Amy Xian Zhang, MIT. “Building Systems to Improve Online Discussion”


Position:  PhD Student

Current Institution:  Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Abstract:  Building Systems to Improve Online Discussion

More and more of the discussion that happens now takes place on the web whether it be for work communities of interest news and civic discourse or education. However, little has changed in the design of online discussion systems such as email forums and chat in the decades they have been available even as discussions grow in size and scope. As a result, problems within online social platforms and communities have intensified with issues ranging from scale and a lack of context leading to information overload to misinformation and malicious actors exacerbating polarization and harassment of individuals. To solve these problems, my research is on designing and building tools to give users direct control over their information and experiences in online discussion systems. I focus on three major techniques and explore their effectiveness through the deployment of novel systems to real communities. First, I develop summarization tools to help make sense of large discussions. This includes tools such as Wikum, a collaborative wiki environment for summarizing threaded forums in a recursive fashion as well as Tilda, a tool for collective note-taking while participating in group chat. Second, I build annotation tools to situate discussions in the context of what is being discussed. Tools include Eyebrowse, a system to bring social experiences to web browsing using in-page annotations and chat and Nota Bene, a tool for students to mark up textbooks with comments conveying their emotional state. Finally, I work on moderation tools to give users more control over the governance and delivery of messages so that messages only go to those who wish to receive them. Tools include Murmur, a novel mailing list system that introduces fine-grained personal filtering, and Squadbox, a tool for people facing harassment to get moderation help from friends.

Amy X. Zhang is a fifth-year PhD student at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), focusing on human-computer interaction and social computing.  She is also a 2018-19 Fellow at the Berkman-Klein Center at Harvard. She received a master’s degree in advanced computer science at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. on a Gates Fellowship.  She received a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Rutgers, where she captained the Division I Women’s tennis team.  She interned twice at Microsoft Research and twice at Google Research and was a software engineer at a news startup.  Her work received a best paper honorable mention at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems and has been featured by ABC News, BBC, CBC, The Verge, and Business Insider.  Her research is supported by a Google Fellowship and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.