The 30 Top Thinkers Under 30: Alex Leavitt

The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.
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The top young thinkers in economics, education, political science, and more.

Alex Leavitt is a researcher studying what he calls "weird phenomena on the Internet" to help us better understand how we use networked technologies.

In one innovative study, Leavitt explored the reasons and motivations behind why users of the social news site Reddit often create temporary, anonymous accounts. He found that, contrary to popular opinion, "people aren't creating anonymous usernames just so they can be really mean," he says. Users often seek anonymity for more personable reasons—to share a personal story, or to seek advice. (One user said she was preserving anonymity because she wanted "advice from the wisest people I know, also because my mother knows I Reddit and I don't want her finding this out.")

For his dissertation work at the University of Southern California, Leavitt is continuing his exploration of Reddit from a different angle: He's studying how users collaborate to report breaking news. Often, this collaboration seems "confusing and chaotic" while it’s happening, Leavitt says. For instance, when Leavitt observed Reddit's coverage of the attacks on Paris on November 13, 2015, he found the various news links, photographs, and eyewitness reports being posted overwhelming. To find trends within all this chaos, Leavitt has interviewed over 50 Reddit users and is statistically analyzing over two billion archived postings.

So far, Leavitt has uncovered at least one fascinating trend: According to his preliminary research, many users decide to post to a live news thread out of a feeling of altruism. "They say, 'If I just posted this it might be helpful to someone else,'" Leavitt explains. That said, most users don't go too far out of their way to be helpful; many say they planned to research the topic they're posting about anyway.

Leavitt grew up in a small town north of Boston—and "also on the Internet," he says. "I was a '90s breed of Internet kid: Aol chatrooms, GeoCities websites, LiveJournal." He is the proud owner of a 15-year-old account on the virtual pet community At 13, Leavitt wrote an article for Neopets' newspaper about the site's social economy. Though Neopets declined to publish it, that article marked the beginning of Leavitt's career. "That was when I really became interested in social phenomena of online communities," he says.

We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.

Perhaps surprisingly, Leavitt didn't study technology in college. He majored in English at Boston University. But that didn't stop him from learning computer programming during his first year of graduate school. Five years later, Leavitt is "running machine-learning and natural-language processing algorithms," he says, which he now combines with his background in ethnographic research. Leavitt's new technical skills have also helped him make meaningful contributions to the many companies he's worked for—including Facebook, Microsoft Research, Sony PlayStation, and Disney Interactive.

Leavitt encourages aspiring researchers to likewise keep on learning new skills. "Don't be afraid to jump into new territory," he says.


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