Widgets Magazine

Clifford Nass, communication professor, dies at 55


Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero

Courtesy of Linda A. Cicero

Clifford Nass, professor of communication and director of the Communication Between Humans & Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, died of a heart attack this weekend at age 55.

James Fishkin, chair of the Communication Department, said Nass was attending the Stanford Faculty and Staff Program of the Stanford Sierra Camp when the fatal heart attack occurred.

Fishkin added that the news came as a shock.

“He was a force of nature,” Fishkin said. “He was young and vibrant and really at the peak of his career.”

Colleagues and students alike will remember Nass for his lasting contributions to his academic field and to campus life.

A leader in his field

In academia, Nass has been well regarded for his research on the socio-psychological aspects of human-computer interaction—namely his revolutionary discovery of how people treat computers as though they were human, as discussed in the co-published book “The Media Equation” with Communication Professor Byron Reeves.

Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab and associate professor of Communication, explained that the impact of Nass’ findings is seen pervasively today in how people take social relationships with media for granted.

“Nass has transformed not only the field of communication, but the larger areas of social science and engineering as well,” Bailenson said in an email.

Fred Turner, associate professor of communication, also regards Nass as a major contributor to the field, especially through his work on how placement of media technologies in space helps shape the way people think about themselves and the world.

A mentor and a friend

While both Bailenson and Turner recognize Nass’ legacy in the field, they also cherish the lasting impact Nass had on them as their faculty mentor.

“I likely would not be a professor if it were not for Cliff,” Bailenson said. “He not only gave me a shot to be a professor by taking a chance on bringing me out for an interview but spent hundreds of hours over the past decade mentoring me on every academic skill imaginable.”

Turner recalled that in gratitude for Nass’ support in their pursuit of tenure, he and Bailenson gave Nass a Bailenson-Turner award for senior faculty mentorship.

Lorin Dole Ph. D. ‘15, who worked with Nass for three-and-a-half years in the CHIMe Lab, spoke highly of Nass’ support for those he worked with.

“He’s always been the biggest advocate for his colleagues and for his students’ work, even if it wasn’t something that he himself came up, which is something that is really humbling,” Dole said. “It didn’t matter if you were a skeptic or had experience in the field, he had a way of bringing things to life and helping you see them in ways that you hadn’t before.”

Outside of the communication field, Nass continued his mentorship role with the residents of the freshman dorm Otero, where he served as a Residential Fellow (RF) for many years—a role which Turner said Nass spoke about with a lot of affection.

“When I first got to Stanford and saw everyone around, I questioned whether or not I should be here. And Cliff gave me the confidence and idea that I didn’t have to prove [anything] to anyone but myself,” said Abhilasha Belani ‘15, who lived in Otero when Nass was an RF.

“He influenced my life by giving support, and a lot of my close friends are profoundly influenced by him,” she added. “He never imposed—he was just there as much as you needed.”

Nass is survived by his son.


Contact Ileana Najarro at inajarro ‘at’ stanford.edu

A previous version of this article incorrectly said Clifford Nass was the first in his family to attend college. The Daily regrets this error.

About Ileana Najarro

Ileana Najarro is the Managing Editor of News at The Stanford Daily. She previously worked as a News Desk Editor and Staff Writer.
  • Z

    Thank you Ileana –why you have to give life physiclly and mentally 100% every day cause you never know when it will end!

  • Judy

    I am a first cousin of Clifford living in Jackson Heights, NY and was shocked to hear this news. Cliff was a wonderful person – warm, open and extraordinarily caring. I am writing to correct one error in the obituary – he was not the first person in his family to attend college – he had an older brother, Michael Nass, who was a graduate of Princeton University and was tragically killed by a drunk driver while driving cross country on the way to begin a doctoral program in physics at the University of Chicago.

    Judith Natkins
    Jackson Heights, NY

  • Mark Ginsburg

    I was his undergraduate roommate. The Cliff Conjure magic cart was something special! He was very proud of his brother’s famous Dinner with the Deans prank.

  • shane


    Any more thoughts you can share with us about how Cliff grew up as a student at Princeton?
    Was he always that funny?
    Wonder what in life could make a person into Cliff…we all could use a dose of that.

    Many thanks!

  • Mark Ginsburg

    I was funnier of course. 🙂 I would say he was able to study better, although he like many other Physics people struggled with the Halliday & Resnick textbook. I was a Biology major so we did not have courses in common. But we both were fans of “Speed Racer” and he got a hold of a Japanese toy where the Speed Racer chimp comes springing out a box. Very mirthful. We were both members of “Terrace Club” (just a place to eat) that had other free spirits, Hilary Bok comes to mind.

  • Lisa Krieger


    Greetings. I write about Stanford for the SJ Mercury News: Could you share what a “Cliff Conjure magic card” was? Sounds creative.

    Many thanks.

    Lisa Krieger

  • Mark Ginsburg

    He had a magic cart on wheels. Sort of like an old-timer organ grinder’s cart. With Cliff Conjure spelled out on it. Inside were all sorts of nested shelves with dozens of interesting illusions.

  • Lisa Krieger

    Mark – a wonderful wonderful description. Thank you so much. Our piece will run Saturday – will try to remind myself to post a link for you.

  • Judy

    For the record, would like to correct an error in my previous comment. Michael, Cliff’s brother, had just completed his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago, when he was killed. He was driving to Stanford when his life was so tragically cut short. Two brilliant brothers, both gone way too soon.

    Judith Natkins