a bitty auto-biography / a smattering of facts

(I decided to write a small biography of myself for those who are curious. I figured it would be a bit more accurate this way. These are the events that i can think to highlight.)


I was born on Thanksgiving Day (November 24) 1977 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. My birth name was "danah michele mattas" (spelled all funky because my mother loved typographical balance). Two years later, my brother Ryan was born. My parents divorced when i was five and my mother, brother and i set off for York, Pennsylvania. My mother re-married when i was in the third grade and we moved to Lancaster. Shortly afterwards, all of us changed our name to "Beard." My mother and step-father divorced when i was in the 9th grade, but we stayed in Lancaster. In college, i changed my last name to "boyd" to honor my grandfather. When doing the legal paperwork, i switched back to a lower-cased style to reflect my mother's original balancing and to satisfy my own political irritation at the importance of capitalization.

I graduated Manheim Township High School as co-valedictorian with 2 other classmates. In high school, i played drums in marching band, headed up the literary magazine, did theater, threw javelin and disc, edited the newspaper, did Model UN, and got involved in various other activities. I volunteered at the March of Dimes and did AIDS education. I was not particularly well-behaved and i missed far more than my fair share of school days (translation: i was bored out of my mind). I won $1500 in Junior Miss - a talent competition (beauty contest) that my friend made me enter on a dare. I worked at Subway because my mother wanted me to learn why i was getting an education (a decision that i still respect). I attended all sorts of summer school programs, including Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences, Space Academy, and Phillips Exeter Academy. I was at Clinton's first inauguration through a program for smart politically engaged students. I broke my neck (C2/C3) when i was 16, forcing me to stop playing sports and ending my childhood dream of going to the Naval Academy to become an astronaut.

My brother introduced me to computers when i was younger and i thought they were lame. When he got an EPIX account and started talking to people, i became curious. My brother introduced me to IRC and Usenet and there are plenty of embarrassing messages there under pseudonyms. Although my brother showed me this world when i was a freshman (1992), i did not really participate actively until my junior year. Yet, once i got involved, i was utterly amazed at the connections that could be made and i started conversing with strangers about sexuality, identity and all sorts of teenage angst. I created my first webpage in 1995 and it morphed into the Ani DiFranco lyrics page that still exists today.

I was obsessed with music starting in middle school when i was introduced to classic rock. Throughout high school, i listened to ska, "alternative" and some punk rock. My "cousin" (mother's best friend's son) was in a band and used to take me to various local shows. Two very memorable shows at the Chameleon were Bad Religion and Gwar (where i was hoisted over the bar by the bartender because i was so little). My classic rock interest morphed into an appreciation for bands from the 60s and 70s who were still jamming and this passion led me to see the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd, amongst others. Through Sarah McLachlan (and the various dykes i met online), i started developing an obsession for female singer/songwriters, leading me to a Tori Amos concert and an Ani DiFranco one. My obsession with Ani was immediate and persistent. I did not really get into electronic music until college, although i attended a few raves late in high school.

My years in high school were not all rosy and many of my peers did not make it through as unscathed as i did. I attribute my survival to three things: 1) my mother (roots); 2) the Internet (wings); 3) a misogynistic classmate (a challenge). My mother was unbelievably supportive, even when terrible things were happening all around. While we would fight, she was always there to bail me out of trouble, give me necessary advice and keep me grounded. She was amazing at parenting through support rather than through rules (because i always broke any that she set down anyway). The Internet opened the door of possibilities to me. I found other smart kids year round (not just when i went off to smart kids camp). I found ideas, colleges. Strangers taught me so much about the world and about myself. And then there was my classmate... In the 9th grade, he told me that girls can't do science and that they didn't let girls into governor's school. We brawled on many occasions and i still smile when i think of the day that i punched him in the face. Yet, his antagonism gave me goals. I was determined to prove him wrong over and over again.

I went to Brown University because it seemed like the most liberal place that still had a science program. I intended to study math, but i was randomly assigned an advisor - Andy van Dam. Not understanding the social protocol, i marched right into his office and told him to advise me. His response was something like "who the hell are you?" I did not know that people were terrified of him or that he was a pretty famous academic. He told me to take CS15, his introductory computer science course. I don't remember how we bonded, but i started working for him during my first semester (while also working as computer tech support). I started TAing my second semester. I hated my first math class, mostly due to my teacher's inflexibility after i lost the ability to write (or type) because of my carpal tunnel. I quickly decided that math was not going to be my thing, but i was absolutely in love with computer science. Besides, i figured that i could use CS to build the online technologies that i loved in high school.

Initially, i was going to double major in religion (i had become obsessed with comparative religion in high school via Jack Kerouac), but Brown ousted my favorite Zen teacher. I was writing a journal for him in the spring of 1997 and we turned it into an online journal starting that summer. This began what is now my blog. My early posts were all written to him in an unedited, fluid style. The only other readers were my classmate and my boyfriend. What i posted then was very personal and most of those early posts persist on my blog today, even though the audience is much larger now. I made a conscious decision not to be embarrassed by those posts.

While at Brown, i lived in BACH (a housing cooperative) and spent far too much time in the SunLab with my fellow computer science friends. My academic interests led me to focus on hypertext and gender studies. My political goals led me to get involved with women's issues.

Although i had hooked up with girls in high school and been introduced to dyke culture through the Internet, i started really exploring what it meant to be queer in college. I never really had a "coming out" event or an emotional breakdown - it was more a process of trying to resolve the politics, the culture and my own attraction to people of different genders. I don't think that i found a resolution, but the process led to some amazing conversations and exploration. To this day, i identify as queer and have never identified as either lesbian or bi; the former is simply not true and the latter implies a binary gender segmentation that is not true of my experiences. I very much attribute my comfortableness with my sexuality to the long nights in high school discussing the topic in IRC.

During the summer of 1998, i read "The Vagina Monologues" and told the Women's Center coordinator that we should put the play together. She had just received a request to do exactly that from Eve Ensler's V-Day team. I was sent down to New York and i became one of six original V-Day College Initiative organizers. Believing that we should have tools to communicate, i started a few mailing lists and eventually helped build a variety of tools to support the organization. I continued to organize for V-Day at Brown until i graduated and my spring semester senior year was overwhelmingly focused on a production of a Tracy Chapman concert to raise money for women's shelters.

In the fall of my junior year, Andy wanted me to work on research taking place in the new CAVE; i told him it (the CAVE) was sexist; he told me to prove it, annoyed at my silly feminism. Sitting in my apartment, i watched as fellow graphics programmers were playing on a Nintendo64 and failing to do basic depth tasks. I started obsessing over this and my old roommate pointed me to military research on spatial rotation and hormone levels. I spent my junior spring abroad in Amsterdam studying gender theory and working with transgender researchers. There, i started investigating what eventually became my undergraduate thesis exploring how prioritization of depth cues was dependent on levels of sex hormones and that people who transitioned experienced a shift in depth cue prioritization. Since the CAVE (and other 3D systems) provided limited depth cue information (including conflicting cues), the system was indeed sexist.

During my freshman year, i decided that i should spend a summer teaching, a summer in industry and a summer doing research in order to figure out what i wanted to be when i grew up. I spent my first summer designing and running a program to help minority students learn how to code. I spent my second summer living in East Palo Alto and working as a UNIX engineering intern on Generator at Macromedia. I spent my third summer living in Cambridge working for Judith Donath, visualizing email lists. I really enjoyed this work and continued to commute up to MIT throughout my senior year.

Originally, i was not going to go to graduate school but on the day that MIT's applications were due, i decided to apply. I was in San Francisco at the time and i will never forget the shock i experienced when i paid for a same-day FedEx shipment to get my application in on time. I started as a graduate student in the Sociable Media Group at MIT Media Lab in the summer of 2000 and began working on a variety of visualization tools. I helped modernize Judith's Visual Who and we displayed this in Italy and at SIGGRAPH. After that, i worked with my colleague Hyun-Yeul Lee to try to make Usenet visually legible. At the same time, i met Henry Jenkins who introduced me to fan fiction and approaches to studying queer youth online.

I was an Intel fellow at MIT and during the summer of 2001, i went to Portland to work in the Peoples & Practices Group with my mentor Genevieve Bell. Although i had learned qualitative methods in Amsterdam, she introduced me to ethnography and to anthropology more broadly. Back at MIT, 9/11 hit like a brick and my world began unraveling, in part connected to the unraveling of those around me. One of the few things that kept me grounded was a fantastic class on social networks, taught by Keith Hampton and a legal class at Harvard taught by Jonathan Zittrain. I began obsessing over social networks and privacy and what it meant to think about email networks. I roped Jeff Potter, a dear friend from Brown, into helping me visualize social networks, thus beginning the Social Network Fragments project which was eventually shown in a Soho art gallery in New York. My Master's thesis on faceted id/entity (advised by Judith, Henry and Genevieve) brought together all of my varied interests and graduate school explorations.

After i got my Master's in Media Arts and Sciences in the summer of 2002, i drove around the country with two friends, attending all sorts of psytrance festivals and Burning Man. By this time, i was working 20 hours a week for V-Day. Although i had been to Burning Man before (first: 1998), i did not technically have the time off. Throughout our travels, i had been working on my laptop and jacking in whenever possible. Thanks to WiFi at Center Camp (and a satellite phone), i launched the 2002 campaigns from the desert. After the summer travels, i continued to wander around visiting people, working for V-Day by jacking in from wherever. In November, Andy van Dam tracked me down and told me to go back to graduate school. I told him i was moving to San Francisco and he told me he knew people there. A few days later, i got a call from him telling me that he had contacted Peter Lyman and i was to meet with him the moment i got to San Francisco. To make matters worse, my friend Alessandro Acquisti (a PhD at SIMS at the time) set up appointments for me, forcing me to go and check it out. Peter and i got along immediately and i decided to apply. Since the deadlines had passed, i had to run around quickly and i remember taking the GREs in Pennsylvania on New Year's Eve.

I landed in San Francisco for good in January, still working for V-Day. I got involved in False Profit, a San Francisco "urban tribe" full of smart people who liked to dance. While i was traveling, a friend of mine from AOL sent me an invitation to look at Friendster because he knew i was obsessed with social networks. I did and was intrigued. When i got to San Francisco, i contacted Jonathan Abrams and we met early in 2003 (when he told me that i was kinda smart for a chick). Even though i was not too impressed by Abrams, i started blogging about what i was seeing on Friendster. As it took off, i became the person that folks went to to understand the cultural dynamics. In June, Tribe.net hired me to run some focus groups and help them understand how to design the site to attract the kind of people that were obsessed with Friendster. I spent the entire summer interviewing people, collecting data and writing about Friendster.

In the fall of 2003, i started my PhD at the School of Information (Management and Systems) at Berkeley and while i didn't intend to keep studying Friendster, i found myself doing so. I also found myself getting connected to the "social software" community and advising on all sorts of social technologies. My work on Friendster got me invited to numerous conferences and made me an "expert" for the press. On Thanksgiving Day 2003, the New York Times ran a profile on me and my work. Committed to work on something else, i started studying blogging and took an internship at Google to do an ethnographic study of blogging for Blogger. I stayed there for a year before taking an internship at Yahoo! Research Berkeley to study social media more broadly (and with a more publishing-friendly research bent).

Although i met Mimi Ito briefly at a conference in the spring of 2003, i was terrified of her. In fall of 2003, various technologists were trying to get me to meet Joi Ito. Uninterested in venture capitalists, i balked... until i learned that he was the brother of Mimi. I wrote him a ridiculous note, stating that i didn't know who he was, but that his sister was a goddess. We quickly became friends and Joi connected me to Mimi by having us both work on a project with Nokia. Through some set of events, my advisor (Peter Lyman), Mimi, and Michael Carter started collaborating to get a Macarthur grant to study digital youth. For the project, i wanted to study how teens were dealing with unknown audiences. As we were applying for the grant, MySpace took off. After having been accused of affecting my Friendster data, i decided to lay low while watching MySpace grow. I didn't blog about it or talk to the press until News Corp bought it for an obscene amount. At that point, i figured that i couldn't influence its growth curve and i started documenting some of my observations. Unfortunately, i hadn't predicted the predator paranoia and have been swept right back into being a media pundit while still trying to do academic work.

And that's where we're at today (late 2006)...


Oh.. one other thing... about the fuzzy hat... I started wearing strange clothes in high school. First, i wore PJs and slippers and then it got a bit more eccentric. In college, i became obsessed with fuzzy things and had all sorts of rave wear. I shaved my head my freshman year, added all sorts of piercings and dyed my hair every color imaginable. In San Francisco, i bought a bunch of clothing to attend Burning Man, including the white fuzzy hat. In the summer of 2003, it was bloody cold and i started wearing the hat all the time. It has kinda stuck, particularly since i'm always freezing. When i spoke at Etech in 2004, i was very sick and so i wore the hat while on stage. Since then, it has become a sort of trademark, for better or worse.