The long third person version
Tricia Wang is a tech ethnographer transforming how organizations understand people and conduct research. Utilizing Digital Age design research methods, she specializes in integrating balanced data practices to fulfill business & institutional goals that improve people’s lives. She advises organizations (large and small) on how to understand their users as human beings, not just datasets. She has a background in research design, ethnography, and sociology. She’s passionate about her work as a people champion in companies, start-ups, and non-profits.
Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology and culture—the investigation of how social media and the internet affect identity-making, trust formation, and collective action. A central theme in her work is the examination of how software influences action. Through extensive fieldwork in China and Latin America, she has developed expertise on digital communities in emerging economies, leading to the formulation of an innovative sociological framework for understanding user interactions online.
Tricia relishes on-the-ground, hyper-immersive ethnographic fieldwork, which has provided her with a unique understanding of the experiences of edge communities. For example, while living in internet cafes with migrants, she learned the value of urban “third spaces” to an economic underclass. Working undercover alongside street vendors, meanwhile, gave her a unique perspective on the growth of smart phone ownership in China and revealed the workings of informal markets. During her projects she has pioneered ethnographic techniques such as live fieldnoting, which uses social media tools to share real-time fieldwork data.
A Fulbright Fellow and National Science Foundation Fellow, Tricia has been recognized as a leading authority by journalists, investors, and ethnographic and sociological researchers. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Fast Company, Makeshift, and Wired. She has presented at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium, Lift, and South by Southwest. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies including Nokia and GE and numerous institutions from the UN to NASA.
She is also proud to have co-founded the first national hip-hop education initiative, which turned into the Hip Hop Education Center at New York University, and to have built after-school technology and arts programs for low-income youth at New York City public schools and the Queens Museum of Arts. Recent projects include co-founding and writing for blogs: Ethnography Matters, which brings ethnography issues to the attention of a wider audience; and 88Bar, which focuses on technology, media, and arts in Greater China. She is a visiting scholar at New York University's Information Telecommunication Program and Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet Studies. She is also an advisory board member of Rev Arts in New York City. She is currently writing a book about the internet in China as an expressive space in which users uniquely shape their identities in an otherwise rigid society, a phenomenon she calls "the Elastic Self".
Her research philosophy is that you have to go to the edges to discover what's really happening. She is the proud owner of an internet famous dog who balances stuff on her head, #ellethedog.
I love researching
As an ethnographer, sociologist, and researcher, I am passionate about demystifying the ways non-elite or edge communities (i.e. migrants, rural villagers, or informal workers) make use of digital tools in everyday life. I study how people use digital communication technologies in cities. I investigate the impact of digital computing (mobiles and internet) on our social interaction in and with public urban space.
I have lots of fun explaining how culture influences technology use, regulation, and design. I love talking with technology designers and investors, policy makers, and non-profit organizations about how we can become better informed about the everyday lives of low-income communities. I'm a big advocate of using ethnography for design and business strategy.
I received a NSF grant to be the first invited visiting scholar from the US to research at The Chinese Internet Network Information Center (equivalent to US's FCC) in Beijing, China. I am a Fulbright Scholar to China and a Transatlantic 2020 Fellow. My research interests include information theory, internet related geo-political issues, critical theory, digital gaming, (im)migration, education, urban studies, social cartogprahy/GIS, and product design.
My research, Digital Urbanism Reshaping Social Connectivity: Intensive Technology in the Lives of Chinese Migrant Families and Youth, analyzes how newly urbanized non-elite Chinese youth interact with urban digital architectures such as cellphones and internet to manage social connections. I examine how digital tools change the way non-elite migrants and youth manage social connections in a rapidly urbanizing second-tier city in China, compelling them to negotiate the new convergences and divisions of physical and virtual life. My research has been generously funded by Fulbright Program, PacRim foundation, National Science Foundation, and University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States (click here for a complete list of funders).
- to generate cultural understandings about technology use in non-elite communities in less-evenly developed parts of the world, in particular China, Mexico, and US
- to communicate how cultural orientations influence technology use, regulation, and design through in-depth ethnographic experiences
- to study the impact of large-scale technology diffusion on urban life
- to probe how ICTs create new convergences and bifurcations of physical and virtual practices
- to analyze digital geo-political developments around technologies between corporations, states, and local users
- to examine how users come up with inventive and unintended practices around technologies (disruptive innovation)
- to evaluate the changing sociological conceptions of "information" and its interpretation by policy-makers, technologists, and information-mediating institutions
- no causations, only mutual emergence. *this is for the social scientists - when I write X lead to Y, it does not mean I am making a casual argument. Like Clay Shirky says, it's how the English language works.
- emergent forms of media are historically and culturally situated (i.e. technologies are always built upon preceding practices, policies, or developments - there is no such thing as an autonomously new tech )
- technology is an embodied, spatialized, and temporally bound practice
- technologies create new forms of access and constraints, opportunities and limitations (I find it useful to think of Jerry Ravetz's discussion of Intended use, Creative new use, Incompetent misuse, Malevolent abuse)
technologies are designed with values and users also bring their own values
- new technologies present inequalities around distribution to access, resources, and commodities - not divides (i.e I frame unequal access to technology as uneven digital distribution, not a digital divide)
- people will find new ways to use technologies
- on the ground technology use interfaces with various forms of architectures, infrastructures, and policies
- all knowledge, ways of seeing, practices are situated, views are partial - even the researcher's view
Why do marginalized users matter?
My passion is to understand the emerging social forms of mobility and connections that come with a mobile lifestyle that increasingly relies on ICTs. I am most interested in how this question applies for non-elite users. One of the stories of the digital revolution is that some of the most marginalized and poorest people are now actively incorporating ICT tools into their lives. The phenomena of massive internal migrations to urban areas, the widespread adoption of more affordable ICTs, and an increase in social dislocations associated with the nationalized adoption of global information networks are being seen more frequently among more unevenly developed countries. As this becomes a more familiar story around the world, new forms of inequality will arise. How do we rethink what inequality means in era where everyone has basic access to ICT tools? How are marginalized users creating coherence with ICTs? At the same time, new forms of usage will emerge. We need to be attentive to these new forms so that content and tools can meaningful interface with non-Western and non-traditional ways of thinking and practices.
I have always been fascinated by the intertwining of physical and virtual space, such as the physical city landscape to the virtual cyberspace. I have never thought of these as separate spaces - but once I started graduate school I realized that many researchers treat these as separate, which then excludes all the wonderful ways these spaces are mixing, flowing and fluxing! These kinds of hybrid geographies produce new practices and processes that I want to better understand. I am most interested in how the convergence and mixed use of information communication technologies (ICT), from cellphones to the internet, transform communication practices and introduce new opportunities and constraints for youth and migrants. My work considers how technology policies and digital architectures affect how communities maintain social connections.
While there is a great research foundation on ICT usage by individuals, we still have a lot to gain by understanding how technology is used within important social units, such as the family. There is also much to be learned about how low-income groups use technology. With communities across Africa, Asia, and South America gaining access to more affordable digital tools, the question is whether or not these tools could bring about more equality in access to information, networks, and social resources. While my research does not attempt to measure level of equality with increasing use of digital tools, my work does speak to a very deep concern with trying to understand what it means when non-elite communities gain access to tools that were once reserved for elite users.
One response do the digital revolution has been a fervor among leaders around the world for pushing technology in less unevenly developed areas for the end goal of economic development. Programs are receiving millions of dollars in funding to bridge the "digital divide." Organizations like One Laptop Per Child are acting upon the assumption that giving laptops to low-income people will equalize social conditions. Critiques have arisen regarding the effectiveness of these programs as major social or cultural issues have surfaced, often interfering with the goals of these programs and at times creating more problems and disappoint among the targeted groups. My research speaks to this very concern - using technologically determinist solutions without understanding the existing social context. Without a deep socio-cultural understanding of a community, even well-intentioned endeavors to improve existing social conditions could fail. I strongly believe that ethnographic studies can bring a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural context of peoples' lives.
Why I work with under-served communities
The communities I work and research in are my homes around the world. They tend to be marginalized and underserved by their country, city or even the world. They are communities that are confronting the role of technology in maintaining social connections. And in many ways they are confronting the failures of technology, policies, and governments to bridge them to more elite and resource rich social networks. For all the claims that technology democratizes information, these groups are grappling with what that really means when information is available but not accessible. It is easy in technology research to get caught up in the hopes, hypes and highs of ICT tools. The privilege that I have to live and research in some of the most underserved communities allows me to critically question the role of technology in society. I also feel a great sense of responsibility in ensuring that the stories of the people I know are told, because if we only here about how much the celebrities love Twitter or how the cellphone is bringing Africa out of poverty, then we are definitely getting a very distorted account of the world.
What was I doing before I started researching?
Prior to my academic research turn, I worked as a hip-hop education advocate, youth media strategist, and community organizer. I developed and managed digital literacy programs for institutions such as United Nations, National Aeronautics Space Agency, and New York City public school system. I bridged my interest in public access and youth media with my passion for education reform by founding an advocacy and training program for education practioners on how to use hip-hop as a pegogical tool called H2Ed (Hip-Hop Education). I also worked with documentary filmmaker Tania Kamal-Eldin. I produced a documentary about legendary gay activist and the first transgender street-walker in Hollywood, Nicole Murray-Ramirez.
I love playing around!
I am also part wolf and monkey. I am a modern dancer, salsa lover, and doggy yoga expert. I've eaten live insects and lit fires on my body. My memory sucks so I take tons of pictures on flickr. I jump, eat, police fashion titicacas and titillations, collect doggy purses, document urban art, and ride my foldable bike. I believe in pussy power and I think you should too. I love to eat vietnamee Pho soup that my friend Adriene Hughes and I have a blog just dedicated to pho! We also blog about arrow ring and jumping.
I translate my favorite quotes into Spanish on Dichos y Vida. My cartoon series, Social Monsters, pokes fun at the field of sociology. So yah if you haven't noticed, I have lots of different interests so I blog a lot! You can see the full list at the bottom of this page along with links to one RSS feed.
In my spare time, I'm an unprofessional dog trainer (interview with me). Some past clients of mine have been Jack (greyhound-lab), Monkey (chihuahua mutt), and my doggy Elle (pitbull-lab mix). I am an aspiring dog photographer and when I grow old that's what I will do all day (and die my hair bright teal blue!).
I currently split my time between New York, California, and my research sites in China and Mexico. I love meeting new non-creepy people so let's chat!
(If you're still curious, here's a longer and more personal narrative on how various interests and places found me!)