Making Knowledge Cool
The Penn Education of Steven Morgan FriedmanAlthough a student of history, College senior Steven Morgan Friedman, C'98, is young enough to invite readers of his personal home page (http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~smfriedm/) to take a Web tour through Penn's history on a set of pages he created "long ago"--in his sophomore year. In addition to an undergraduate career as a double major--history and English (he is writing honors theses in both)--Friedman has launched a successful career designing Web sites for Penn and elsewhere.
"Anything of this sort always goes back to one story," he says, embarking upon his narrative of how he had been contracted to design a number of Web sites for Penn. "First semester sophomore year--it was my second year at Hill House, where I was one of the student leaders." Everyday for two years he had passed a plaque in the hallway engraved with the building's namesake, Robert C. Hill. "One day, I was walking to Hill and I said, 'Hmmm, I wonder who Robert C. Hill is?'" Robert Lucid, a now retired English professor and former faculty master of Hill House, sent him to Franklin Field, where the University Archives are housed. "The archivist sat me in the reading room and got me Hill's folder. It was so exciting: it had his alumni card; it had his report card with his grades; it had obituaries; it had full stories about when he donated the money to buy the plot of land that's now Hill Field. I spent the whole afternoon absorbed in that folder."
Several days later, Friedman sent an e-mail to Mark Lloyd, director of the University Archives and Records Center, effusing, "wow, I had so much fun discovering all this great stuff in Archives, can I volunteer here this semester?" Lloyd took him on. In the course of subsequent conversations, they came to talk about how the Archives had no Web site. This was just as the Internet was becoming a critical part of institutional operations. "Even though I had done no Web pages other than my own, I had this great interest, so I said to him, 'hey, wouldn't it be cool if we did this?' And he said, 'OK, why not.'"
Friedman spent several months doing research in the Archives, scanning in pictures, and designing the Web page. He incorporated research on Penn's history and the history of universities generally into an independent study that paralleled with a course Professor Lucid was teaching, Imagining the University. "Now I can't walk around campus without spouting out facts about Penn's history," he declares. The Archives Web page (http://www.upenn.edu/AR/) was launched at the end of his sophomore year "with a lot of hoopla."
On his own home page, Friedman describes himself as "an easily amused 22 year-old travel-loving university student." His tight brown curls seem to hold in coiled tension the passion and barely contained enthusiasm that gains physical release in sudden and expansive gestures. His talk is quick and articulate, and his hands jab at the air, along with his voice, to emphasize a point. He sometimes passes his hand through the space before him with thumb and index finger slightly spread, as if highlighting the typed text of something he just said.
In middle school, Friedman dabbled in programming "for fun," and in Great Neck South High School (http://www.westegg.com/greatneck/south/), he fed an interest in technology with advanced computer programming courses, which produced a gold medal for programming at the 1994 Long Island Math Fair. "During finals week," he says, "first semester freshman year, the guy down the hall in Hill House taught me how to make a Web page, and that's that. I just stumbled into designing Web pages; before freshman year, I didn't even know what the Internet was."
Although he considered studying computer programming as an undergraduate, Friedman confesses to being "a history major at heart." "Ever since I was young, I've had a deep and strong interest in history; I view everything historically. It's how the whole thing with designing Web sites got started: I was interested enough in who Robert Hill was that I went to the Archives and found out."
Friedman created a Web page (http://www.upenn.edu/AR/1830/) that depicts Penn in 1830. The anachronistic site contains provost speeches from 1830, course listings and fees, student directories and faculty profiles, Penn facts and figures from that time, and a virtual tour of the nineteenth century campus. "I combine my history stuff and my Web stuff very consciously. I believe very strongly in making knowledge cool. Most people wouldn't do the research to find out about Penn in 1830. The beautiful thing about the Web is that it makes it so easy to read all about someone like William Heathcote DeLancy, D.D. (Penn's sixth provost) and then say, 'oh, his picture looks cool, I wonder what College Hall looked like?' and then just click on a link. It's not that I like the Web so much as I think the Web is a perfect tool to do what I want to do, which is to make history look cool so people want to know it."
Confident of his abilities and the worthiness of his ideas, Friedman is not shy about broaching the subject of implementation to those who can hire him. "Two years ago, it occurred to me that, although Penn claims to be an international school--all my friends in Hill House were European and Latin American and all--our entire Web site is in English. Being a Francophile, I said to myself, 'wouldn't it be cool if we had a Web site in French?' That way we can represent ourselves in French-speaking countries and be this international, multilingual place we claim to be." Conducting the serendipitous Internet research known as "surfing," Friedman landed on the site for the French Institute for Culture and Technology at SAS. He dashed off an e-mail--"wouldn't it be cool if we did this?"--discussed his idea with the assistant director, and was hired. The Institute's Web page (http://www.upenn.edu/FI/) now has a link to le guide francais de l'Universite de Pennsylvanie, which includes une visite virtuelle. "Just as my Archives site is the first Web history of a university, this Web site is the first, and as far as I know, the only virtual tour through a major American university in a language other than English. It's my little claim to fame."
Seizing and amplifying the opportunities presented to him, Friedman's undergraduate experience has made him one of Penn's biggest boosters. "I just give so much credit to Penn and to Mark Lloyd in particular for taking a chance with me. In fact, this attitude of Mark's is very representative of Penn; it's one of the things that makes Penn a great school, because it's willing to do things that lots of other schools wouldn't. Looking at my friends' universities, I can see that those schools would have never taken on a sophomore who hadn't designed a Web page and have him write the official online history of their institution. It was the same sort of thing when I started helping other students use the online library resources in my dorm: I said to (English Professor) Al Filreis, 'wouldn't it be cool if we did this?' and he got some money, and I did it, and now there's a trained library advisor in all the college houses. One of Penn's greatest virtues is that it has this open-minded attitude: people like Al Filreis and Mark Lloyd--and the list goes on--are willing to take chances and to trust students and let them do things."
Friedman's pleasing and useful design aesthetic has brought him both other clients and media attention. "The majority of Web pages on the Net are hurtful to the eyes, annoying, and take forever to upload," he judges. "Most people don't like it, so I go for the exact opposite: simple, classy, and elegant." He uses lots of white space to create clean and practical information tools, a kind of cyber-Shaker aesthetic that unites simplicity with usefulness. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley hired him--he initiated the contact--to create a Web tour through that university's history (http://sunsite.Berkeley.EDU/CalHistory/). Among his other Web projects are a page linking to student home pages at many American colleges and universities (http://www.westegg.com/students/), a cliche finder (http://www.westegg.com/cliche/), an inflation calculator (http://www.westegg.com/inflation/), an Albert Einstein page (http://www.westegg.com/einstein/), and a Web page for his home town of Great Neck, Long Island (http://www.westegg.com/greatneck/).
Last December CNN broadcast a program featuring Friedman's cliche finder. In addition to several hundred e-mails from people saying they liked his work, he received a phone call from the VP of a 25-person high-tech company in San Francisco. "They had seen the CNN program, they looked at my Web pages, and they offered me a job when I graduate--a job to be the editor-producer of a new product. They offered to fly me out to see if I like them. I'm going to do it and hopefully I'll like them."
With graduation imminent, Friedman seems reluctant to sever his ties to Penn. In January, he submitted his most recent ideas to Alumni Relations for "Continuing the Penn Experience and Keeping Alumni Close to Penn Using the Internet and New Technologies." The ambitious proposal outlines a strategy for creating a "virtual community" at Penn. "[O]nce students turn into alumni," he wrote, "using the...new technologies, they could still stay in close touch and in close contact with Penn, their Penn experience, and other Penn people." Associate Director Jennifer Wollman notes that Friedman's proposal helped prioritize and solidify many ideas at Alumni Relations regarding the use of information technologies. Among several of the proposal's points, she hopes to have class sites on the Web by the fall and to institute free e-mail forwarding for alumni.
Friedman has created an unofficial Web page that lists and links to Penn alumni home pages (http://www.westegg.com/pennalumni/). The current list consists of 25 alumni, including President Judith Rodin, C'66. The page has a link for alumni to attach their home pages. Friedman hopes the Web page will eventually become officially linked to Penn's alumni site. That would be cool.