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"Robot @ NYU"
Really Is Human
In Conversation with Alexis Williams
Written By Elisa Sokoli & Siena Moran
Photographed by Ragan Henderson & Julia Mao
You may already know Alexis Williams from a variety of places. Perhaps you recognize her from Kode with Klossy’s Instagram posts, or maybe you’ve seen her informative yet amusing STEM-related TikToks. And if you don’t know her from that, you probably heard about her after her website, PB-Resources, a Black Lives Matter toolkit, went viral in the midst of the pandemic.
At first, Alexis’ accolades can make her seem intimidating. Having amassed more than 86,000 followers on Instagram and 155,000 on TikTok in addition to modeling alongside Karlie Kloss for her new Adidas collaboration, it’s easy to feel a little starstruck when you sit down for a chat. Her social media presence may make her seem larger than life, but she is quick to remind you that she is just like any other NYU student, sitting before familiar artificial vines probably ordered from Amazon and wearing her roommate’s hoodie. And like the rest of us, she’s a little exhausted after 2020’s recent events: “I’m really tired, I would say. In all aspects of the word. I think that everything that has been happening in our world is just super tiring.” However, she certainly doesn’t look like it. With her bright smile and glowing skin, we regretted not asking for her skincare routine, and we’re still beating ourselves up over it.
After the PB-Resources viral explosion, Alexis made her way from Instagram stories to news articles, and by now her STEM-driven origin story comes naturally to her. Although she has many accolades and accomplishments under her belt, she still faces the same discrimination any BIPOC woman in STEM would. The field is notorious for discouraging women and POC; according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, women made up 28% of the STEM workforce in 2019, and according to the Pew Research Center, BIPOC held 16% of the jobs in the field as of 2016. In a space that is notorious for lacking diversity in both gender and race, there’s a certain level of wonder as to how Alexis has persisted so strongly through a field that seems to often operate to her disadvantage. Part of the answer, which may come as a surprise to many, is that Alexis didn’t originally view STEM as a male-dominated field or feel pushed out due to her gender. And that’s thanks to Girls Who Code and Kode with Klossy. “When it comes to computer science stuff in particular, I am just so lucky in that I’ve done so many programs where I’ve been fully surrounded by girls,” says Alexis. When she talks about the girls she has met during these experiences, she notes that they’ve had such an immense impact on her life. In fact, she still talks to many of them still on a daily basis: “Those girls are all so passionate about computer science and engineering, and just to have people around me that are just as, if not more passionate than me about STEM, that can also relate to me on a very deep level on other things, has been so important in my life.”
Now that she finds herself facing the pushbacks of the world outside of her girl-powered STEM bubble, she notes that keeping those girls in her life has been wildly important. “Talking to them about how they’re experiencing really similar things and how they get through it is really helpful for me because I immediately have an inner circle of people that already know what it’s like, already know how to get through it and combat it,” she explains. “Even if I do go into a class where I’m maybe the only person of color, the only Black woman, whatever, I never feel too alone because I know that I have that group of girls to fall back on when I get home. I can open up my phone and text someone or FaceTime someone, so that’s really nice. And I know that I have a luxury in having a group of people like that.”
Having such a supportive network of other aspiring computer scientists as well as her ongoing work with PB-Resources may make Alexis seem like she knows exactly what she wants and how to get there. But she tells us that despite what it may look like, her plans really aren’t that elaborate yet. “I really try not to put on a front,” she says, “I have no idea what I'm doing, or what I will be doing tomorrow, let alone a year from now. And I don’t pressure myself to feel like I have to do something super super techy or what people would consider the top tier of technology, like getting a job with Microsoft or Google. I honestly don’t see myself doing that at all, which I think is great.”
“What's amazing about all of these incredible people in my life and what they’ve shown me, is that they really have carved their own paths. Karlie Kloss, for example, has the most unconventional path in computer science I’ve ever heard of. That has inspired me not so much to follow in their footsteps, but it’s shown me that I can create my own path, and I don’t need to feel pressured to do it within a certain timeline or do it in a certain way. If I come to whatever I end up doing in a super unconventional way, that’s chill and I’m good with that… I don’t want anyone to ever think that there’s something I know or that I do in my life that makes me particularly different from anyone else. I think it's an incredible amount of luck, and then a lot of just … I guess I’d describe it as drive. I’m just really passionate about a few particular things and I strive to get it done. And then outside of that, I have no idea what I’m doing at all.”
Meanwhile, as a budding “influencer” — a title Alexis herself doesn’t identify with — we asked about her experiences with different forms of social media to help with her activism. She uses both TikTok and Instagram, but as someone who follows her Instagram and has been paying attention to her stories since the onset of Instagram’s Reels, we had to ask Alexis to prepare some piping hot tea for us. “This is the inside scoop of why I despise Facebook,” she stated. It was already clear she had so much she had been waiting to say on this subject. “So, Facebook (which owns Instagram) is a really smart company, they’re not dumb. They’re really smart.” She offers the example that when you post something to do with coronavirus or the Presidential Election, a banner appears at the bottom of the post prompting you to click for more information. Alexis noted that when she posted even the tiniest sliver of the corner of her ballot, the little informational icon still appeared, signaling to her what she already knew. Facebook has the algorithms and the means to know what kind of content is being posted with startling accuracy, making the hate she gets on Instagram Reels that much worse. “I started to take my TikToks and put them on Reels. They're literally the same videos, exactly the same, I didn't do anything different. I just took the watermark off,” Alexis explains, “and immediately I get the worst hate speech I've ever seen in my entire life. And it's really creative hate speech too.” While Alexis may technically be an “influencer” in the eyes of the public and the algorithm, she doesn’t reap any benefit from "influencing" that outweighs the hate she receives:
"What I thought was most frustrating was that Instagram can basically find content, and get people arguing and spending more screen time on the app from my pain and distress. And I'm not verified on the app or anything, I don't get any perks from using Instagram, I really don’t… They get so much usage from me having a presence on Reels and getting people fighting and engaged. I get nothing from Instagram, but then have to deal with a boatload of crappy comments, which I think sucks. And I think they know what they're doing."
We all agreed that Facebook and Instagram have enough power as platforms to stop this kind of hate, but they don’t take any action. Instead, they allow Alexis’ account — an informative, positive, much-needed online space — to become a hotbed for hate speech and bullying. It's a stark contrast in comparison to her TikTok comments on the exact same videos, which are overwhelmingly positive. Based on her own observation and research, she believes that Instagram’s model takes advantage of heated conflict between users in order to increase engagement. To make things worse, she has kept this topic, one she feels very strongly about, to herself. She has been trying to walk the fine line between calling attention to Facebook’s skewed algorithm, and avoiding giving into the hate itself. “This is highkey a therapeutic moment right now because I’ve not ranted about this as much as I would like to on the internet. I’m trying not to be controversial.”
Although Alexis may have a lot to say about the state of our country and her STEM-related endeavors, her interests go far beyond those bounds. In addition to her activism and coding feats, she also displays a jaw-dropping sense of fashion, a flair for design, and perhaps most notably underrated, a gift for writing. Scrolling through Alexis’ Medium page, you will find poems, drawings, pictures, and short writings about a variety of topics. Our personal favorite is a (currently) two-part series titled “The Short List of Things I’m in Love With,” an expansion of a list she wrote while sitting in her kitchen. Posted as PDF scans of handwritten lists in script, she based her first list on how much certain things made her cry. It might seem odd at first, but she doesn’t mean cry out of sadness. “The reason I cry when I love things is just because they fill me up with so much emotion that I can't hold it in. “I'm a big crier,” she admits “so I thought, okay, what is everything that has made me cry?” She took these thoughts and compiled them into list that we're now in love with. Out of those many things that made the cut, Beethoven stands out. As a child, her mom would play his music around the house in hopes that it would make her kids smarter. She also played piano for a long time, so classical music has always held a special place in her heart. For most of her summers in elementary school, three PBS movies were on constant rotation: one about Einstein, another about Galileo, and lastly Beethoven.
“I think that in the best parts of my childhood, I can remember watching these movies, so when I'm thinking back, all the rosy parts sound like Beethoven.”
Alexis' List of Favorite Things
To many, including us, Alexis Williams is someone to look up to. In just a few years, she has accomplished so much in so many different spaces. However, at the end of the day, she is still a regular 19-year old going to college just like us. School makes her tired, and politics exhaust her. She’s a Billie Eilish stan and desperately needs to get to work on manifesting some goals as soon as winter break starts. Keeping a minimal routine is what has kept her sane during the pandemic, and all she really wants to do in the future is live on a cool Italian vineyard where she can read, code, and chill: “Yeah, I need to be chill for the rest of my life I think.” Us too, Alexis. Although the titles put upon her — activist, influencer, homies with Karlie Kloss— may put her on a pedestal to the rest of us, they aren’t ones she particularly identifies with. “I'm so much more than the things that make me different.” And she is. Although her extraordinary list of accomplishments may have you tempted to believe that she really is a “robot @ nyu,” beyond the accolades and the thousands of followers, she's still a student, friend, and simply Alexis, the regular human girl.
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