My research is generously funded though a mix of university grant programs, state initiatives, or industry research.

Read More

RSS Feeds
Recent Updates
Social Monsters



Habits of the Online Heart: information sharing and social action in China

*Nov. 28, 2011 I have just started this project so this is just a brief summary.

How does social change happen when people cannot see each other? In any situation where groups of people come to act or think in similar and coordinated ways, information is being shared and disseminated. The people receiving and exchanging this information must constantly evaluate how trustworthy they believe the information – and the people it is coming from – to be. But how are people able to judge the trustworthiness of information and sources in online settings when they cannot see each one another, and when information is being circulated within a group of strangers?

In my current research project, I ask how people decide whether the information they acquire in disembodied (not face-to-face), non place-based online networks is trustworthy and how they act on that information. I answer these questions with data obtained through extensive ethnographic research on the digital communication practices of Chinese youth and new internet users in China. By examining how new internet users in China interact with information from social media and popular online sites in their everyday lives, I show how changes in technological infrastructure and communication practices yield new paradigms of trust. This trust exists at both a personal level, between individuals or between individuals and groups, and at an impersonal level, between individuals and systems or institutions. I highlight the role of technological infrastructures and especially the growth of databases as intermediaries in online communication practices, and argue that users develop strategies for assessing how much trust to put in their online messages, systems, and relationships.

Click to read more ...


Digital Urbanisms on the Margins: Chinese Migrants and Intensive Technology

In this project, Digital Urbanism Reshaping Social Connectivity: Intensive Technology in the Lives of Chinese Migrant Families and Youth, I analyze how newly urbanized Chinese migrant families and youth interact with urban digital architectures such as cellular to internet to manage social connections.  I examine how ICTs change the way low-income migrant families 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.  This work is funded by the Fulbright program, PacRim foundation, and NSF.

Large-scale urban migration, the most massive shift of human population in history, is taking place in a new technoscape. In China, over 300 million migrants reside in cities; these communities represent some of the most marginalized and poorest groups that are now actively incorporating new communication tools into their lives. What do these coinciding cultural-technical processes mean for the people undergoing these shifts? Through deep ethnography of several rural-to-urban migrant social groups in a rapidly urbanizing city in central China I ask the following questions: what does living in the city with ubiquitous information communication technologies (ICTs) access do to a migrant’s sense of self and belonging? Does the digital realm reflect a new geography of equality and marginality? How does the mass affordability of ICTs transform the lives of non-elite users? What categories of ICT use emerge from the users’ experiences within this new cultural technoscape?

Based on my fieldwork in China over the past five years, I make the case that simply having access to or using digital communication technologies does not ultimately improve migrants’ opportunities materially or politically. However, migrants do use ICTs in a variety of ways across and within networks such as using ICTs to settle into the city, become urbanized, and have more options for managing connections with social ties. Furthermore, non-elite migrants across different groups reveal similar digital practices and meanings. Although these practices and meanings differ according to migrants’ technology backgrounds, stated hopes and dreams, expressed values/norms around privacy and sharing, and relationships to the built environment, these socio-technical processes reflect the emergence of important digital and physical social spaces that revolve around information access and new kinds of digitally mediated subjectivities.

Click to read more ...


Internet as a Social Right: Implications for Social Citizenship

Emerging information technologies such as the Internet challenge us to think about whether access to the technology should be a privilege or a right. In recognition of the emergent social demand for broadband access, this paper urges a reconsideration of Internet access as a social right.

This is a project that I started when I took the seminar, Citizenship Debates with Gershon Shafir, whose  lucid lectures on citizenship inspired me to think about citizenship as a framework for rights claiming. I started to think about how information-based resources and services become a right in the US, which led me to think about how expanding internet access could be framed as a social right. I was invited to present this paper at the International Sociology Association's Research Committee on  Poverty, Social Welfare, and Social Policy (RC 19) in Sweden. I have had to put this project on hold until I finish my dissertation fieldwork. It is still something I am very passionate about and would love to chat about if anyone else is working on this topic. 

Abstract:  Emerging information technologies such as the Internet challenge us to think about whether access to the technology should be a privilege or a right.  In recognition of the emergent social demand for broadband access, this paper urges a reconsideration of Internet access as a social right.   This examination looks at how information has accumulated rights over time in the US. A distinction is made between the availability of information, which is tied traditionally to civil rights, and the accessibility of information, which is tied to social rights.  The U.S. has a strong foundation in information availability, reflective of the way that communication is regulated more as a civil than a social right in the U.S.  However, a comparison between the Communication Act of 1934 and the Telecommunication Act of 1996 the only two acts in which communication policy was federally legislated reveals that at one time, communication was once considered a social right. A regime shift between the 1934 and 1996 Acts reframed communication within a market-based rationale assuming that free markets are best able to support civil rights and economic growth.  As a result, access to services that were once considered a social right for all have become a privilege for some, reflecting an overall shift in which individuals are treated less as citizens and more as consumers.  This trend is indicative of a scaling back of social rights, and arguably, a scaling back of social citizenship rights in the U.S.  Rights expansion or shrinkage, as seen in the availability and access of information, can provide an indicator of the strength of social citizenship. download the paper



China's Internet Policy and Considerations for Migrants

cnnic work?__SQUARESPACE_CACHEVERSION=1295835316101I received a National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant to be a visiting scholar at the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) during the summer of 2009. CNNIC is overseen my the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) and Chinese Academy of Science (CAS).

 I went in with the goal to better understand how Chinas internet policies and digital architectures influenced the communication practices of two important and growing populations of new usersyouth and migrants. I examined how the inter-personal communication patterns of youths and migrants were affected by these factors: (1) recent internet usage policies set by the Chinese administration and (2) cellphone and internet digital architecture. By the end of the summer, I visited several Chinese internet regulation agencies, spent time with the CNNIC research staff, and spoke to migrant youth and families.  

Although investigating internet policy-making is not a my research focus, a central aspect of my dissertation seeks to understand how youth and migrants use ICT's to communicate. Therefore, I thought it was very important for me to have a more authentic comprehension of how government led policies play a role in supporting the communication networks of the population I am studying. 


Emerging Communication Practices in a rural village in Oaxaca, Mexico

I started conducting ethnography in Bicuhini, Oaxaca, in 2007. After the first visit I became fascinated by how the caseta telefonica, the only landline into the village, played a central role in how families communicated with their loved one in the US. I also found out on the first trip that youth were the first adopters of cellphones and they always kept the phone on them even though if they were not able to use it. This was a surprise because the cell signal was not strong in the village and there was very little regional economic opportunities. In the next visit, I teamed up with Barry Brown to explore the possibility of co-creating relevant mobile technologies with the youth in the village. During our second field work visit, we discovered that cellphones were abandoned by youth.  Cellphones were no longer carried around with the youth every where that they went. Many of the youth had switched over to MSN as a primary medium of digital communication.

For the first visit, I went with Leah Muse-Orlinoff, a graduate researcher on entrepenueral migration networks at the Center of Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS). We were funded the first year with a University of California Institute for Mexico and United States (UC MEXUS) grant and support from CCIS's multi-year  Mexican Migration Field Research Project (MMFRP) project. In the second year of funding, I teamed up with Barry Brown from UC San Diego, Jesus Favela from Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada, BC (CICESE), and Gloria Marks from UC Irvine for a larger grant from UC MEXUS. Research assistant, Tanya Menendez,  played a significant research role in the last fieldwork visit in 2010.


Ethnography of the telephone: Changing uses of communication technology in village life and did a great job!MOBILE HCI  2011 (co-authored with Barry Brown) [pdf]

“I didn’t bring my mobile”: changing technology use in a Mexican village (2009) [pdf]


Unreachable Cellphones: Limitations of Collect Calls for Immigrant detainees in Federal Detention Centers

Undocumented immigrant detainees in federal detention centers are experiencing great difficulties in reaching their family or relatives in their home country. As cellphone ownership in less evenly developed countries becomes more ubiquitous, many people are only reachable via their cellphones. Collect calls to landlines, however, are the only communication option for immigrant detainees. The billing infrastructure for collect calls is set up so that the recipient of the phone call incurs the costs, and these costs can only be tracked and billed through landlines.

Court translators and lawyers who work closely with detained immigrants have recounted that detainees often report that they are simply unable to reach their family members because of the limited use of collect calls to landlines. Oftentimes detainees need to reach their families for help in obtaining paperwork, advice on whether they should fight to stay in the country or not, and for emotional purposes. Detainees who cannot reach their families often experience emotional paralysis and confusion with legal bureaucracy. Often this leads to bottlenecks in the legal process for determining the detainee's legal options. With detainees unable to reach their families in their home country or even in the USA, many of them are staying for unnecessarily prolonged periods in detention centers.

When I conducted fieldwork in an immigrant sending communities in rural Mexico, I spoke to families who didn't know where a member of their family was located and from deportees that were housed in the detention centers. Families told me that after finding out from the community in the US that their father or brother was picked up by police or federal agents, most of the time they didn't hear from them. Deported immigrants have also recounted to me that once they were put in detention centers, they often found it difficult or impossible to reach their family members in the US and Mexico. In many cases, after months or weeks of no communication, individuals just showed up in their home village after being released into Mexico by federal agents. Another layer of complication is added when detainees are taken to another detention center if the center closest to where they were picked up is full. An undocumented immigrant picked up in New York City that should be housed in the detention centers in Manhattan or New Jersey, could be sent to Arizona or Texas. This makes it even more difficult for detainees to reach a personal contact in their immediate US-based networks.

With more research, I  would like to explore a temporary technology based solution. The long-term goal would be for this research to result in a change of federal policy for how detainees and possibly all inmate make phone calls. However, this will be long and difficult process since many telecommunication companies hold profitable legacy collect call contracts with the government. If you are interested in the short-term goal of creating a tech-based solution or even the long-term policy change goal, let's talk! 


Hip-Hop as an Educational Tool

I co-founded H2Ed (Hip-Hop Education), the first national organization to advocate for the use of hip-hop as an pedagogical tool. Between 2003 and 2005, we held over three national conferencing, bringing together thousands of educators, youth leaders, parents, social workers and education administrators to dialogue on best practices in using Hip-Hop as an educational tool.

This is one of the first projects that I started when I moved to NYC in 2002 and it has remained one of my favorites. Youth culture is often invalidated inside our formal learning institutions. Mainstream images of hip-hop discredit the long history it has had as a socio-poltical organizing tool for Black and Latino communities. I started H2Ed with the hopes that educators and adults working closely with youth could learn more about hip-hop's history and role in giving people of color a vehicle for artistic expression. 


Casual Games maintaining Less-Meaningful Ties on Facebook 

One of the fun things that I get to do while working at Nokia Research is play Farmville! Apparently Farmville has more players than twitter users - that is craaazy!  And now you can buy crops that are sponsored by advertisers!

I started thinking that something else is going on in Farmville other than the fertilizing and planting of crops. And the good thing is that my colleague Liz Bales was thinking the same thing! And when we both mentioned it to Jofish Kaye  we found out that he too was stumped by Farmville’s success and was particularly interested in all the gifting of Spring eggs and chickens in Farmville. Naturally we all decided that we just had to do some fun research on all this plowing and harvesting.

After playing Farmville for some time, I was telling Liz that I honestly am more comfortable fertilizing the crops of an old friend from high school who I haven’t spoken to in 15 years than commenting on her wall. 

So after we discussed this, Liz and I are hypothesizing that Farmville is being used to manage less meaningful ties on facebook. I think we’re onto something here because when most people speak of social gaming often we think of MMORPGS as a place where “real” gaming interaction takes place - such as the organizing of guilds in WoW and collective cooperation required to level up. Joi Ito said that playing WoW was a great way for him to interact with friends that he night not have enough time to see in person and was an excellent training for leadership skills. But in light-weight games that demand minimal skills and interaction, we don’t always think of them as places of “serious” social interaction or the development of complex real life qualities. 

The thing is that facebook is increasingly less about personal networks - there are tons of contacts on facebook that I simply just don’t interact with on a day-to-day basis or even more personal basis. It’s not that my contacts aren’t meaningful, it’s just that some of them are less-meaningful. Neverthelss those are ties that I want still want to maintain and check in on in a low-stake and low-engagement way. I think a lot of people are using facebook as a way to manage any social contact that one wants to maintain. 

And now as the most successful game to built on top of facebook to date, Zynga is changing the way we virtually manage our ties. So what danah boyd’s been saying for a long time about myspace and faceook as a place for youth to manage their social ties can be applied to Farmville.

We’re proposing that Farmville helps people manage their social ties and  furthermore Farmville is particularly useful and successful in managing less-meaningful ties. 

Ties obligate, but depending on the weight of them, they obligate people in different ways.  A lot of research has been done on people using complex games and MMORPs to reinforce strong ties and loose ties. But we know less about casual online gaming as a way to maintain loose ties. We think it’s interesting to look at how people make choices in who they engage with and how in FarmVille. Could these be new forms of light-weigh management of light-weight ties? 

 We’ll have to see what the data says - so we’re looking for people to interview on the phone. If you play Farmville or know of anyone who does - can you ask them to fill out this initial survey?  

 With Liz and my interests in casual games as management of social ties and Jofish’s interests in gifting I think we’re going to produce some interesting research and have something to contribute to the role of causal gaming the everyday life. 

So how does this relate to my research in less-evenly developed communities?  I am more interested in casual games as a source of leisure than complex games like WoW. I think a lot times  research in less resource intense areas can be so serious - such as focusing totally on indicators of social mobility or “practical” solutions for water purification or something.

But look - even people who are economically poor wanna have fun! Just because someone is poor doesn’t mean that they are socially poor. Many of the places and communities that I research simply don’t have the technological architecture to handle the bandwidth required by MMORPGS. Also many people don’t have disposable time to dedicate themselves to complex games. 

In China, people are quiet adept to using virtual platforms for relationship management.  QQ is the largest virtual economy in China - so large that the Chinese government was concerned about QQ money disrupting the RMB.I think as low-income areas start getting more access to the internet and higher-end mobile phones, we’re going to see an explosion in casual games. So this will definitely be area I should pay close attention to my dissertation fieldwork in China.


update 5/15 A. J. Patrick Liszkiewicz has written an excellent post about Farmville. He is much more critical of Farmville, “Farmville is not a good game. While Caillois tells us that games offer a break from responsibility and routine, Farmville is defined by responsibility and routine.”  ”The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. “  Liszkiewiczs critique is that Farmville is less about fun and more about obligations. I love how he links game playing on Farmville to citizenship.  


Beijing Youth Voices - Writings from Chinese Students





In 2008, I teamed up with Barbara Cervone from U.S. based-nonprofit What Kids Can Do, Inc. and Adobe Youth Voices to create Beijing Youth Voices, a blog created by six students in Beijing, China.

China's education system is evolving as it tries to incorporate new learning practices. We wanted to experiment with creative writing in a non-school setting. We had youth from all over Beijing apply and in the end we awarded six students funding for college and media training classes.

We had an amazing instructor in Beijing, Gloria Xu of Chinapax, workng with the youth. They met for six months and created weekly blog posts on different topics about how Beijing was changing. The topics that the youth wrote about ranged from pre-Olympic to post-Olympic changes, their grandparent's memories of the city, and their hopes and dreams.

“Hey! We are the six bloggers—Iris, Siqi, Steven, Linda, Kelan, and E-mail—of Adobe Youth Voice’s and What Kids Can Do’s Beijing Youth Voices! We are all high school students in Beijing, with a range of interests, talents, and personalities—like teenagers around the world. For the next six months, we will be posting bi-weekly blogs, giving you a peek into our lives and life in China.”

So began the first of many blog entries, filled with photographs and stories, from the six-member Beijing Youth Voices team. The group met on Saturdays at a centrally located tea-shop, where they reviewed each other’s work and then set out to explore with their cameras a new part of the city. The students posted their blogs in Chinese on and in English on With the 2008 Summer Olympics, the team trekked across Beijing to capture the Olympic spirit far from the famed “Bird’s Nest”—from “Smiling Beijing Welcomes You” banners to sidewalk health stations.

What Kids Can Do published a beautiful flip-book of stories of over 250 youth that included many of the stories from the Beijing Youth Voices blog.


Hip-Hop Curriculum with Queens Museum's Leadership Through the Arts Program

The Queens Museum of Arts started an initiative called Leadership Through the Arts Program. I joined the program's Advisory Committee in 2004.

"Using the arts as a uniquely powerful communication device, the youth were equipped with the skills and tools needed to navigate American civic and educational power structures. The program combined anti-oppression and political education curriculum implemented by local activist groups with artmaking workshops led by established artist educators to develop critical thinking skills alongside opportunities to coordinate concerts, performances, lectures and workshops to be held at the Museum and at sites throughout the community.

Each cohort of 25 young adults, who were paid a stipend to participate, addressed the tension points in their communities and interacted with community and political leaders, seniors, local businesses and entrepreneurs, and faith communities through exhibition and presenting theater, photography, film and art projects. Finally they had funds which which to administer grants to community based organizations, through a rigorous process guided by the North Start Fund. In the short term, the initiative sough to promote social integration through cross-cultural interaction amongst the participants. In the long term, it sought to create upwardly mobile engaged citizens of tomorrow trained to effect positive social change in Queens neighborhoods."

We implemented and developed workshops that used popular culture as the teaching tool. I worked with Eyebeam Museum to develop the first Blogging Curriculum with Josh Kingberg that taught community building through popular culture. The youth audio-blogged interviews with their family members.  I also had the opportunity to teach and develop the curriculum for the Videomaking class that focused on community storytelling. Under Prerana Reddy's guidance, the program grew into a multi-year initiative.

The Queens Museum of Arts is one of my favorite museums in the world - truly is. It is the only museum of its size that I know of that truly creates community led initiatives. I credit a lot of this to the museum's executive director, Tom Finkelpearl, and to my good friend Prerana Reddy who over sees all public events. The exhibitions at QMA actually reflect the global populations that inhabit Queens. Prerana recently created the Queens community blog that can be read in Spanish and English.


Subway Ad Campaign for safe sex - APICHA's Young Men Having Sex with Men 

I sat on APICHA's Adult Committee for their YMSM (Young Men Having Sex with Men) project. We advised youth outreach organizers on how to implement outreach projects to create visibility around issues facing the young men in the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community.  The mission of the YMSM Project was  to combat AIDS-related discrimination, and to support, empower, and enhance the quality of life of Asian & Pacific Islander YMSM. In 2004, the YMSM Project finished the third NYC subway ad series (picture on left). 

Over the three years I was involved, I learned so much about how youth make sense of their identity and all the complex race and ethnicity issues within the API community. The funding that we received for thsi project was controversial (from CDC) but in the end we were able to produce an excellent campaign.


Nicole, a documentary about a legendary gay activist

In the early 2000's, I used to make documentaries. I am most proudest of the one I made on legendary gay activist, Nicole-Murray Ramirez. Nicole has been a central figure in the gay rights community since the 1970's. He is a well known figure in the political world and she is a famous queen. Nicole tells us about her past as the first transexual hooker to walk the streets of Los Angeles , how she survived the HIV/AIDS edemic, and how she makes no apologies for what she has gone through. She is currently living in San Diego and hosts a weekly bingo in San Diego as nun. This was made with Phil Zipkin and Keisha Zollar. More about Nicole Wikipedia link on Nicolas Murray-Ramirez.  

Part 1 of documentary.


Part 2 of documentary. 

Click to read more ...