Anthropology in Web Design (feat. Yoni Reinberg)
Alumni Aloud Episode 14
Yoni Reinberg is chief technology officer and web developer at Social Ink, a Brooklyn-based web design and development startup that serves educational, artistic, and purpose-driven nonprofit institutions. Yoni is a graduate of the Anthropology PhD Program at the Graduate Center.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Yoni tells us how his dissertation allowed him to explore social problems that led to starting a business; how he began freelancing while he was still in graduate school; and how his research and teaching skills benefit him today as an entrepreneur.
Listen to the episode below, download it, or stream it in Apple Podcasts (or your preferred podcast player).
VOICE OVER: You’re listening to Alumni Aloud, a new podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode we talk with a GC graduate about their career and the advice they would give to students. This series is sponsored by the Office of Career Planning & Professional Development at the Graduate Center.
ANDERS WALLACE, HOST: I’m Anders Wallace, a PhD candidate in the Anthropology program at The Graduate Center. In this episode, I sit down with Yoni Reinberg, co-founder, lead developer and chief technology officer of Social Ink, a web design company for non-profits and small businesses based in downtown Brooklyn. Yoni earned his PhD in Anthropology at the GC. In this episode I sit down with Yoni to discuss his experiences as an engineer and creative entrepreneur in tech, his love and frustrations with academia, and the ways his PhD helps him develop user-centered and socially-engaged technology solutions for his clients. I met up with Yoni in the Social Ink offices in downtown Brooklyn on a sunny day in the fall of 2017.
YONI REINBERG, GUEST: My name is Yoni Reinberg and I am the founding partner and lead developer at Social Ink, a web development and design studio in Brooklyn.
WALLACE: Can you tell me a bit about how you came to this work?
REINBERG: Sure I, when I was growing up I had a computer science background, was interested in computers and information systems, things like that. When I went to school, graduate school I gravitated towards the social sciences, the humanities. Found that a bit more satisfying, more interesting and complicated than the closed world of computers. But I kept involved and stayed on the pulse of languages and programming, Internet and so on. And also sort of the political nature of copyright, of piracy, of digital rights, civil liberties on the line, things like that. During grad school, I started doing this work kind of freelance because I was working for non-profits and places that I ended up doing this nature of work and I started to do freelance web development, web design. Just posted on Craigslist and emailed some friends who had a connection to sites. Made side money while I was teaching and doing school.
And then as I entered my writing phase and my, after I came back from fieldwork, I decided that with my partner here, Matt, that he was doing similar things. And we decided to join forces, start an actual company, very little overhead. You know you have to file a “doing business as,” you have a do a few legal things, open a bank account. But there’s very little overhead so there’s not much to lose and we just joined forces, joined our email lists, blasted our email lists. And through word of mouth and snowball, recommendations, things like that, the two of us started it being our main job. Especially as I was writing up and couldn’t teach. And I didn’t really have time to do that. And also the brain capacity. That’s like the origin story. And first we were at coffee shops and then we had a small office elsewhere, then we had a small office here, medium office, and now I think I consider it a large-ish office, not large but… spacious and a lot of natural light, which I keep mentioning and I love.
WALLACE: When you were younger, you enjoyed tech, you enjoyed learning how to code and that was a hobby since you were a kid it sounds like?
REINBERG: Yes, yeah.
WALLACE: And for undergrad did you pursue that or you said you studied social sciences?
REINBERG: For undergrad, no I took some math courses because I was interested in it and some computer science courses. But they were so enclosed. By that I mean what you did was within one machine and one computer, and the class, the nature of speaking about it was very much about the product or the material thing rather than the larger computing world. And then by extension, the world and politics and those domains.
WALLACE: You did a degree in anthropology. Tell me a little bit more about your academic journey.
REINBERG: Right, so in undergraduate I took some math, some science but mostly history and actually Jewish studies. I worked for a few years and then I went to grad school. I went to The New School, I got a Master’s there. I entered there for historical studies but took some anthropology classes and was really into it. Loved its kind of holistic worldview, it’s taking history and economic practices and social practices and everything that we know and love. And I ended up being in anthropology Master’s there. I wanted to stay in New York and do my doctorate and I applied to a few different places. Got in one of them, got rejected from a couple of others. And CUNY had not just a good package for me, but also I just liked the idea of joining CUNY and City College. So I came through anthropology to the PhD program in Anthropology at CUNY.
WALLACE: You had some coding skills and then you went through the program and [distorted]…
REINBERG: In some ways it’s not that deep. I had a skill that was marketable and that was nice for me. Other ways, yeah I enjoyed it. I enjoy, I enjoy how coding breaks down logic and I enjoy how you can really play with the ways of the machines that we use everyday. And I was anyway involved in online development of code for open-source projects and things like that. So to do it in a business way and to pull me into that was a pretty natural extension. And my anthropology, as I got towards my dissertation topic was really about technology and the way technology intervenes in our political worlds and things like that. Became a major focus, always kind of hand in hand with a focus on business and my coding and my academic pursuits.
WALLACE: Just so the audience knows, what was your dissertation about very loosely?
REINBERG: My dissertation was about piracy and specifically piracy in Brazil. And when I say piracy I mean both intellectual property piracy and piracy on the streets, selling DVDs. And in both cases, my ethnography was about people who pirate, also the consumers but a little bit less. About what piracy means both historically and today in terms of taking things that are in a private sphere and making them public. If I had to do it again, do it now and rejoin academia, I would write about…I feel like that is the precursor to what is now called disruption and all these buzzwords. And pirates are also disrupters but they weren’t named as such or prized. Whereas capitalism prizes one kind of disruption and not another.
WALLACE: Let’s say, what is a typical day in the office for you?
REINBERG: Typical day in the office can be pretty mundane and boring. Come in and start work, do email, work on projects. What I like is because I’m both a you know, a partner and a worker, is I get to just be… sit for hours and code if I want to then there’s also administrative tasks like making phone calls, meeting new clients, checking in with old clients about problems, solving security issues or hacks that may have happened over the day or night or over the weekend. Which is happening more frequently so I’m kind of the point person within Social Ink, my company. I’m kind of the point person to fix or try to remedy intrusions and hacks and restore backups and things like that. So kind of exercises a lot of my skills. Any day can be random. And some days are incredibly boring and just doing paperwork and things like that.
WALLACE: Oh right right. And what do you enjoy the most about your work or find the most rewarding?
REINBERG: I really like talking to clients and to explaining, to try to communicate the web and technologies in a lay person’s way. That’s really enjoyable when that happens. It’s not every day. And I also really enjoy coding, really sophisticated coding problems, finding solutions for bugs and things like that.
WALLACE: So the problem-solving but also, talking to clients, explaining how it works and what it can do for them.
WALLACE: So what do you find the most challenging?
REINBERG: The most frustrating I think is the undervaluing of the time in the tech world that it takes to do something. I think a lot of people are under the impression that something is a lot of white space with a little bit of clean text. That’s clean and simple and takes a fraction of the time to do something that’s more colorful. That’s like, that’s a reductive example. I don’t argue, I think tech people are paid well in general, the tech industry especially. And Silicon Valley is incredibly over-inflated and money is obscene. But I think that when it comes to day to day, people don’t understand that the labor involved in the expertise of knowing how to put something together. The hours and the amount of time it takes to do that, which to the end user, to you on your phone or on your computer, it looks like nothing. Like you’re used to a click that does something. Often, you tell me that one thing is wrong and I know that, I see that there are other things wrong. And it’s tough for me in those… to explain, to express to people, the idea that these things should be fixed as well, when they don’t see it. Similar to a car mechanic in that.
WALLACE: Right, so that could be frustrating if clients don’t want to do it, you just have to deal with what they do want then. But also satisfying, like you said you enjoy translating the problem into layman’s language.
REINBERG: Right, exactly, so both sides. It can be very, very anxiety-inducing and also very rewarding. It’s dealing with people always is.
WALLACE: Yeah, people with the purse strings. Did you ever see yourself in academia or did you always know you would transition out of academia?
REINBERG: No I saw myself in academia and I applied to jobs as I was writing up. I don’t love the tech world so far as coming [distorted]. I think the money is obscene and the way that it hides politics and obscures social relations is really negative for me in many ways. But on the other hand, I get to own my labor and my time and that to me was the biggest thing. When I was applying for jobs and they were either in places I didn’t want to live—small towns in the middle of nowhere—and not against people who do that, it’s really rewarding. But I didn’t want to do that and I didn’t want to get paid very little, as you know, for seven years of work, seven plus years of work, of studying, teaching, writing, all that. And then you are really underpaid and can barely afford to live. So yes, I saw myself, I wanted to, from time to time I kind of dipped my finger in applying to adjunct stuff somewhere around Brooklyn so I could exercise that part of my mind but yeah it just didn’t work out, eventually, life-wise.
WALLACE: Yeah, I think a lot of people can relate to that. So was there a particular turning point? Or was it more of a gradual realization or decision over time?
REINBERG: More gradual. I was lucky enough that I was able to do a mild job hunt and a mild keep-in-touch as I grew in the business, as I continued to work. So I never had to sacrifice one thing for another or jump into something. In the end, nothing really panned out in academia. I didn’t look that much and I didn’t have the energy to look much more and so this grew enough that I didn’t really need to do that. Because in the beginning it was smaller as I mentioned. And yeah I really wanted to live in a big city.
WALLACE: Was it a hard decision or just felt natural?
REINBERG: It felt natural in the day to day but I felt sad that you invest that much in one thing and then you don’t pursue it. But I don’t have any regrets if it doesn’t ever happen. You know, it was a great part of my life and CUNY was incredible and the people. So it’s not really an either/or in that way.
WALLACE: How was finishing your PhD benefitted you in your career?
REINBERG: The PhD itself sometimes, it comes up on the website. It’s nice to say that I have my doctorate degree in technology and you know, and culture. And whatever… I don’t remember the bio that I have exactly but something like that. And I think that is something that’s attractive to people, clients or colleagues or whatever. But in terms of the doctorate itself, I did the top two things that I would say go hand in hand is the problem solving and the close reading that comes out of a doctorate. Thinking about a subject as always a conversation, reading who said it, who she was saying it to, who they were saying it back to. And that kind of locating something and that works, you know, with the who said it, why’d they say it, the politics of it. That translates very well into the tech world. And then also I think, I think aside from the actual PhD, teaching was incredible. And so many skills from teaching, and skills from teaching are priceless for talking to clients or explaining, for thinking about how you might explain it to somebody whose not that conversant with all the literature around it and so on.
WALLACE: Yeah, so that’s a couple things that are really beneficial. The first thing you said was that having PhD in tech and as you said, cultural issues, that people feel attracted to that. They say, “oh this is nice that you have that experience.” Can you go into that just a little more? Is that, what is it do you think that they appreciate or feel comfortable about that?
REINBERG: Good question. There’s a lot of web developers out there, there’s a lot of great ones. It’s a crowded field. To some extent, there’s so much need that even though it’s a crowded field, there is a lot of work. So I think one of the things that is appealing about that is that they see, that they realize that my commitment isn’t just to the actual completion of task A, B and C. It’s an understanding of how task A, B and C are connected, how they are connected to the larger web ecosystem and the Internet ecosystem. And what’s now called UX and UI, user interface and user experience. Before we had those words kind of really [distorted], the feeling around that was what I think a lot of comes out of anthropology. It’s a lot of what I study, which is how do we use technology, how does technology use them, what are our frustrations with technology, why we are frustrated about this, why don’t we care about that. I think I’m able to speak to that, and having a degree as a credential but also as a study, puts people at ease and.
WALLACE: Yeah, yeah. That’s interesting. And I think a lot of people even if they’re not anthropologists but others in humanities or social sciences or other fields, could relate to that benefit. That if you transition out of academia, you bring a perspective, more holistic view. What is technology useful for, who’s using it, why, so that you don’t get stuck in some certain paradigms of tech or development that are not serving the end user.
REINBERG: Right. And that’s a stereotype with a lot more developers who are excellent, much more talented than a lot of people. Especially with [distorted] and coders, which is more my skillset than designer, aesthetic, creatives. And those people tend to not pay attention to that so much because the logic takes over: this should be like this and this ought to behave like that. And life is messy and complicated and full of different histories and different subjects. All of the things we studied in anthropology and other humanities, social sciences as well. But anthropology I think really emphasizes that the way things are, are not just-so stories. They come from people.
WALLACE: Are there things that you would recommend that GC students who might think of transitioning outside of academia could cultivate or could stand to benefit from learning while they’re graduate students?
REINBERG: During the dissertation writing phase, in many ways dissertation especially, but also Master’s theses or more general capstones of some kind, encourage you to be in a room alone at a desk studying, getting deep into something. And that precludes you from what I would recommend which is getting to know people outside school, going to events and the term, networking. Which, you know, if you look at it as not networking with a capital N but as the meeting colleagues, seeing people for what they do, it’s a really nice thing. So that’s a cliché but I think that contradiction is weird because you’re encouraged not to do that for those years, to really become a scholar. Because I think what you get out of it is not only just meeting people, but you understand, you can understand that if you meet three people and they all speak offhand about something that they’re missing or needing or whatever or that is missing, you may be able to insert yourself in that conversation or whatever. So that’s really nice. In general I like meeting people.
WALLACE: It’s a nice way of putting it to. Meeting people, so-called networking, the function and what it does and the way it lets you experience other people’s experience. You can put yourself in other peoples’ shoes, see how that feels, like try on a certain outfit. Does that person’s job or whatever they do feel good to me, is that something that I relate to, can help you build those bridges to what could be jobs in your future even if it’s not that thing or something related.
REINBERG: And I think that what you study can be really good, if you don’t want to stay in academia, what you study is really good for what you might work in, in the future. If you study wine-growing social practices, why not go into wine-making or at least something in the industry where you can say, “I’m really expert at how 100 farms in Georgia grow wine and maybe I can help you think about, market yourself.” Or I can help you think about how you can you know, get a co-operative wine grower. I feel like not enough people use this amazing specialized knowledge that they have.
WALLACE: Yeah, there’s a lot of angles. So for people to, again, think holistically about what they do.
WALLACE: And what skills and knowledge they’ve gained. So what do you know now that you wished you had known as a graduate student?
REINBERG: I wish I knew, but I think that it might have been out there, about the job market. And about the amount of energy you need to expend to be a marketable candidate. And then if you’re hired what you have to do. The publishing and the labor that you’re expending. Because for me it was more about the pursuit of, the pursuit of knowledge and I was interested in taking… And again because CUNY was relatively affordable and because I got a scholarship for teaching, and I wasn’t taking on a lot of debt and I had enough money at the time. Brooklyn, it was still pretty cheap when I got my apartment. So I was able to live very frugally as a student without deep debt, without needing to say, “oh my god I need to put food on the table for my family.”
I also guess I wished I knew more about how much people inside academia don’t realize… So professors who are wonderful, gentle, I was always treated with all the warmth, generosity but who don’t… For them there’s an inevitability that when you exit, you enter in academia with a job, maybe without waiting, you know, with a job out there. But the discourse around it, again had that air of inevitability which is just not true. It is hard to find someplace that you fit, you don’t feel soul-crushed while you’re working. And I feel in academia, you can actually feel, that’s part of its allure, you feel like you can be doing good while working if you get a job. I know the allure of wanting to stay in school because you think that outside it’s tough and people are cut-throat or whatever and you have to dress up. But there’s a life out there, it also can be nice.
WALLACE: Has that turned out to be true in what you see of the world that you’re in?
REINBERG: Yes it is [distorted], especially in tech. I think there’s, right now there’s a few major ways you can work in tech. You can do IT and networking and things like that if that’s your talent. You could do the creatives, that’s web development, app development, things like that. Or you can do the more start-up, which is really, that’s actually probably half the [distorted] where you can work that’s really about putting in tons of hours and getting something out. And working for a company. In that world I see a lot of cutthroat and a lot of broken hearts. And there you see a lot more of the H1B abuse and wage stiff and they’re trying to unionize people in Silicon Valley, things like that. So things are moving around there. In that world I do see a lot more cutthroat. In my world, it seems to be dominated by people who are more comfortable with a work life balance. I see a lot less of it.
WALLACE: So for people that know what kind of company they’re getting into when they jump in.
WALLACE, VOICE-OVER: That’s a wrap for this episode of Alumni Aloud. I want to thank Yoni for taking the time to share his insights and reflections on his career journey with our listeners. Remember to stay tuned for more episodes of Season One of Alumni Aloud, published every two weeks from our office during the fall and spring semesters. Subscribe on iTunes or SoundCloud and you’ll automatically be notified of new episodes. Also check out our Facebook, Twitter or website for event announcements and updates from our office. Thanks for listening and see you next time!
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