Social Work & Social Media: Desmond Patton

If a picture is worth a thousand words, what does a sentence composed of emojis mean? Desmond Patton can help crack that question. Patton is an assistant professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, and a Faculty Affiliate of the Social Intervention Group (SIG) and the Data Science Institute. He studies the connections between social media communication and gang violence among young people from marginalized communities. His groundbreaking social research looks at social media as data to be mined.

Why did Patton choose Columbia? Patton declares, “I love Columbia’s emphasis on rigorous inquiry and how it leverages its location in New York to further push how we think, how we measure, how we engage. I wanted to teach at Columbia because I wanted access to train some of the smartest and most diverse prospective social workers in the country.”

Teaching at Columbia strengthens Patton’s research. He explains, “I teach courses on advocacy and contemporary social issues; we spend a lot of time thinking about how our biases influence social work practice. In my own work, I realized that I was asking the wrong research questions in my efforts to examine how violence is narrated on social media. I was consumed with identifying threatening communication, not realizing that my perceptions of threats on social media were quite different from the youth I worked with. Teaching forces me to consider whose voice is not in the room when conducting my research.”

Columbia’s interests in the intersections of data and society also help propel Patton’s work forward. Several grants from the Provost’s office aid conduction pilot research that will make Patton’s research lab competitive for federally funded grants. And the funds also helped to produce a prototype computational system that can detect aggression and loss in Twitter data.

Patton looks forward to deepening his relationship with the Data Science Institute and forging new partnerships and collaborations with other schools and departments. Columbia continues to inspire Patton, and push his work forward. He remarks, “I’ve always focused on cities, but now I think globally and can easily access great tech minds to help support and innovate the work.”

Listen to Patton’s interview on NPR’s All Things Considered here.