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How Technology Is Changing China, Through The Photos Of A Global Tech Ethnographer

Instagram is a tool of the trade for 32-year-old Tricia Wang, a sociologist and consultant working in China and documenting the effect of the wildfire-like spread of new social-media platforms like Weibo and Renren.

Tricia Wang may hold the record for most Instagram photos taken on Chinese trains. A sociologist, ethnographer, and corporate consultant who studies global technology use among migrants, low-income people, youth, and others on society’s fringes, Wang has worked for the past several years in China. Since 2005, she’s crisscrossed the country–often riding the rails–observing the impact of digital technology on the lives of rural workers migrating into the cities, and more recently, documenting the wildfire spread of new social-media platforms like Weibo and Renren. Recharging at her home base in Brooklyn after a year away, we spoke to Wang about her field of digital ethnography, the benefits of working outside of big institutions, and what U.S. tech entrepreneurs can learn from their peers in China.

Co.Exist: So, how did you get this awesome job?

Tricia Wang: I’ve never really thought of myself as having an actual job. I studied communication as an undergrad at UC San Diego, and after that I worked for several years in low-income communities in New York City as a community organizer, doing media and education-advocacy work. I had no aspirations to go into academia as a career–I was always very turned off by it, and especially the inaccessible style of most academic communication. danah boyd was the first scholar whose work seemed relevant outside academia, and her work and personality inspired me and gave me hope that I could be an academic and still be myself and make my work very accessible. I realized that I needed some additional research skills to make the kind of impact I wanted to, and went back to UCSD to work on my Ph.D. in sociology.

Pruning cotton in village with farmers , china

Now, I’m an independent researcher. For the last year I’ve had funding as a Fulbright Fellow, and I also take on consulting gigs, working on projects or giving talks about my research. The last talk I did was at CLSA, one of the largest brokerage and financial-services firms in China. I’ve done research at Nokia and had a visiting fellowship at Microsoft. I especially like coming in at the strategy level, providing cultural insights about tech users that can help investors understand a market better, or help companies think about their customers in a different way. I’ve written and spoken about why Google didn’t succeed in China, for example–I only wish that I’d had the chance to share my analysis with them before their struggles became so public.

What are you actually doing when you’re “in the field”?

I’m trained as a sociologist, and I use ethnographic methods. The kind of ethnography I do is intensively immersive–I go and live with people and spend as much time as I can eating with them, shopping with them, learning how they live their everyday lives. I do all this to understand how people use technology. I especially love hanging out in low-income, youth, and immigrant and migrant communities because I think that understanding these sub-cultures on society’s edges is key to understanding social change and future trends. I’ve done research in the U.S. and Mexico, but since 2005 I’ve been focused mostly on China. The changes in tech use in that time have been amazing, and it’s been fascinating to watch Internet and cellphone adoption happen all over again. One of the biggest surprises–and what’s different from the U.S.–is that lower-income and more marginalized groups have been the fastest adopters of cellphones, thanks to the government’s efficiency in building cellular infrastructure and competition among state-owned providers keeping rates affordable.

No matter how economically poor people are, they always (most of the time) own a TV. Other electronic items that this family owns: electronics; fan, fridge, and mobiles. There is a common saying that 50 years ago, when you married someone you had to own a watch, bed, and bicycle. Now you need to own a house, car, and television. China.

Has the focus of your research in China changed since you started?

At first, I was focused on migrant workers and spent a lot of time hanging out in Internet cafes, which is where these people were hanging out, apparently playing games and watching movies, but actually using them as a cheap place to shower, charge their cellphones, eat, and even sleep while they were looking for work. I was never really interested in studying how the middle and upper classes in China were using technology, because I didn’t see anything happening that was radically different than in the U.S. That changed when I went back last year. There had been an explosion of social media in China. People were starting to use these apps that were like Twitter or Facebook, and using them in a way that was different than in the U.S. As an ethnographer, you don’t always get to choose what you’re going to work on–you have to follow what’s happening on the ground. I wasn’t planning on it, but this became the focus of my research.

What’s so different about social media in China?

The two most important apps are Renren, essentially a copycat of Facebook, and Weibo, which is like Twitter–but like Twitter on crack. We often don’t think we have a lot to learn from tech companies outside of the U.S., but Twitter should look to Weibo for inspiration for what can be done. It’s like a mashup of Tumblr, Zynga, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s very picture-based, whereas Twitter is still very text-based. In Weibo, the pictures are right under each post, so you don’t have to make an extra click to view them. And people are using this in subversive ways. Whether you’re using algorithms to search text or actual people–and China has the largest cyber police force in the world—it’s much easier to censor text than images. So people are very subversive in hiding messages in pictures. These pictures are sometimes very different than what people are texting, or will often say a lot more than the actual text itself.

I spent a few nights with gamers at several internet cafes. I fell asleep and one of my informants took a picture of me. The people I am with are teenagers who do not have residency permits in Beijing. They are studying at a computer programming vocational.

How are people using that?

A big turning point in China was the train crash last year. Everyone in China takes the train, and it’s a state-run enterprise. So after this big crash there was essentially a large government cover-up. But people were taking pictures and sending out messages on Weibo up until the last minute when the crash happened, and even though it was censored, the news got out because all these pictures were forwarded through social media. As much as the government tries to control information through censorship, there are all these user strategies to overcome it, too. There’s a new thing called “long Weibo,” which allows you to paste in a whole essay, and it converts it to a JPEG. It’s small, but you can click on it and it fills your screen so you can actually read the whole essay right there. It’s something small but critical in understanding how social media operates in China. Likewise, in the U.S., I like observing how users hack around social-media platforms, because ultimately these behaviors are rooted in culture.

How do you use social media in your own work?

Censorship is on my mind when I’m in China. While some researchers try to be as private as possible about their work, one thing I do is to be very transparent. I tell people wherever I’m at, and I use Foursquare and Instagram, which aren’t blocked and can then forward my posts to Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. I leave as many digital traces as I can. This helps remind me that nothing I’m doing online is ever private–whether I’m in the U.S. or China. And if anything were to happen, there would be a trace of my whereabouts. Instagram was my lifeline in China because it wasn’t blocked and it was my first time experimenting with live field-noting, like live-tweeting but with pictures and cultural analysis from my fieldwork. It can get super-lonely doing field work, so real-time encouragement and feedback can be very helpful.

Now that you’ve been working this way for a while, is there a regular day job that you could see yourself going into at some point?

The last real day job I had was as co-director of a media organization for youth in Manhattan. I did it for a year and I was miserable. I didn’t mind working; I just couldn’t work someplace where I had to be in at the same time every day. So I promised myself that I would never be in that situation again–no more fluorescent lights! I also have a hard time imagining myself at just one company for now, at least. I still have so much to learn, and I think I’m a better researcher when I’m able to work in multiple places and for multiple clients. If I were only doing research for one company, one product, or one community, I don’t think I’d be as valuable. The quality of work decreases when you become institutionalized–you start thinking like an institution, you have to sort of conform to the institutional culture. I don’t fit in that kind of situation, nor do I want to. I want to continue bridging the gap between the tech worlds, the advocacy worlds, and the research worlds, even if there’s not an obvious job description or path to follow.