluefin Labs was acquired by Twitter in 2013.
“Twitter has a special role to play in this concept of social change,” said Roy.
Roy said he hopes to understand how far certain messages travel online, and the origins of rumors, opinions and ideas. The research could yield new tools for the press as well as people working on “gender equality and speech in the public sphere,” he said.
“Twitter is seizing the opportunity to go deeper into research to understand the role Twitter and other platforms play in the way people communicate, the effect that rapid and fluid communication can have and apply those findings to complex societal issues,” said Twitter chief executive Dick Costolo in a statement.