Girlwonder is the long-standing digital home of Molly Wright Steenson. My site has been online in some form or another since 1995 and as Girlwonder.com since 1997—its name is a vestige from my dotcom career in the 1990s. I’m an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where I focus on digital studies (it’s also where I studied as an undergrad). I am waiting to defend my dissertation this spring at Princeton University School of Architecture, titled “Architectures of Information: Christopher Alexander, Cedric Price, Nicholas Negroponte & the MIT Architecture Machine Group.” I’m also a digital strategist and design researcher who examines how technology and interactivity fit into our contemporary cities and lives. This interest has sent me to India to study mobile phones, to China to study social networking sites, and to the 1960s to study the effect of artificial intelligence on architectural systems and interactivity.
I was born and bred in Minneapolis/St. Paul and loved growing up in a city large enough to have lots of art, culture, theater and music and small enough that it was possible to feel like we could have an impact upon it. I have two (not so much younger) brothers, a niece and two nephews, a mom who’s a judge, a dad who’s a law professor, and two stepparents. I’ve lived in 7 countries (Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Denmark, India and Sweden) and 16 cities (not gonna list them all) and speak 5 languages (German, French, Dutch, Italian and sometimes, English). I don’t have a dog but wish I do. Some things I love include cooking, painting, knitting, gardening, traveling — and recently, running. I used to be excellent at memorizing phone numbers but the iPhone has vaporized that ability. I spent a decade writing about indie rock but I’m woefully stuck in 1995 on that front. I talk to strangers and if I had a superpower, it would be that I probably know someone you know.
For 18 years, I’ve worked with the Web professionally and for 20 years, I’ve lived my life online in some capacity or another. I started working with the Web in 1994 at the University of Wisconsin with Lew Friedland, who is now my colleague, and built the first news-delivering website at Reuters in 1995 (Reuters Health), and then managed Netscape Search, the second busiest page on the entire Internet in 1996. I was lucky to be Howard Rheingold’s first employee at his company, Electric Minds, in 1996. Between 1997 and 2002, I worked at a variety of design studios and web consultancies, including Scient, Razorfish and MetaDesign (and several others that no longer exist).
There was Maxi, which Janelle Brown, Rosemary Pepper, Heather Irwin and I founded in 1997. It was a pop culture feminist webzine with the motto “Pro woman, post grrl.” We were tired of the media options for women at the time and wanted to create something that we wanted to read. A lot of similar sites turned up at the same time, and we created a network called Estronet that promoted all of them (some, like Bust and gURL, are still around today); it later became a part of ChickClick. The first times I spoke at conferences like South by Southwest was thanks to Maxi in 1998. Maxi folded in 1999, but was the subject of international press and even people’s dissertations.
I joined the faculty of the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Ivrea, Italy for two school years, from early 2003 to late 2004. There, I led the Connected Communities research practice and taught courses, supervised thesis students and led projects in social media, mobile and location-based applications, physical interfaces, and wearables. Living and working in Olivetti’s utopian industrial town and working with architects and industrial designers had a profound effect on me.
When I returned to the US in 2005, I decided to study architectural history. I received a Master’s in Environmental Design (a history/theory/criticism degree) from the Yale School of Architecture in 2007, and started my PhD in architecture at Princeton later that year and I will defend in 2013. Now things have come full circle, and 18 years after I left, I’m now back in Madison as a professor.