I recently completed my PhD (September 2011) at MIT in the Fluid Interfaces Group under Pattie Maes. I spent a majority of my time at the Media Lab in the Sociable Media Group under Judith Donath. I am now commercializing a variant of my research by starting a company with Greg Elliott called Empirical.
My professional talents surround conceptualization of new online social interactions, software engineering, natural language processing, cultural modeling, and visualization. My work has been used by millions in 185+ countries, been shown in over 7 musueums world-wide, and has been covered by PBS, NPR, BBC, The Alantic, and more.
At MIT my research focused on understanding strangers online. That might sound strange, but it's not in a creepy way. Social networking typically focuses on who you already know - your so-called "friends." But what about the other 2.2 billion people online? In an academic/artsy/techy fashion, I explored ways that we can represent people using the data that already exists online. Currently, when we come across strangers online it is usually through looking at a so called 'communications act' - examples include a comment on the New York Times, a blog entry, a craigslist posting, or a profile on a dating website1. But who are the people behind the act? And if we look at a collection of people -- the 2,300 people who collectively comment on a given newspaper article -- what are they saying? In what proportion? Who are they, and do I even care?
1 The profile here constitutes a communications act. You post that alone for others to see, there by constituting a singular expression.
The main paradigm on the web right now is to show you fine-grained lists of activity in reverse-chronological order. That's how the Facebook newsfeed works, give or take a little, as do comments on websites. Just lists and lists of data. But compared to how we gain an impression of individuals or crowds in real-life the current representation is just plain weak. It would appear virtual reality -- the other extreme of representation by being literal to mimicking the physical world -- is not the answer. And that's because most of what computers can do is what cannot be done in the physical world, so mimicking it isn't such a great idea. So what's the answer?
I spent my PhD puzzling and prototyping representation and interaction online, and now I am bringing those lessons to the design of a new communications platform at Empirical.
Read my thesis if you'd like.
[while at mit]
At the Media Lab I was on the student committee, and started the Hacker Seminar Series where MLers teach each other what they know. From 2005-2006 I was an SAIC Fellow. During the summer of 2007, I enjoyed a summer internship at IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, NY under Chandra Narayanaswami andDanny Soroker of the Technologies for Next Generation Pervasive Services group. In 2008, I spent a summer and took off a semester to work at Google Cambridge working under the most talented Ryan Rifkin. There I envisioned, prototype, and built a new way to browse blogs. Unfortunately after I returned to MIT the Blogger product it was going to roll into got nixed when the financial markets collapsed.
I care a lot about the world and want to tangibly make it a better place. Aside from being political in the side-lines, I always have done some level of social justice or volunteer work. In high school I was a peer counselor on LYRIC's queer youth state-wide talk line. In college I was a TA in a 1st grade classroom and participated in student protests (largely a time waste). At MIT I became a Big Brother to an awesome kid named Remi, which is ongoing. The largest social project came after the Haitian earthquake where Greg Elliott and I built and successfully deployed a voice-based job board for disconnected illiterate populations in and around Port-au-Prince after the earthquake. That project is also ongoing.
[before mit; ucsd]
Before coming to MIT I was a Cognitive Science major at UCSD specializing in Computation (focusing on artificial intelligence crossed with neurobiology). While UCSD provided a great education, I had an amazing secondary layer of college by working with Prof. David Kirsh at the Interactive Cognition Lab. In Prof. Kirsh's lab I developed e-learning systems, a group portal for knowledge storage / collaboration, and tools to aid ethnographic studies. My honors thesis (under Prof. David Kirsh, Prof. John Batali, Dr. Dan Bauer) explored how personal metadata could extend the concept of desktop search in terms of social relations and physical activity. It set the stage for my explorations of data. I owe a lot to Prof. Kirsh spending so much time with me as an undergraduate.
At UCSD I was also a principal member of the DJ and Vinylphiles Club (I spin french disco house), creator of the Nerd Club (media lab artsy-tech in spirit) which died due to an apathetic campus of the pre-med obsessed, and studied abroad in England & France where it was as awesome as it sounds.
I was raised in Sausalito, California by my mother Millie and my father Edwin Zinman, who is a dental malpractice attorney that I HIGHLY recommend. And not just because he's my father. He has made significant contributions to dentistry.
My early years were fantastically nerdy as I've been on a computer daily since I received my first Mac at age 5 in 1986. From a 1200 baud modem I learned about the world via AOL, Prodigy, BBSes, and Usenet. Before the web, BMUG and 2600 meetings gave me physical networks.
I used my computer knowledge to form my first entrepreneurial venture at age 12: advertising as a computer consultant in the local paper I acted like an early 90's version of GeekSquad. Making $40/hr in 1995 was pretty awesome as a teenager. Before I was 16 my clients often picked me up. They'd get a discount if they'd stop by McDonalds on the way back.