One can learn a lot about Amy X. Zangh on the Internet. That if you pay a special attention to the X. part of her name. Another Amy Zhang, writer, author of books for young adults almost fooled me. But then I thought I had never seen that face before. And Amy X. was someone that had impressed me two weeks before I discovered that I would have to profile her for a MIT class assignment. Amy X., I remembered, had helped to create a new tool to track her browsing activity, her movements online.
Forget programs like Rescue Media, the idea of Eyebrowse is allowing “users to be selective about what they track, and then share that information publicly as a way for people to find interesting content from each other and converse with other people while browsing”, she explained in the occasion.
On that moment, I just thought: “so young, so quick-smart MIT material”. And two weeks later I found myself having to discover all about that talented Chinese girl. As a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Amy made my job relatively easy by sharing online all her professional achievements in the last few years. Knowing about her personal life, however, was much more difficult. A picture in her facebook page again fooled me. Looked like she got married, but she was just all dressed up with her boyfriend in the marriage of some friends, not theirs.
One personal thing is online: her passion for photography. Her Flickr page, with the curious name of “moderngirly”, brings hundreds of beautiful images. But, again, is almost professional. You can see real art, but not exactly Amy.
I figured out later that Amy loves social media, but only to discover what other people are doing. She realized this official “lurking” is what she wants to do as a scientist. But knowing so much about others, of course she couldn’t commit the same “mistake” of reveal herself.
From her blog and personal page at CSAIL, I could track pretty much all her academic life and career so far. She took her Bachelor degree in Computer Science (CS) at Rutgers (The State University of New Jersey), with an athletic scholarship as a tennis player. Then went to Cambridge University (UK) to get a Masters in CS and now is at MIT pursuing a Ph.D. She did a summer internship last year at Microsoft Research, in Seattle, and she is going to the Google headquarters in Mountain View (CA) to do a new internship next summer.
She defines her focus on “human-computer interaction” and following that line she discovered, for instance, how Americans behaved on Twitter and eventually changed their mind about same-sex marriage. She also collected information from activities on location-based social networks in order to characterize urban spaces and recommend certain neighborhoods for tourists.
Amy, 25, was born in Beijing, China, the day before the beginning of the protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, in 1989. “My parents were planning to go to the protest, they were college students, I think that is what all students colleges were doing. Except my mom was pregnant, so she had me instead”, she told me in the following interview. In this Q.A, is possible to get much more of her than the online registers show up.
Why did your family come from China to US?
My dad came to US when I was 3, because he got a research position at Nebraska University. But we were really poor, so he came by himself. My mom just came a year later and I lived with my grandparents for a year or two and then I followed my parents to US when I was 5. We went to Nebraska, then my dad got a post-doc at UCLA, so we moved to LA, we lived there around 6 years. He used to do Forestry research, but during the first dotcom boom, he switched into computers. Then we moved to Irvine, when he started working for Cisco Systems. We lived there for two years, then moved to Texas, my family is still there now since 2000. I left when I went to college, in New Jersey. I like moving around, never lived in a place for long time.
Did your dad influence you to work with computer science?
(Laughs) Maybe… not really. He pushed me to do computer science when I was younger, but I didn’t liked it, whenever he tried to teach me. I think I might have liked it despite him, instead of because of him… even tough he exposed me to it.
Then, what motivated you to study computer science afterwards?
In high school you can take this AP classes, which is basically college credit for high school students. A lot of high school students take it in order to get better college admissions, i mean. I took a lot of those classes, including CS, and I really liked them. Then I joined the high school programing team, we had competitions and it was a lot of fun, I decided that I liked it. Before went to college, I just decided that Computer Science would be my major.
I guess your dad loved this.
Yes, he is happy.
Your Facebook page photo gives the impression to have been taken in your marriage. A friend congratulated you in the comments. And then I got that you are not married. So, who is the guy?
(Laughs) No, I wasn’t getting married. He is my boyfriend. I live with him, but we were just dating. This photo was in another wedding. I met him in the UK, when I did my masters. He and I were in the same fellowship program, the Gates, we became friends and we were friends for like half year, before we started dating. We started dating in UK, then he came back to Harvard for his PhD, I went to New York for a year, we did long distance, and then I moved here.
You describe yourself as focused in the “human-computer interaction centered on discourse and social sharing”. And that you are “interested in designing and building interfaces and systems to improve discourse, collaboration, and affinity on the web, with applications to news, political discourse, and civic engagement”. What does it mean?
What I do is: I study social media, I study data from social media to find out interesting things about people, I build new social media tools, new algorithms for how social media decides to show certain things, or new technics for collaboration, or new tools for showing content or allowing people to talk.
Does it mean you are planning to create a super popular social media, like Facebook, or you are more interested in understanding how people behave in social media?
I think both. Well, I don’t really plan on making something super popular, but something novel, that people try out, and I hope they like it. I think people reveal a lot when they have conversations, they reveal a lot about themselves, their values, their feelings about certain things, so you can learn a lot from that. I always thought interesting the wide variety of things that people just talk about online and I really enjoy reading other people conversations. One of the reasons that I got into this research is because part is centered in discussions online, how to improve them, how can we study them, how can we build better interfaces to make easy having this discussions online. That came out of me because I really love reading them. Whenever I read something, I love to read comments about it, to just see what people are saying about things. I think that is why I got in this whole thing.
It is funny you said that, because everything that I could find about you on internet was not exactly about your values and your feelings, but your achievements as a professional. So, precisely because your are interested in this behavior you act on Internet exactly not revealing yourself?
Yeah, I guess I use social media more to put may professional stuff, specially in Twitter. But Facebook has some work too. I don’t really engage in posting a ton of personal stuffs, pictures, like many friends do, but I really love reading other people stuff.
You are going to Google in Mountain View this summer. What are you going to do there?
I am not sure yet exactly. Probably along the same lines I am studying here, but with Google products, doing some research, like Youtube comments, or Google Store comments, maybe Google plus.
In one of your last papers was examine almost 2 million public Twitter posts related to same-sex marriage in the U.S. states. What did you discover?
Last summer I interned in the Microsoft Research, in Seattle, and one of the greatest thing is that they have access to the entire Twitter firehose, which is all the public tweets ever, tons and tons and tons of tweets. So we were looking, within the American states, how people were discussing same-sex marriage, all the way back to 2011 until today. Several different laws were passing or failing in different states and we could look what people were talking about related to these legislations. We could see how public opinion changed depending on whether the law passed or failed. Then we tried to understand whether we could predict if something will pass or fail depending on how people are discussing it on Twitter. Overall we got a pretty good accuracy, like 85% on 45 events.
What are your projects on MIT now?
One of them is the Eyebrowse. I built a lot of it, but it was not just me, a lot of people built it too. And I am really excited now. Hopefully we will get more users and then we will run some experiments later this semester. We are hoping for a couple of different goals for the project. The way we see this being useful is 1): you can track your own media consumption and sort of audit what you look at. 2) It is useful way to find out about interesting stuff. So if you have data on a lot of people about what they are reading about, you can sort of see like: “oh, tons of people are reading this” or “this must be an interesting article because people are spending 10 minutes on this”. Once you have this metadata it is possible to you can recommend interesting things to read. And 3), having this data you can know, on real time, where people are on the Internet and so you can do things like chat on certain pages, leave comments on pages, leave notes for your friends, things like that.
Several news outlets can already say what their readers are consuming, like the top stories. The difference is that your project could track the entire Internet, not just one site?
Yes. Every media company has their servers that can track their own consumption, but don’t have a comparison with others, for instance. And we don’t believe it should be sold. We will be releasing this publicly. Right now companies can install things in your computer that you are not realizing and checking what you are visiting in the web without consent. And then this companies sell that data without your consent for tracking you. We specifically ask you which pages you want to be tracked. People could use this data to do research or build new things. The point it that nowadays all this power is concentrated in big companies or governments, and scientists or developers don’t have access to this data.