Sworn to The Sword: Defending My Dissertation & Heading to Princeton

Twenty years ago, my mother called a computer science professor to settle an argument about chemistry.

J. Nathan Matias
11 min readMay 8, 2017

As a teenager in the mid-90s, I fell in love with computers. That first summer, I scribbled pages of BASIC code onto lined notebooks and collaborated with a pen pal through the mail. Uninterested in chemistry and a little scared of it, I insisted to my home-schooling parents that computers were the future and I didn’t need to study the physical sciences. In a moment of creative inspiration given only to the mothers of stubborn teenagers, she picked up the phone, found the university section of the phone book, and dialed.

Within days, I was sitting in the office of Tom Leap, a computer scientist at Elizabethtown College. I still remember his kind smile as he asked me questions. He learned about my parents, a Guatemalan from Zaculeu and an American missionary who had only expected to stay in the US for one week after their wedding in the late 1970s. Tom heard how they saved money from my dad’s night-shift factory job to buy their sons a computer with only the most limited software. He heard about the BASIC manual we had struggled to understand and the game I had created, inspired by breakout.

Then Tom told his own story, describing his very first software project to process data from a nuclear reactor. I was entranced. He was, of course, about to explain why a computer scientist needs to study chemistry. Tom’s actual advice was more profound, one of the few constants in my very nonlinear journey for the next two decades.

Computation is a lens for seeing our world, Tom told me, and one of software’s greatest powers is its ability to architect how we see. To write software well, I needed to understand the world from many perspectives. That meant studying chemistry; it also meant literature, politics, history, law, and the social sciences.

Computation is a lens for seeing our world, Tom told me, and one of software’s greatest powers is its ability to architect how we see.

Tom’s next suggestion removed the lens cap from the life he had just described. Telling my mother about the college library’s community membership, he encouraged me to read Steven Levy’s book Hackers and told me where to find it in the stacks. In Hackers, I read about computer scientists who thought deeply about law and politics, people who were willing to re-imagine their world through the power of software and social movements. Throughout my teenage years and undergraduate degree, the Etown College library opened many worlds to me.

I knew I would be defending my thesis. I didn’t realize that Ethan literally planned to attack me. Photo by Chia Evers.

Last Monday, twenty years after our argument about chemistry, my parents watched me defend my thesis, quite literally, when my MIT advisor Ethan Zuckerman slashed at me with a cosplay sword. Years of voracious intellectual wandering had led me unexpectedly to a community designed to help me flourish, and to one of the kindest, wisest, people that I have known.

Across our years together, Ethan showed me how scholarship should be focused on people as much as ideas. Studying with Ethan has been an extended masterclass in the facilitative leadership that makes everything he touches a joyful, collaborative, and inclusive endeavor. As Ethan shepherded my growth from a literary scholar and software engineer into an empirical researcher, he also modeled the kind of leader I want to be: where influence is based as much on amplifying and supporting others as sharing my own ideas.

I have found that to learn from Ethan is to grow together with the networks he so generously supports. Don’t take him too seriously when he downplays his role. If Ethan’s contributions seem small to him, it is only because he masterfully cultivates diverse, collaborative endeavors that beautifully exceed the sum of their parts. My dissertation would not have been possible without the years of practical experience in principled, public interest work that I gained with Ethan.

Here’s a short summary of the dissertation I defended last week:

Governing Human and Machine Behavior in an Experimenting Society

(watch the defense here, roughly an hour)

We live in a culture that depends on technologies to record our behavior and coordinate our actions with billions of other connected people. Some of these actions perpetuate deep-seated injustices by humans and machines. Our abilities to observe and intervene in other people’s lives also allow us to govern, forcing us to ask how to govern wisely and who should be responsible.

In my PhD dissertation, I argue that to govern wisely, we need to remake large-scale social experiments to follow values of democracy. My dissertation opens with an intellectual history of democratic social experiments. Next, using quantitative and qualitative methods, I spent time with hundreds of communities on the social news platform reddit and learned how they govern themselves. I designed CivilServant, novel experimentation software that communities have used to evaluate how they govern harassment and misinformation. Finally, I examined the uses of this evidence in community policy deliberation.

As we develop ways to govern behavior through technology platforms, we have an opportunity to ensure that that the benefits will be enjoyed, questioned, and validated widely in an open society. Despite common views of social experiments as scarce knowledge that consolidates the power of experts, I show how community experiments can scale policy evaluation and expand public influence on the governance of human and machine behavior.

Photo by Hiroshi Ishii (more photos here)

Launching CivilServant with Global Voices

In my dissertation, I showed a proof of concept for ways that everyday internet users can understand and intervene on deep social problems. I’m happy to say that my dissertation was just the beginning.

Starting this summer, the citizen media organization Global Voices will be incubating the CivilServant project, offering advisory and administrative support as CivilServant transitions from a dissertation project into a public interest research organization. Global Voices has deep experience in principled community building and global collaboration towards an open society. Their Advox project already plays a central role to monitor and understand the risks and benefits of digital governance worldwide. I’m honored to lay the groundwork for this global research initiative together.

Over the next few years, I hope that CivilServant can achieve a 100x increase in usable, public knowledge to make our digital lives fairer, safer, and more understanding. In the short term, I’m fundraising toward the goal of completing our first fifty studies. After a short post-dissertation break, I hope to recruit our initial advisors and hire the team that will grow our software infrastructure beyond reddit, broaden our collaborations with international communities, build robust ethics/accountability processes, and develop the network of researchers who will work with us.

Joining Princeton University

I’m excited and honored to continue my work at Princeton University. As a postdoc at Princeton, I’ll be working with three groups: the Paluck Lab in the Department of Psychology, the Department of Sociology, and the Center for Information Technology Policy.

Betsy Paluck, who will be one of my mentors, is a leading researcher on social change who has developed and tested theories for intervening on prejudice, conflict, corruption reporting, and democracy around the world. Betsy, who also holds a position in the Woodrow Wilson School, is deputy director of the Kahneman-Treisman Center for Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton.

In Sociology, I’m excited to work with Matthew Salganik, an irrepressible innovator in computational social science, whose whose new textbook on social research in the digital age offers a readable bridge for computer scientists and social scientists alike. At Princeton, I’m planning to develop a new class on field experiments with Matt’s help.

Finally, I’ll be hosted at the Center for Information Technology Policy, which has a long track record of supporting public interest work. Ed Felten is back at Princeton to direct CITP after a fruitful period in the FTC and the White House. I know I’ll feel right at home at CITP, an amazing community that thinks, makes, and acts on public interest technology issues.

I’m going to miss Boston desperately, and I expect to maintain strong relationships with many dear colleagues at MIT and Harvard. I am working from MIT all summer and look forward to catching up with many friends before I leave, preferably from a sailboat on the Charles!


Although PhDs often end with a solitary endeavor, many hands move a project forward.

My chief supporter and encourager, Dr. H, has been kind, generous, and patient in uncountable ways, drawing from her own deep experience as an academic and as a supporter to thousands of other gradstudents. And you have already heard about my remarkable parents, who continue to inspire me.

One year ago, Merry Mou, an M.Eng. student at MIT, decided to work with me to make CivilServant a reality. As a collaborator on code and words, I have been delighted to see Merry grow on all fronts and imagine new ways to apply her considerable technology abilities to questions of social value. Merry is also graduating this year; I’m grateful that we can continue working together before we both leave MIT at the end of the summer.

I am deeply grateful to my dissertation committee. Tarleton Gillespie has been a wonderful mentor since our time together at Microsoft, and I’ve written about our relationship here. Betsy Paluck offered essential guidance and scholarly references in the early formation of the CivilServant project.

None of my PhD would have been possible without the many hours of effort invested by the r/worldnews and r/science communities, who spent many hours debating study designs and organized tens of thousands of people to participate in studies. Several people pored closely over my statistics before I shared experiment results with communities. Thanks, Feedmahfish and Martin Saveski! Several people also produced public datasets that became important to my dissertation, including Jason Baumgartner, Felipe Hoffa, Eric Gilbert, and Eshwar Chandrasekharan.

Great collaborations don’t disappear when people graduate. This spring, the engineer and artist Sophie Diehl generously took a day to brainstorm novel procedural art based on data from CivilServant field experiments. Sophia Breuckner also offered helpful feedback. I’ll blog soon about my first prototypes, which I briefly shared in the defense.

Over thirty scholars contributed their wisdom and their bibliographies to a literature review and a summit on online harassment. The collective knowledge we developed became an important resource for many people, including me.

I also had an amazing generals exam committee, who shepherded the hardest moments of my transition from purposeful designer to a question-asking social researcher. Benjamin Mako Hill is a force of nature who I am honored to have as a mentor, and Mary Gray has been a joyful, supportive, principled guide through discussions of research ethics and through my all-too-brief dips into qualitative research. As members of my MIT Master’s thesis committee, Kate Crawford and Tom Steinberg inspired me to develop theoretically meaningful and genuinely impactful work that uses quantitative tools without being imprisoned by them.

The indescribably wonderful community at the Berkman Klein Center and the Cooperation Working group provided a long-term context for making that transition while still holding onto my passion for making a difference. BKC has provided an intellectual home and an important band of friends throughout my PhD years. ❤ Throughout our time facilitating the Cooperation Working Group, Brian Keegan was a wonderful collaborator and guide to the field of computational social science. Andrés Monroy-Hernández has been another influential role model at the Media Lab, the Berkman Klein Center, and then at Microsoft Research. Thanks for encouraging me to follow my dreams!

My six years at MIT have been funded by the Knight Foundation, the MIT Media Lab member companies, and the Harvey Fellowship. Thanks!

Several editors and publications worked closely with me throughout my PhD to develop articles and initiatives that have profoundly shaped my thinking. Spencer Kornhaber worked with me during the two years I facilitated @1book140 The Atlantic’s Twitter book club, after Jeff Howe passed it into my hands. Adrienne LaFrance has been a wonderful collaborator and editor at the Atlantic as I developed my public voice. Becky Gardiner commissioned and edited a Guardian article that gave me confidence to follow through and apply intellectual history to contemporary issues in my dissertation.

I had so many good classes at MIT and Harvard. Betsy encouraged me to take an ICPSR class on field experiments with Donald Green and Costas Panagopoulos, which exposed me to valuable practices and ways of thinking in the art of experimentation that I hadn’t previously encountered. Thanks Don and Costas! On the Harvard Grad School of Education statistics train, I learned to value clear writing about statistics alongside valid methods. Thanks to Hadas Eidelman, Joe McIntyre, Shane Tutwiler, and Andrew Ho, for insisting on both! Sasha Costanza Chock introduced me to participatory research and why it matters; their influence runs deep throughout my work. I will always carry the inspiration of my first MIT class with Mitch Resnick, Sherry Turkle, and Karen Brennan, who made their class sparkle with their generous, respectful, and productive differences.

I have been lucky to meet many kindred spirits at MIT, and none greater than Ricarose Roque, Sayamindu Dasgupta, Erhardt Graeff, Rahul Bhargava, and the whole crew at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Thanks for being wonderful role models, dear friends, and thoughtful collaborators every step of the way, in play, reflection, and social action.

The amazing people of Women, Action, and the Media! set me on the path of prioritizing platform-independent research in our collaboration on harassment reporting. I am grateful to Amy Johnson, Whitney Erin Boesel, Brian Keegan, Jaclyn Friedman, Charlie DeTar, Jamia Wilson, and Adria Richards, for teaching me so much from that project.

I went on to study with Tom Leap at Elizabethtown College. Here’s an image I photoshopped and put on his office door as an undergraduate.

Over the longer term, I am profoundly grateful to Tom Leap, who convinced me to study chemistry and eventually became my computer science professor during my undergraduate years at Elizabethtown College. I should also mention the late Tom Winpenny, who helped me find my voice for writing history, and whose undergrad class on technology and values first taught me to seek the seeds of today’s problems in the past.

When I was an undergrad, my brother Jonathan invited me to participate in the American Institute for Parliamentarians, which sparked my early interest in community governance. I am also grateful to the Davies-Jackson Scholarship, Adrian Poole, Chris Warnes, Priyamvada Gopal, and the Union Society at Cambridge University, who helped me encounter important perspectives and supported my first stumbling attempts to reckon with questions of current affairs.

Many offered me a place to camp and work during my final year, including Matt Stempeck, Emma Pierson, Kaitlin Thaney, David Riordan, Marcus Gibson, Emily Gibson, James Docherty, Simon Berry, Wycliffe Hall Oxford, Matthew Jarvis, Blackfriars Oxford, John Lister, Diane Lister, Ugo Vallauri, Elizabeth Day, the Imperial College Faculty of Engineering, the Data and Society Institute, Jared Honeycutt, Wendy Quay, George Thampy, Amber Case, Kyle Drake, and the Boston Athenaeum. Other key resources and inspiration were provided by Michael Docter, Perry Hewitt, and Katherine Lo. Thanks everyone!



J. Nathan Matias

Citizen social science to improve digital life & hold tech accountable. Assistant Prof, Cornell. citizensandtech.org Prev: Princeton, MIT. Guatemalan-American