Posted on 10/26/2017
Winter Mason is a Computational Social Scientist (a.k.a. Data Scientist) at Facebook. He received his Ph.D. in social psychology and cognitive science from Indiana University in 2007, and did a post-doc in the Human and Social Dynamics lab at Yahoo. He researches social networks and social media, including crowdsourcing, group dynamics, and social influence.
What led you to choose a career in personality and social psychology?
When exploring grad programs I was almost exclusively looking at cognitive psychology or cognitive neuroscience programs. When I interviewed at Indiana, they introduced me to Sarah Queller, who was working on mathematical models of stereotyping. I was greatly intrigued and found Indiana to be a really great fit, so found myself in the only social psychology program I looked at. After Sarah left the next year, I ended up splitting my PhD focus into cognitive science with Rob Goldstone and social psychology with Eliot Smith, which turned out to be a great boon to my research.
Briefly summarize your current work, and any future work you plan to pursue.
Currently I am on the Core Data Science team at Facebook, which is a group of researchers with very diverse backgrounds (including statistical physics, computer science, sociology, psychology, communications, political science, and more) who lend their skills and expertise to different teams within the company. For the past two years I have been working with the Civic Engagement team, whose goal is to give people a greater voice in their government. My role has been to do foundational research that guides how new features might be designed and built, develop models and algorithms to improve the targeting and experience with different features, and impact research that assesses the real-world effects of the features that the team builds. As one example, the team built a feature that lets political candidates or parties share their positions on different political issues, and then provided an interface so that users can compare the positions of the different candidates or parties on specific issues. I helped design and analyze the survey that demonstrated the feature significantly increased people's knowledge of the candidates' positions.
Why did you join SPSP?
Initially I joined SPSP because I was anticipating a career in academia and felt like being a part of the society would be helpful for my career as a professor in psychology. After I finished my PhD and found myself in an industry job, I wanted to continue being a member of SPSP because I wanted to stay connected to the community and stay on top of the latest social psychological research.
What is your most memorable SPSP Annual Convention experience?
There really are so many good ones. Challenging my fellow graduate students to approach and talk to "big names" at the first conference I ever attended. Giving my first panel talk on social media data, after I had finished grad school and started at Yahoo Research. Starting up a conversation with Sam Gosling while in line for coffee at one SPSP, which eventually led to co-authoring a chapter with him in the Handbook of Psychology a few years later. But probably the best was a couple of years ago. For a long time I had been arguing that social psychologists should pay more attention to social media / online observational data as a means for understanding (social) psychological processes. The year I was finally able to put together a panel on social media and psychology, I arrive to the conference and find that there are 3 or 4 other panels on roughly the same topic. I had this simultaneous feeling of exasperation, because the panel I thought would be really ground breaking was just one of many, and triumph, because it was obvious the soap box I had been on for a while was finally being accepted as main stream. In the end, the feeling of accomplishment won out, and my bond to the society was even stronger.
How has being a member of SPSP helped to advance your career?
This is an easy one. It was at the SPSP conference that I met Jonah Berger, who was interested at the time in the role of networks in social influence, and I was presenting a poster on my research in that area. We struck up a conversation as a result and started brainstorming potential collaborations. It was because of this collaboration that he later introduced me to Duncan Watts, which led me to apply for the job at Yahoo Research, which turned me into the computational social scientist that I am today. That definitely would not have happened if I wasn't a member of SPSP attending the annual conference.
Do you have any advice for individuals who wish to pursue a career in personality and social psychology?
I think my general advice for anyone considering graduate school applies here: consider the job opportunities before committing to the program. In social and personality psychology, a lot of emphasis is traditionally placed on an academic career, but the number of faculty jobs is limited, so anyone considering the career should also look at non-academic jobs and decide whether that career track is also appealing. Aside from the rare jobs like mine in the tech industry, there are many opportunities in marketing, user experience research, and consulting, and it's worthwhile to explore these career paths before starting grad school.
Outside of psychology, how do you spend your free time?
Honestly, I enjoy the work that I do so much that I end up spending my free time doing work outside my direct job responsibilities, whether it is exploring new directions for research, diving deeper in an analysis, or reading the latest literature in the field. But outside of research, I have gotten to travel a lot for my job, and always try to add a few days of personal vacation to the trips. When not traveling, I like to go on hikes with my dog, take care of my home, and spend time with my girlfriend.