MIT Media Lab Statement of Objectives

This was my application essay to the MIT Media Lab. 

Statement of Objectives

I am applying to work with Ethan Zuckerman, Cesar Hidalgo, or Mitch Resnick at the Media Lab. My goal is to create methods and tools that make visible the connections between others and ourselves to spur action, self-reflection, and better policymaking. I am particularly passionate about the intersections of education, technology, and politics, and hope to continue into the PhD program to investigate methods and tools that bring out the civic and entrepreneurial potential of youth.

While my top choice is to join the Center for Civic Media, I can imagine projects in any of the three labs that would align with my goals, allowing me to contribute to important research and grow intellectually. In Civic Media, I could gather data from interviews and social media about how youth in a small town share information, and use co-design to map out how local news could be rapidly disseminated. In Macro Connections, I could correlate geographic data for small businesses with international business news, and create a dynamic visualization showing how the economic prospects of young entrepreneurs in developing countries might suffer due to biases of markets operating in different time zones. And in Lifelong Kindergarten, I could create a collaborative problem solving game for young children that uses auditory or haptic sensors to enforce a condition for winning that requires all players to contribute their ideas and practice civil discourse.

My goals and passion for using research and technology to improve society started developing in college. I cut a unique path at RIT, from research as “co-op” experience to studying abroad in Russia and earning a second bachelor’s degree. In particular, my second-year courses in human-computer interaction and exposure to social computing through my advisor Liz Lawley had me seeking out opportunities to build something new, and to do so with a critical lens on how technology can affect individuals and communities.

A definitive moment in my education was February 18, 2004, when I presented my final project to RIT’s interdisciplinary Honors Colloquium course. My project was a performance art piece entitled I, Archive, in which I played a “living” archive accessible to “users” in the audience with backup storage on video. I gave select audience members “user manuals.” Each time a user asked a question, the context and emphasis were slightly altered producing new results from me, the archive. Subsequent sessions of question and answer were taped and re-played simultaneously to create multiple and layered archives competing for attention. In my artist’s statement, I argued that filing away objects inside of a traditional archive usually results in a preservation of the original item, but filing anything into a living archive is like handing over a newspaper article to an editor, or innumerable editors in the case of the internet.

Inspired by my performance, one of the colloquium’s professors, Amit Ray, asked me to join him on a research project looking into the changing state of authorship and authority in the “Age of Wikipedia,” which we later published. This early research opportunity whetted my appetite for creative research into social computing phenomena, and also exposed me to the educational and civic potential of the internet, and the politics and imperfections of its architecture.

I left RIT with degrees in information technology and international studies and minors in writing studies and imaging science, as well as having served as editor in chief of the student news magazine. I pursued a master’s in sociology at Cambridge, in part, because I wanted to better understand how societies transform through the chaos I perceived in my course readings in Eurasian politics, developmental economics, and art, and from what I saw happening in the journalism industry. I increasingly viewed my world as dynamic, interconnected networks of individuals, institutions, and ideas, and became absorbed in studying social capital theory. Social capital formed the heart of my master’s thesis on how broadband internet affected small town social networks, and helped me clarify and unite my passions for education, technology, and politics.

After Cambridge, I joined the Obama Campaign, eager to see technology and politics in the field and to participate in spurring civic action and building social capital at a local level. I moved to Boston in 2009 in search of similar possibilities. That May, I co-founded BetterGrads, an online mentoring organization for college-bound high schoolers, with my close friend, Kevin Adler. The following month, I helped found two other projects: The Awesome Foundation, a playful model for microphilanthropy, and the Web Ecology Project, an experimental community of social media researchers. Through the Web Ecology Project, I have been working on Twitter and big data, which culminated this year in a journal article on Twitter use during the Arab Spring that I presented at the Center for Civic Media’s “Mapping Media Ecosystems” panel.

I also started doing formal research at Harvard in 2009. Under Carolina Rossini and Yochai Benkler at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I studied the politics and economics of open educational resources. I then joined Project Zero, working under Carrie James and Howard Gardner on two studies: The GoodPlay Project, a study of the ethical dimensions of young people’s experiences online, and the Good Participation project, a study of how civically engaged youth become engaged and use technology. Using interviews I conducted for these studies, I am currently preparing papers on cyberbullying and civic learning for the 2012 Digital Media and Learning conference.

This is where I am today. I have enjoyed the rare opportunity to perform research I care about and to build BetterGrads and The Awesome Foundation at the same time. Over the past two years, I have continually found new connections and possibilities for innovation across these spaces. Combining rigorous study with entrepreneurial application is at the core of my professional ambition and is what I hope for at the Media Lab.

The Center for Civic Media’s research represents a direct extension of the work I have been doing with the Web Ecology Project, The Awesome Foundation, and Project Zero. Through Project Zero’s Good Participation project, I have already enjoyed the opportunity to work with Ethan Zuckerman, who is supported by the same MacArthur Foundation research network. At Civic Media, I hope to maintain my ties to the research network and continue to work on the topics discussed at our meetings, such as “media ecologies.” During a Knight Foundation-funded design workshop last summer, entitled The Moby Dick Project, I thought creatively and concretely about how media ecologies could be limited or expanded through interfaces. Now I’m eager to get to work on ways of interacting with news that might prompt self-reflection, like Civic Media’s nutritional labels project.

Macro Connections’ research would offer me an opportunity to further develop the data analysis skills I have gained with the Web Ecology Project and in the Machine Learning course offered online this fall by Stanford. The Preference Networks project is a good example of how I could employ these techniques and return to my interest in social capital. I would love to work on visualizations of networks of social capital that could influence policymakers.

Lifelong Kindergarten’s research goes to the heart of my interests in education. Lately, I have been following the lab’s work on the ethics of participation in Scratch in connection to my cyberbullying research, which looks at the differences in moral reasoning between upstanders and bystanders. I am interested in studying moral development in an environment like Scratch, and exploring the possibilities for using role-playing and interactive props to scaffold civic skills.

I look forward to a chance to interview with Ethan Zuckerman, Cesar Hidalgo, and Mitch Resnick to further discuss how my skills, interests, and passion fit into their labs.