Long before teenagers made instant friends through MySpace and Facebook, and everyone from corporate veeps to soccer moms developed their own online avatars, people like Amy Vickers were participating in, and pondering the future of, nascent Internet communities.
From her Epworth dorm room, Vickers and her equally unconventional peers were captivated by social computing and the unpredictable promise of emerging Web technology.
"We made friends nationally and internationally on Unix-based systems, which were text-based forerunners to present-day social networking sites," she says, referring to multi-user meeting spots that predated Mosaic, the first popular Web browser released in 1993. "At the time, we were thought of as eccentric and odd. Now it's commonplace. You hear about people getting married after meeting on eHarmony, and it's no big deal."
It wasn't just technology that intrigued her, Vickers says. She initially was drawn to courses in cultural anthropology and sociology when she came to Duke, but as her fascination with the social and philosophical dimensions of interactive worlds grew, she realized that no single or double major could incorporate and address her many questions about how information might be created and distributed in the future. With encouragement from faculty across several disciplines—literature, computer science, and art and art history, among others—she designed her own Program II major, "Electronic Technologies, Art, and Cultural Transformation."
Looking back, Vickers says that her academic pursuits were "a constant exploration. The professors I was interested in working with were people like Barbara Herrnstein-Smith," the Braxton Craven Professor of comparative literature and English, who works at the intersection of science, literature, and cognition. "I was trying to figure out the structure and culture of the Internet, so I took computer science, literary theory, and cultural anthropology classes to see how all the threads were connected."
While the computer-science courses helped her become technologically fearless, she says that if she had to do it all over again, "I wouldn't have suffered through C++ classes."
Vickers helped pay her way through school by working as an "information architecture consultant," designing and developing Web pages for Duke clients such as the law school and anaesthesiology department, and Research Triangle Park corporations such as Nortel Networks and GlaxoSmithKline.
"At the time, I was looking to generate enough income to help cover tuition," she explains, "and as a nineteen-year-old in the mid-'90s without a college degree, the Web was it."
Since she graduated, Vickers has followed her forward-thinking curiosity all the way to her current position as global director of enterprise solutions for Avenue A | Razorfish, one of the largest interactive marketing and technology service agencies in the world. Her résumé reads like an alphabet soup of expertise, with acronyms like RIA and RUP interspersed among myriad other strengths in business and information architecture, interactive design, and Web services development.
Her current and former clients include Citigroup, Ford Motor Company, Nike, and Smith Barney.
"It's interesting that I am working with Fortune 500 companies now, because I've always been fairly radical about the Internet and its potential," says Vickers, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"When the Web began, it emerged from the fringes, and then as it grew, it became commercialized as a way to make money and do business."
The commercial dimensions of the Web are only one piece of what Vickers does for her clients. She also designs and develops portals and intranet and extranet systems that facilitate communication and collaboration.
For international conglomerates that comprise many consumer products and global markets, such resources encourage employees at every level of the management hierarchy to consider themselves part of a larger, shared community and, as a result, improve productivity, morale, and creativity.
Vickers says that because of the democratic nature of the Internet, it's impossible to predict how communication technologies will evolve.
"Right now you are seeing blogging platforms and sites like Wikipedia that encourage individual users to generate online content,"
"One future direction could be the democratization of programming, where you would see individuals taking program interfaces or applications and recombining them. What will come next is anyone's guess."
Amy Vickers '96
Considering the potential of communications technology
October 1, 2007