Omar Wasow became an assistant professor of politics this fall to teach students on race and identity. But before he joined the Princeton faculty, he spent his time before a different sort of audience: Oprah Winfrey's.
Wasow spent a decade as an Internet analyst, giving talks on cyberspace and technology. He co-founded BlackPlanet, a social networking site, appeared on Newsweek's list of "fifty most influential people to watch in cyberspace" and spoke on radio and television shows throughout the early years of the growth of the technology industry.Most notably, Wasow guided Oprah Winfrey as she learned how to use the Internet and participated in a 12-part series on her 2000 show,“Oprah Goes Online.”
“For a dozen years, I was just having a ball,” Wasow said.
Since then, Wasow has made frequent return visits to Oprah’s show, including a 2010 visit during which he demonstrated how to use the iPad.
Wasow grew up in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City, attending Stuyvesant High School, where he was president of the student union, and later Stanford University, where he chose an independently-designed major in race and ethnic relations.
His graduation from Stanford in 1992 coincided with rapid developments of the Internet and growth of the technology industry. The World Wide Web had been invented just a few years earlier, and Wasow said that he had already developed a strong interest in the field. As a teenager, Wasow said he spent a great deal of time on online communities called “bulletin board systems." With this background, he created his own community in 1994 called New York Online for New York residents.
Wasow began to receive press for New York Online, and eventually built websites for the New Yorker, Samsung, Pfizer and the College Board, among many others. By 1995, Newsweek had pegged him as one of the fifty most influential people to watch in cyberspace, and two years later, he was asked to appear on MSNBC as a commentator on the Internet.
"[The MSNBC position] led to basically a career as a regular on air tech analyst that would help explain trends and technology to a mass audience,” Wasow said, referring to himself as a “gadget guru.”
In 2001, Wasow co-founded a social-networking site for African-Americans, BlackPlanet.com, which currently has over three million users. The site offers African-Americans discussion forums on everything from politics to romance.
The popularity of BlackPlanet and Wasow's television appearances caught the attention of Winfrey’s producers, who asked him to audition for the show, Wasow said. He shot the initial 12-episode series of “Oprah Goes Online”over a three-day weekend.
“She was exceedingly decent, really great to me,” Wasow said of Winfrey.
"He's the best Internet teacher in the world because he was able to teach me how to surf the Net and I am truly technologically challenged,” Winfrey told People magazine in a November 2000 article that named him “Sexiest Internet Executive.”
After over a decade working to bring the Internet to the masses, Wasow turned his attention inward. His roots in New York had given him an interest in identity that he wanted to further explore, he explained.
“I was on TV and making good money and in the center of the most important technological transformation to happen to society in decades, but at a certain point I realized it wasn’t enough,” he said.
Wasow moved to Harvard University in 2005, where he completed his Ph.D. in African-American studies and political science, followed by an M.A. in government and statistics.
He says he chose to move on from his work in Internet research towards academia because there were questions related to identity that could not be understood otherwise.Wasow said that while he was in college between 1988 and 1992, New York had the highest homicide rates in history, a fact that began to dominate his life. He said he was constantly worried and thinking about why there was so much violence in the city.
For him, the best way to find answers to questions on identity and violence was to engage with such issues in a scholarly way.“As much as I loved technology and social media, I realized there were questions that weren’t going to get answered in a startup,” he explained, referring to his work with BlackPlanet.
But Wasow’s experiences as the “gadget guru” nonetheless add another dimension to his scholarly life, he said. He explained that the connection between his current work in academia and his work in Internet research overlap in some ways, but in many ways stand apart.
“In some ways my work in the Internet technology was about the marriage of thinking about identity and thinking about the ways that you could build successful business around identities,” Wasow said.
While at Harvard, Wasow met his wife Jennifer Brea ’05 at a political violence workshop.Brea and Wasow were married in 2012, and they moved to Princeton after Wasow received a research fellowship at the University.
“I was a little hesitant to move back where I went to college,” Brea said. She explained, however, that she loves living in the suburbs despite her initial hesitation.At the conclusion of Wasow's fellowship, he was hired for the following academic year.
“I was enthusiastic about hiring him and communicated that to the hiring committee,” politics professor Ali Valenzuela said.
Valenzuela explained that he developed a relationship with Wasow because of their similar research interests in perspectives on political science and the role of race and ethnic identity.
“In the classroom, Wasow jokes a lot and goes off on tangents in a typical professor-like fashion,” Valenzuela said.
Moving forward in academia, Wasow said that he may pursue further research in exploringthe relationship between social media, race and politics. He will be teaching POL 346: Applied Quantitative Analysis in the spring. In addition to his teaching and research,Wasow remains on the board of the Brooklyn Excelsior Charter School, which he founded in 2003.
“Over time I could imagine being involved in some kinds of research projects that are more applied where we are trying to do interesting research and make a difference in Trenton or Newark,” he said. “There is still a part of me that is an entrepreneur that wants to take good ideas and implement them.”