Co-creator of FOLD
I’m at the phase where I’m working on FOLD outside of an institution. I have to find a lot of the strength and energy to push it forward – finding that internal strength to pursue something even if you don’t have any external parties telling you every day that “it’s a great idea, it’s a great thing to do” – you have to find that within yourself.
Interview by Jaime Kaiser
At the age of 28, Alexis Hope spends most of her time building FOLD, a multimedia publishing platform, she co-created while she worked as a designer and researcher at the MIT Media Lab. Building a new media platform is her main focus when she’s not hosting a hack-a-thon about breast pump technology or gathering friends to play in a band. Collecting scholarships, grants, and degrees along the way, Alexis is the first to admit that the connections between these accomplishments are not always apparent.
Hailing from the West coast, Alexis completed her undergraduate education close to home in Washington at the University of Washington in Seattle, and stayed for another two years to receive her Masters. After that she received an NSF graduate research fellowship [and then joined a PhD program in Technology and Social Behavior at Northwestern in Chicago], though she left after a year into her PhD for the MIT Media Lab.
I sat down with Alexis at the workspace on 1299 Cambridge Street that she shares with other Cambridge Startups to talk about her passion for designing user-friendly, community-focused technology in the context of a few of her most recent projects.
JK: Can I ask why you dropped out of your PhD program?
AH: Why I dropped out? I think I didn’t actually want a PhD, I wanted to do something a little different.
JK: How was the program not a match for you?
AH: It was a bit of a small community out there – I was a little lonely and I found that I got a lot more excitement from building things that people used rather than writing academic papers. Though I know you can do both, it’s a hard road, and I found that my focus – or I became more passionate by being a designer than a researcher. I consider myself more of a designer than a researcher and when you’re getting a PhD, part of the expectation is that you can turn that into research and I found that to be a hard road.
JK: So you wanted something more practical?
AH: I wanted something where I could pretty much spend all of my time designing and building something rather than turning it into research. I think the Media Lab [MIT Media Lab] is more a fit for me because it’s the kind of place where there’s a lot of room to be different kinds of academics. There are certainly people who write amazing research papers and are well-respected for that and then there’s a lot of room for people who want to design or build things, including even artists. It’s just more flexible.
JK: A lot of the projects that you’ve done have a lot of creativity but then they also bring in your technical skills. Did you find one side of that before the other? And how do you marry the two?
AH: I’ve actually never considered myself a technical person. My background is in what’s called human-centered design, which is all about putting people and their needs and motivations, first, in the process. I think technology always was a tool insofar as it advanced other goals I had. But I mean, in terms of technical skills, I’m not a software developer. I collaborate with them, often. I’m technical enough to translate ideas into something people can interact with but, in the Lab, it’s all based on heavy collaboration and just-in-time learning. I have a really great idea that I want to implement, I pick up the technical skills that allow me to be able to do that.
JK: Can you think of an example? Perhaps a time where you had this creative idea and then you were like ‘oh I actually don’t have all the skills I need to do this.’
AH: I think that happened with FOLD itself. Early on I worked with Kevin, a software developer, Kevin Hu (see interview with Kevin Hu here). I wanted to be able to pitch in and help build it so I picked up some web development skills to be a full collaborative partner because I think if you don’t … it’s hard to feel connected to something … it’s hard for me to feel connected to something if I don’t get my hands dirty.
JK: How did the idea for FOLD start?
AH: The idea for FOLD came out of a class taught at the Media Lab called “Future Of News and Participatory Media” taught by Ethan Zuckerman. That class is a really cool mix of journalists who are here at MIT and Harvard on fellowships and geeks from around MIT. One week we were talking about explainer journalism, in my mind the most explicitly educational slice of journalism, where the goal is to try and bring readers up to speed on the backstory of a given event so they can put new facts in context. I found that really compelling because education has always been a driving force behind a lot of my other projects and that’s where I really connected to journalism. But anyway, we were working with journalists and for the assignment we had to produce our own explainer. Kevin Hu, my partner, and I worked on an explainer about the crisis in Crimea that was unfolding at the time. As we were writing it, we noticed we had opened like 30 new tabs on our browsers and we’re cross-referencing different things and looking up maps from different places and researching people from one article. It quickly became very overwhelming. That’s one of the things that was the light bulb moment behind FOLD. We wanted to build an authoring platform that could synthesize a lot of different things in one place so the reader could have the experience of exploring a topic but not feel totally overwhelmed or that they were taken totally out of context while searching.
JK: Would you give us a story or two that have been published on FOLD that you thought were really great, and perfect for what you’re trying to do?
AH: I think science can be very visual and there’s a lot of fantastic media out there that can help explain basic science concepts so we’ve had a lot of researchers from around the area to use FOLD to explain their research in kind of simpler terms using more graphics and visuals. Some of those pieces have been super exciting. In one, a researcher wrote a story about reaction-diffusion systems, which sound very confusing but it’s actually the math behind zebra stripes and brain coral. It’s really an amazing natural phenomena. He wrote a FOLD story that really introduced this complex math but connected it to these beautiful, natural phenomena. He brought the topic alive.
JK: If I wanted to write a FOLD story, could I? How would I go about doing that?
AH: Yeah – it’s an open platform so anyone can use it. And that’s the most exciting part of the project for me. When I think about the kinds of projects I like to do, I think providing platforms and opportunities for other people to be creative is really … really what I love. So the fact that FOLD is open is core to its DNA, in my mind. I’m really energized by seeing how people use it creatively. It’s pretty exciting to bring a tool into the world. It’s different than other creative projects because it takes on a life of it’s own that you can’t control which is scary but it’s also extremely exciting.
JK: Do you see any limitations to the platform? Are there aspects of it that you are still pushing to improve?
AH: Yeah I think one of the limitations is that not a lot of people know about it yet. It’s a crowded world out there for media projects. One of my big day-to day tasks now is to get out there and talk about the tool and try to find applications for other groups and organizations and ways they might be able to use it. One thing that I hope is going to make it more fun for people to use is more social features and more features that help people discover the unexpected connections between stories and between writers. We have a feature that we’re building that will allow people to remix cards from one story into another story. And so when they do that it will automatically kind of link those two stories together based on maybe the same video that they have in common. That’s really inspired by my advisor at MIT’s work – he wrote a book called Digital Cosmopolitanism. Ethan [Zuckerman] talks about how, opportunity for serendipity on the web are becoming increasingly limited.
JK: What does he mean by serendipity?
AH: Like the ability to encounter something unexpected – something that you didn’t explicitly ask for. Think about it – we’re very carefully crafting our newsfeeds in our social channels so we’re increasingly seeing a reflection of what we’re already asking for and then recommendation systems are trying to give us more of what they think we’ll like. But then our opportunities to find something new are limited by that.
JK: What do you think factors into the success or failure of an idea?
AH: I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. I’m at the phase where I’m working on FOLD outside of an institution. So, I have to find a lot of the strength and energy to push it forward myself – finding that internal strength to pursue something even if you don’t have any external parties telling you every day that “it’s a great idea, it’s a great thing to do” – you have to find that within yourself. The team you work with is really important too. I really think that nobody can do big things alone. I’ve never done anything I’m proud of without the help of a big... well not the help of a big team, but, without the help of other people who want to help make it happen. It’s very hard to do things all by yourself.
JK: Can you think of another project that was much more successful than it would have been because you had a team working with you?
AH: Yeah, so I worked on a big hack-a-thon last year called “Make The Breast-Pump Not Suck.” It was very fun and that ended up being a huge success.
JK: Can you explain a little bit more about what that was?
AH: Yeah, so a breast pump … it’s this piece of technology that has not changed in decades and so many people have bad experiences with but that reality is swept under the rug. I was talking to a colleague of mine at the Media Lab, Catherine D'Ignazio. We were talking about how strange it was that in a center of innovation like MIT there are certain kinds of technology that are not candidates for innovation and so we decided to stage an intervention.
We wanted to provide a space where nursing moms and engineers and designers and public health practitioners could all sit together at the same table and prototype solutions for something better, and we wanted to do it at MIT because we were intentionally trying to generate a bit of media attention around the idea. It was an unexpected technology event to be hosting at MIT and we wanted to capitalize on that because we wanted it to be something that was part of the public conversation. It was a huge effort. There was a team of seven of us and it took over our lives for a couples months and there’s no way one person could have done that by themselves.
JK: Right now you’re involved in FOLD but I get the sense that you’re often involved in other creative side projects. Why do you choose to juggle so many different things and how do you do that?
AH: Right now I’m mostly focused on FOLD and that is sort of new for me – to be focused on one thing. I’ve always been the type of person who likes to do a lot of projects. I think the only way to do that is to work with other people because you can’t do everything by yourself. I get excited by too many things, I guess, so I always want to be learning new skills. Every time an opportunity comes up that seems like something I don’t know how to do – those are the things I end of trying to fill my time with. I also believe that to get things done you have to know how to focus and there’s immense value in that, as well, which I’m finding through FOLD. It’s very nice to wake up every day and really focus on how to make this one thing better. I’ve found that’s been really rewarding. I really love that, but I also love Serendipity in my own life. Any opportunity to do something that teaches you something new – that’s very beguiling to me.
JK: So you take on these projects, learn these new things, purely for your own enjoyment – not necessarily to an end?
AH: I think I’m really bad at having any sort of end in mind. That’s why it’s a bit hard to talk about the different things I do because, if I look back, sometimes it’s hard for me to make sense of it. One thing is clear: it’s always people driven. Like the reason I started a band with some folks in Seattle – yeah, I’ve always liked making music but I really just wanted to find a reason to hang out with people in my band and I find that making something with someone is a great way to connect with them.
It was the same with the breast pump hack-a-thon. It came out of a conversation with someone that I really respect and admire and I wanted to find a way to work together. When I think about why I get out of bed in the morning it’s the opportunity to work with people I like and that’s often how a lot of these collaborations start. What is it that we can do together? That’s how I think about it. So that’s why I say I don’t have a specific end in mind – I really don’t. I’m drawn by the people I meet and, luckily, I’ve continued to meet amazing people and awesome things keep happening.