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A speech for my mentor, Richard Madsen, a wonderfully magnanimous soul


I came to San Diego to give a speech at the retirement party for my mentor, friend, and dissertation chair, Richard Madsen, a world renowned bridge builder who is known for his work in sociology of religion and culture, established the field of sociology in China, founded the UC Fudan Center, and who is now retiring. 

This was one of the hardest talks to write because in being asked to write about how Richard was a mentor to me, I had to write about myself. I’ve known Richard since I was 18 years old in 1998 and he is the reason why I am even in grad school now. 

It was an honor to give the speech. I’ve included the text below. 

I though it was unfair that not everyone could give a speech nor could everyone could to the event. So I made a tumblr where we can all submit your story here. 

In talking about Richard’s role in supporting me through #gradschool, I didn’t get to mention all the other suppper critical committee members, sociology staff, friends, and family who helped me along the way. But alas, this was just about Richard. I will write about others once I’m invited to talk at your retirement party :) 

i am so grateful to Katrina Richards for organizing the party. Thank you Kenyatta Cheese, Leah Muse-Orlinoff, and Katrina Richards for helping me access some of these memories to express the texture of Richard’s soul. 


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I've joined IDEO as an Expert-In-Residence in Shanghai, China

Hello friends, I've moved to Shanghai to join IDEO as an Expert-In-Residence for a few months!

For both of IDEO and I, Design Thinking is a fundamental approach to solving business problems. In particular, the IDEO Shanghai studio and I think that understanding Chinese companies is a window to the world. And most importantly, we both care deeply about putting humans at the center of systems.

The nature of living the lives that we do is that there is always a slice of serendipity involved in how we move in the world. And somehow I, along with the 31 other people who work in this studio, have been magically brought to Shanghai from different walks of life.

So if you're in Shanghai this Thurs. Jan. 8, come by for a happy hour drink at 5pm to meet the all the wonderful people at IDEO and for them to meet you. The Studio is hosting the gathering to welcome me and to bid farewell to the out-going resident, Lu Guo. 

Please do come because it would make me so happy to think that I can gather all of the amazing people I know and friends of friends in Shanghai into one space just to connect and to see what possibilities could emerge from serendipity and openness to the new! 

So for the next few months, I’ll be posting lots of my observations on instagram under the tag #triciainchina (cross posting to my blog).

Please feel free to bring your friends or family. And if you can't come - you know I always love meeting new folks in China so feel free to tell your lovely friends in China to come!

I look forward to seeing you!

Invitation to Drinks @ IDEO

Please join us for drinks on 8 January at IDEO's offices to welcome our new resident Tricia Wang, and to bid farewell to Lu Guo, our digital expert-in-residence.

Tricia and Lu are part of our in-residence program that has been created to enable IDEO to collaborate with world-class creative minds and experts in China in a way that extends and amplifies IDEO’s impact. Residents are influential thinkers and practitioners who are interested to contribute to our innovation culture and to push the creative edges of their work.

Please join us and feel free to bring a guest.

Event details: Location: IDEO, 3F Building 5, No.436 Jumen Road, Shanghai 200023

Time: Thursday 8 January, 5:30-6:30pm

RSVP: Please reply to your IDEO contact to confirm your attendance

About Lu Guo:  About Tricia Wang:


Happy Hour @ IDEO

我们将于1月8日在IDEO办公室举办小型Happy Hour,欢迎新加入我们的驻地专家王圣捷,同时欢送我们的数字驻地专家郭璐,我们诚邀您的光临。



Happy Hour 详情:

 地址:  IDEO办公室,上海市局门路436号5号楼3楼,邮编200023

 时间: 1月8日,周四,下午5:30-6:30

 请回复: 如您确认出席,请回复邮件至您的IDEO联络人,谢谢

 有关郭璐的介绍:   有关王圣捷的介绍:




Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media — My PhD dissertation 

And after seven years of research, I present to you my PhD dissertation:


Here's a link to the abstract and to the pdf.

Needless to say, this has been a work of blood, sweat, tears, and love. I have a long list of people to thank for toiling beside me and for supporting me along the way. Without them, this project would not have been possible.

From the start of the writing process, I knew that I would want to share the finished product online. Thus, I have done everything I could to create a dissertation that is accessible to the public. I have deliberately chosen not to follow the traditional publishing route of turning my work into an academic book or a series of academic articles. Publishing my work online has made me super excited because it allows more people to actually read the paper and, hopefully, to build on top of my learnings. At the same time, the attention to my work has made me super anxious because of fears that people may not connect with my research or find it uninteresting.

But here I am, eager to share my dissertation with both excitement and anxiety. And at some point, after you have downloaded and read this pdf, I ask that you share your thoughts. I really do appreciate any and all feedback because it will help me with the next stage of this project. This dissertation will eventually take form as a mainstream non-academic book, which is why I have always called it the first draft of a book, which is tentatively titled, “Tales from the Chinese Internet.

So please share your criticisms, questions, confusions, and ideas. Please let me know what parts resonate with you the most and what parts you didn’t connect with. Don’t be afraid to be frank and direct with your critique. I thank you ahead of time for doing this. And I promise you, your feedback will find its way into the book.

I will be giving a talk that summarizes entire research in China at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on Tuesday, Febuary 18 12:30pm EST. RSVP if you can come, otherwise it will be livestreamed and archived for the whole world to see.

A letter of gratitude

I started this dissertation on September 21, 2006, and finished it on October 22, 2013. For seven years, I moved through the world with a single-minded focus on my research. For each of the 2,224 days, I woke up thinking about my fieldwork. For each of the 3,706,960 minutes, my participants seeped into my bones and my dreams. For 223,603,200 seconds, I breathed this project until it became my skin.   

I want to acknowledge all of those who have flowed into my life in such profound ways. This ritual of gratitude marks the shedding of one phase of my life and the beginning of a new one. While I didn’t keep an exact count of all the support I received, I do want to recognize as many as I can because, as with any complex project, a dissertation is the fruition of many people, not just a single writer.

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Transcript of my talk, "The Conceit of Oracles: How we ended of up in a world where quantitative data is more valued than qualitative data"

In September 2013, I delivered the opening keynote to the EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis In Industry Conference) 2013, a conference for people who care deeply about making organizations more human-centered. EPIC is a truly an interdisciplinary gathering, bringing together people who work in marketing, strategy, design, research, and academia.

 The conference was so amazing that Ethnography Matters has dedicated this month’s theme to the best presentations, workshops, and discussions from EPIC attendees.

While I speak regularly at conferences, this was my first time talking at an event for ethnographers. I was a bit scared to speak at EPIC (I don’t know why, since ethnographers are more empathetic than most!). In the end I had a wonderful experience and it was so refreshing to be around people who understand the nature of my work.

At this conference, I did not have to worry about the audience making assumptions about ethnographers. I was relieved that attendees didn’t assume that I don’t do strategy and only sit around watch people all day. And when I said I was an ethnographer, no one gave me a blank face and tried to escape the conversation. And I never heard anyone condescendingly ask: “So does that mean you’re not an engineer or designer?”

Something that made me really excited about my keynote was when I realized that I would be in the same exact building, The Royal Institution, where scientist Michael Faraday had demonstrated electricity to the public for the first time at the infamous Christmas Lecture in 1856. So there I was,157 years later, standing in the same exact place and in the same pose as Faraday.

What made this moment even more special was that it just so happened that a portion of my talk was also about electricity! I talked about the connection between the invention of devices to measure electricity and the invention of computers. (For example, the first commercial computer, the Ferantti Mark 1 was created at Ferranti Unlimited, an electricity company in Manchester.)

When I shared this historical link in my talk, I had to pause and ask people to photograph me in front of the podium, in the same position and pose as Faraday. I think at the time, I said something like,

“who would’ve thought that 157 years later, some Chinese-American chic would be standing in the same spot talking about electricity? Can someone please take a picture?”

In the top photo Tricia Wang is in the same exact body position in the same theatre as Michael Faraday in the bottom photo.

Thank you to fellow ethnographer, Julian Cayla, who took this photo of me juxtaposed above Michael Faraday. In this magical moment of historical, technological, spatial, and intellectual serendipity–standing in the same pose as Faraday with my arms left arm pointing upwardsI felt like I had entered into a magical wormhole of ethnographic delirium that erased over a century of separation between these two moments in time. 

You can read/download the unedited notes for all 5 parts of my 45 minute talk. I also have created a research blog on tumblr for this talk that tracked all my sources and thought processes. 

Here is the summary and some excerpts from my presentation below that will hopefully entice you to read my talk in its entirety. 

Technology is playing an increasingly large role in decision-making processes. But are we really making more informed decisions? How do we even know we are asking the right questions? And what are we missing in our measurement-driven world?

This talk seeks to answer these questions by looking at methods of prediction from the Oracle of Delphi in Ancient Greece to the use of electricity during the Scientific Revolution and the invention of computers in the Age of Information. These historical events provide a lens for understanding how we ended up in a “data-driven” society: a world where computers are mostly valued as predictive machines; quantitative output is seen as “truth”; and the qualitative cultural context is seen as inferior to quantitative data. The danger in predictions, forecasting, and measurements that over-rely on quantitative data is that a misleading representation of actual human experiences can result. This is a terrible mistake and one that is committed frequently within organizations.

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New Talk, "The Elastic Self: Understanding Identity in Social Media"

I returned in 2013 to one of my favorite places on earth, Malmö, Sweden, to give a talk on youth and social media (my love letter on why Malmö is the best place in Scandanavia) at my favorite conference in the world, The Conference at Media Evolution. This year, I wanted to focus on the broader global implications of social media on youth identity which was very differnet from my talk last year on social media crowd-sourcing initiatives in China and designing for trust.

I discussed my theory of the Elastic Self and why it is important to have anonymous social spaces for people to interact as strangers.

The Elastic Self  is the feeling that one’s identity is malleable and involves the trying on of different identities that are beyond the realm of what would be considered normal displays of one’s prescribed self. The Elastic Self flourishes in semi-anonymous interactions with unknown people--essentially, strangers. 

In my talk, I proposed that we start talking about social media with greater nuance. While most of the media talks about social media platforms such as twitter, facebook, and tumblr as if they are lumped into 1 homogenous set of apps, it's much more usful to talk about social media as platforms that falls in more formal or informal modes of interaction.

When using Tumblr or Reddit, people are interacting in the informal mode because they can connect with strangers while keeping ones’ identity anonymous. As such, sociality veers towards the exploratory, performative, and even fantastical because people tend to socialize with people they do not know. Consequently, we see a wider spectrum of identitie emerge on social media sites dominant in the informal mode. In the presence of strangers, individuals feel more liberated to try on different identities without the pressure of committing to just one.

The formal way of interacting online can be exemplified with Facebook and Google+, where people often talk to people that they already know. Formal social media sites also have features that often make it impossible to be anonymous, such as a real-name policy. As a result, social media sites dominant in the formal mode tend to produce prescriptive, singular, and discrete identities. 

My research shows that youth are more willing to share risky information and stigmatized emotions in social media platforms dominant in the informal mode because they feel that anonymity removes the risks that may come with personal expression.

When we realize that not all social media sites are the same, that certain sites are more conducive for particular displays of identity, and that displays of identity are very fluid--then we can begin to better understand the behavior on these sites with greater nuance.

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New Talk "Designing for Trust: How China's Free Lunch avoided The Curse of Kelvin" and Notes from Media Evolution's The Conference

Designing for Trust: How China's Free Lunch avoided The Curse of Kelvin by prioritizing the users's needs over the system's needs
Free Lunch is a non-profit in China that uses a crowd-sourced reporting and monitoring system to gain donor's trust. The system is filled with inefficiencies and redundancies, but it's very good at getting people to donate and participate. How did it accomplish this? Instead of designing for efficiency, Free Lunch was designing for trust. In a historical parallel, the measurement of electricity consumption in the 19th century reveals that accuracy in measurement was compromised to gain consumers' trust in devices. Both Free Lunch and and electricity measurement reveal that making products/services more usable may require us to prioritize the user's need. Several design principals should be considered when designing for trust. 


When I agreed to particpate in Media Evolution’s, The Conference, in Malmö, Sweden, I was still fresh out of my fieldwork in China. One of the biggest issues ethnographers encounter after spending years and years in the field is that they become myopic. They begin to think that their fieldsite is super special and that they are witnessing a phenomenon that has never happened in human history. 

I think my fieldsites are awesome - I love all the places I research. But the important thing when doing global fieldwork is to find the connections between places.  So I wanted to give a talk that would help me step into another place - a historical space. 

In psychology, it is said that we repeat the same trauma until we understand why we do it. I think history works the same way. We repeat the same processes until we understand why. One of these processes is our obsession for efficiency. I was led to a really amazing book by G.J.N. Gooday, The Morals of Measurement: Accuracy, Irony, and Trust in Late Victorian Electrical Practice. After reading it, I started to dig into the history of electricity and saw all these parallels with what I was witnessing in China - that what users need are systems that they can trust, not necessarily the most efficient systems. 

Principles to consider when designing for trust

During the last half of my talk, I discuss several core principals that need to be considered during the design process. These prcinciples are most relevant for those of us who create participatory and social media oriented platforms because these communities collapse and or unable to form without trust:

  1. Lower the threshold for your users to establish trust. Make it easy for them to judge the veracity of information sources.
  2. Conduct a thorough ethnographic study on how users conceive of information & trust. Because conceptions about what information is varies depending on cultural and social contexts and understanding this affects the design process. 
  3. Ask what user-centered values you want to bring into the service and product design such as transparency or familiarity. 
  4. Treat these values as healthy constraints for innovation,   not against innovation
  5. But at the same be clear about what values are being comprised. Understand that some design compromises are only appropriate for certain contexts. Compromises in efficiency may make sense for one group of users but not another. 
  6. Design minimally enough so that you can watch what user centered values emerge out of the interaction.
  7. Avoid the Curse of Kelvin - just because something isn't quantifiable doesn't mean that it is value-less (


Click to read more ...


Fast Company feature: a slideshow and interview about my research

Every ethnographer needs a break from their fieldsite. When I came back to the US in July, I didn't want to think about China. I just wanted to sleep, play with my doggy, and eat fresh food. But when Fast Company reached out to do a profile on me for their Generation Flux series, I couldn't say no!

I had a great time chatting Adam Bluestein on skype. 

I was really happy with the interview and the slideshow that created with pictures from my fieldsite. Their sister site, Fast Co.Exist, re-ran the story with even more pictures!

Check out the interviews with other Generation Fluxers. And do look at the original Febuary issue of Fast Company that featured the original fluxers - especially the interviews with my friends, Baratunde and Danah Boyd!



Lift Talk Notes - Dancing with Handcuffs: The Changing Geography of Trust in China

When I moved to China to do a year of continuous fieldwork, I didn't want to leave the country to give any talks. But when I got an invite from Lift Conference to speak, I didn't want to turn it down. I have been a fan of Lift Conferences for a long time and it was an honor to be invited. So I skipped out to Geneva for a week to speak at LIFT12

I was very excited to have LIFT be the first place I share my analysis. I chose to talk about the changing geography of trust as people and institutions are re-negotiating power in the age of online sociality in China. An excerpt of my talk from LIFT:
In her talk at Lift 12, she focuses on a story you may have heard of, concerning a student who ended up making international headlines for throwing shoes at the architect of China's internet censorship infrastructure and then become the hero for information freedom worldwide. Tricia tells us what happened to the student and how the outcomes were dependent on a variety of factors that tells us a lot about how we socialize and build trust online."

I was really happy with how the talk went. (some notes from Stephanie Booth's live-blogg of my talk) There are so many other things I wanted to include so I want to elaborate on them here. But before I continue, there were many other speakers who had amazing talks that definitely are worth checking out.  I've listed my favorites at the bottom of this post!  


I've been thinking about how communities form online for a long time. One of the best writers on this topic is Clay Shirky. When I read Here Comes Everybody, Clay summarized piles and piles of scholarly research all into a few pages without any academic jargon.  (Side note: the talent of conciseness and accessibility is sorely under-appreciated and under-developed in academia, and I would even go as far to say discouraged.)

Click to read more ...


New Article - Dumplings for Sale: What migrant work is really like

*I wrote a piece for That's Shanghai in 2012 about my fieldwork with migrant workers in Beijing. 

The State Council Information Office only censored this paragraph from my piece that describes the relationships between the chengguan and the street vendors.  : 

"Officially know as City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau (城市管理行政执法局), it is not really clear what the chengguan are supposed to do. But what they are known for doing is making migrants' live miserable in cities across China. There are many stories of chengguan beating vendors, smashing their products or food, and taking bribes. It is also common to hear about chengguan killing street vendors. A recent incident in Guizhou led to a riot when a chengguan killed a disabled migrant. Stories of chengguan exploitation of power are so pervasive that appeasing them with bribes becomes the key to a street vendor's success. Giving bribes is a matter of life or death. But for migrants who do not have enough money to bribe, they have to constantly be on the run. Constant running means that a street vendor cannot establish a business in the long term. So for a street vendor like this family I am with, finding a place to set up a cart in a chengguan-free site is a matter of survival and success.  A stable place to sell food would give them a stable income to expand their business or go into another line of work."

I am grateful that the censors only cut out that section, they were quite flexible on the other stuff I wrote. Another lesson learned about China, it's important to learn how to write between the lines; keeping it ambiguous is sometimes the best strategy. 

Here is the text of the essay below, and the PDF of the essay in the February issue. For Chinese readers, Kate Jing, a wonderful blogger who writes in Chinese and English translated the first part of the aritlce! Thanks Jing!   [饺子:分享中文版PDF 版;Chinese translation of article by Kate JingPDF


Tricia Wang is an American ethnographer who studies how young people and migrants use digital tools. For her fieldwork, she labors alongside a migrant family, sharing in their hopes and despair as they try to sell dumplings. 

It’s 4am. Children’s footsteps patter outside, water pours from a faucet, pots are pulled out. I overhear Li Jie. “We barely have enough to buy meat for tonight’s dinner. I hope we have return customers today.”

I’ve been living with Li Jie and her family for a few days. She is one of the 200-300 million rural people who have made their way to cities in the hope... I don’t know how to finish that sentence. Usually newspapers finish it with “in the hope of a better life” or “in the hope of securing a job.” Maybe I can finish it by the time I tell you about a day in Li Jie’s life.

By 4.30am, we are eating breakfast crackers and drinking soda. It’s so hot during the day that it’s refreshing to wake up to breathable air. Li Jie’s husband, Mr. Long, and her younger brother, Ray, are putting the batteries into the bike carts to go to the market. The men leave before 5am.

I stay with Li Jie and her son. We take the dumplings out of the freezer and for the second day in a row they’re sticky. Everything that needs to be kept cold is put inside the freezer, but it’s unpredictable. Sometimes it works too well and the beers explode. Most of the time it doesn’t work that well. The dumplings get sticky and uncookable while the beers are perfectly chilled.

The family decided to start selling dumplings when Ray’s friend told him about a construction site where vendors have been selling food without encountering any chengguan. Officially known as City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, chengguan have been known to give migrant workers a hard time.

After hearing about the chengguan-free construction site, the family decided to sell dumplings for RMB4 a bowl. Their plan was this: First, they’d start a dumpling cart; then when it became profitable after a month or so they’d rent it out; and then they’d have a stable income. They used RMB6,000 of their savings to buy two battery-powered bicycle carts, three batteries, a freezer, stove, gas tank, two large umbrellas for the cart, two big pots, 20 plastic bowls, two bags of disposable chopsticks, four foldable tables and 16 stools. Other than the chopsticks, everything was secondhand.

They moved to an inner-city village (cheng zhong cun), essentially a migrant slum, located 20 minutes by bike from the site. There is one bathroom with a long pit for every 100 to 300 of the village’s spare, one-room units. Rent is RMB300 per month.

Mr. Long and Ray return home at 7am. Li Jie tells them about the unusable dumplings.
She reminds everyone that they’ve thrown out four bags of dumplings in two days. While we unpack the food from the market, I hear Mr. Long mutter that he doesn’t want to keep doing this, but Li Jie doesn’t let her husband finish. “Six thousand kuai, six thousand kuai, six thousand kuai, everyone remember that. We have to make this back.” She says. 

 I met Li Jie four years ago. She is 43 and belongs to the Miao ethnic group. She

was always outside the same subway stop selling hand-sewn clothes and purses made in her village. She had her 2-year- old son tied to her back and all her wares were laid out on a large sheet she could roll up at any second if she needed to run. In between selling, she had to breast feed her son and take him to pee and poop in a garbage can nearby. 

One time, as I was buying a purse from her, a group of chengguan appeared and started to bark at all the vendors that it was illegal to sell there. I watched one push
a young woman down to the ground. Then they started taking the vendors’ products. While others were scared and running away, Li Jie showed no anxiety. She told the chengguan in a loud but calm voice so that all the people watching could hear: 

“You must have compassion for us migrants, especially for us ethnic minorities. We have no way to make money back home, no schools to send our children to. Just let us sell our stuff. We want to make money in an honest way. We come from the village in the hopes to eat better, you are all city people, so it’s easy for you to have a life here.”

The chengguan just stood there. He didn’t hit her, didn’t steal her products or yell back. He walked around aimlessly as everyone scattered.

I helped Li Jie gather her stuff. I told her she was brave to speak up. She said she wasn’t doing anything wrong, that she was just trying to make a living. From then on, we were friends. She allowed me to hang around while she was selling. We would run from the chengguan together and pop into McDonalds together when we needed to use the bathroom. And now Li Jie was letting me hang out with her family for the first days of their dumpling business. 

At 8am I start washing vegetables. Anything involving water takes a long time because there is one faucet for every four homes and every five faucets are connected to one main pipe. So when any one of the 20 families uses their faucet, none of the other 19 can. Someone is always washing vegetables, dishes, hair or clothes. Each family pays RMB10 per person, per month. Peer pressure and faucet scarcity prevents anyone from using too much.

Sometimes we aren’t able to arrive at the construction site in time to sell food because we’re waiting to use the faucet. I’ve learned to stand in the water line and not move until I’ve filled the basin. Since it’s so hard
to get water, most food isn’t washed well, it’s soaked. The same water is then used to soak other vegetables. Then the same water is used to scrub the pot. The same bowl is used to wash hair, clothes and Li Jie’s child. 

Mr. Long chops meat at a small outdoor table that serves as the kitchen. When he walks away, flies descend. You‘d think the meat was one large black stone if you didn’t know hundreds of flies were on top of it.

Around 10am, the gas cooker won’t ignite. After multiple tries, Mr. Long calls the gasman, another unanticipated cost. We don’t wait too long because the gasman lives nearby. By the time he leaves and Mr. Long gets the food cooked it’s 11.30am. We should‘ve left by 11am to be in time for the lunch crowd. We put the beers into the Styrofoam box and load the stools, tables and umbrellas on to the bikes. Li Jie yells at Mr. Long for moving too slowly.

The road to the construction site is narrow and mostly unpaved. Li Jie, Mr. Long and their son go in one bike. I go with Ray. I sit in the back, making sure the bowls and umbrellas don’t fall. My seat allows me to look into the eyes of the impatient honkers in their Mercedes Benz and BMWs. We are all equally stuck on this road.

Ray tells me that we live next to a golf course, and many customers prefer to take the back road because it’s faster than the main entrance. We pass by signs announcing new luxury apartments. Pictures of white children with blond hair playing with their parents in green forests pass by our bikes. There aren’t any Chinese faces in the ads. 

When we arrive, most of the soup has already spilled out of the pot because of the uneven road. We unload our carts. Hundreds of workers are walking around shirtless. We wait eagerly. “Hot dumpling soup! Get a big bowl of soup!”

Some workers complain after ordering. Some want a beer to compensate for the overcooked dumplings. Mr. Long tries to appease them. “The dumplings are soft because we wanted to cook them long enough so the meat won’t get you sick.” But we all know why the dumplings are soft. Keeping the soup hot with the gas cooker softens them, so does a freezer that acts like a refrigerator. Mr. Long gives away five beers.

At 2pm, we count the money in Mr. Long’s pockets. He has RMB60, which means we only sold 15 bowls. But he gave away five beers, so that leaves him at RMB50. Mr. Long and Li Jie go home with their son, who is hungry and needs to nap. I bike with Ray, sitting on the back with the leftover pot of dumplings. The bikes keep running out of battery. Every time this happens, we must push the carts the entire three miles home. Yesterday, Ray and I had to push the cart for two hours after lunch in midday heat.

We get home at 2.30pm without the bikes breaking down. I am relieved. We pull the batteries out and put them on the charger. Li Jie pulls the dumplings off the cart, ladles four bowls of soup and adds cilantro on top. We are so hungry we finish eating within one minute.

At 3.30pm the men leave to buy more vegetables. Mr. Long and Ray return around 4.30pm. We repeat the washing and cooking cycle again. Li Jie makes sure her son is entertained with television and toys.

At 5.30pm, we load up the carts again. This time, Ray and Mr. Long try to entice customers by telling them that our bowls are bigger than other vendors, but we don’t charge more. But the other 10 carts have crowds of construction workers while we have none. We all notice, but no one says it.

The sun is setting. We still have a full pot of dumplings. Li Jie suggests we eat some to make us appear to be a popular cart. Mr. Long stands at the cart while Ray, Li Jie and I sit at three different tables, pretending to be customers. After 10 minutes, we all end up at the same table. Everyone is worried. This is day four and we’re still nowhere close to breaking even. It’s almost dark and all of us are starving. We start biking home at 7.30pm.

On the ride home, I ask Ray what his plans are now that their cart isn’t doing well. He tells me that they need more time and when the business is stable in six months, he’ll look for an office job. Ray is 23. He’s the first from his village to go to a top-tier university. He just graduated with an arts degree.

I try to understand why Ray wants to work as a vendor when he just finished college. He explains that he doesn’t have any connections to find office work, and a high starting salary would be around RMB2,000 but no more than RMB3,000. Working as a food seller, he could make RMB500 per day, or at least that’s what he thought based on his friend who’d tipped him to the site.

Ray keeps emphasizing that he isn’t above manual labor. During summer breaks, he worked
in a coal mine, a cell phone factory and a restaurant. He doesn’t think an office job is the hallmark of success. His friends who work in offices have to stay 12 hours a day. They’re paid less or the same as migrants and have little freedom. He didn’t feel tied down to an employer, and it was a good feeling.

When we arrive home, Li Jie and Mr. Long prepare dinner by flashlight as Ray and I unload the carts. We put the beers back in the freezer and bring all the chairs inside. I estimate we spend three hours a day loading and unloading the carts.

Dinner is ready around 9pm. We have meat. Every day around dinnertime Li Jie says, “We have to start making at least some money so that we can buy food. We need to buy meat.” For migrants, eating meat is a symbol of prosperity because for so long villagers could only eat meat a few times a year.

The first days of selling dumpling have been disastrous. The business is only averaging RMB100 per day. Ray keeps reminding the family of his friend’s situation and that with time, they’ll also make RMB500 a day. Mr. Long points out that the friend sells good food and has return customers. No one ever comes back to our cart.

Li Jie is getting nervous, but she’s always had the strength to carry the people around her. She wasn’t going to let a few complications or her husband’s low morale get in the way of making her investment back. Nevertheless, I can see that everyday activity has begun to wear on all of our bodies.

For me, the hardest part is using the bathroom. When my feet wade through the piles of trash blocking the entrance, I realize the buzzing I hear is a swarm of flies. The odor is like nothing I have ever experienced. I have no words for it. I avoid it as much as possible. In past fieldwork, I’m usually with street vendors who sell in areas where I could pop into a KFC or McDonalds. But here the village bathroom is my only option.

Though I am doing hard labor in higher than 30-degree weather, I am very calculating about drinking water. I sip as little as possible, just enough to moisten my tongue so that it doesn’t stick to the top of my mouth. Yesterday was super hot, but I only used the bathroom twice.

The pit inside is filled to the top with feces, female pads and trash. There is a rotting dog foot in the female bathroom. I want it removed, but I don’t know how. I feel bad that other bathroom users have to see it and I feel horrible every time I see it.

Things like this paralyze me because there’s nothing I can do. There’s simply no time
or means to make this place cleaner. Everyone feels this way. Everyone wants to remove the trash and dead dog paws. But where do you begin when no one is responsible? Where do you begin when you are exhausted and worried about your next meal?

With a schedule where we wake up at 4am, there is simply no time to do anything but prepare for the next meal or anticipate sleep. Everyone collapses at the end of the day. Every night I bike home thinking: I can’t wait to sleep.

It’s finally 10pm. Most families are asleep so there’s no line at the faucet. I take advantage of the privacy to wet a small towel and wipe the dust and sweat off. I’m shy about wiping down in front of everyone. Since it’s summer, families are always outside. There’s no privacy, but no one else is shy. Li Jie wipes down her armpits, breasts, legs, stomach and butt cheeks in the open. 

When I walk inside, Mr. Long and Ray are asleep. Li Jie has made a space for me on the
mat next to her and her son. 
I close my eyes and hope that there are no surprises tomorrow. I hope that the bike batteries work. I hope that the freezer and the gas cooker don’t break. I hope we sell more dumplings. 

I only stayed with the family a week, but the dumpling stand didn’t last long.  

Ray convinced a friend from his hometown to join the business. The friend had been working in a cell phone factory and the fumes were making him sick.

A week into their partnership, a knife fell on Ray’s heel and sliced his tendon. Ray couldn’t go to a doctor because he didn’t have a city hukou (household registration) so the costs would have been too high. He couldn’t walk for a week.

After that, Ray gave up. He sold everything that they’d bought for RMB6,000 back to the seller for RMB2,000. His friend went back to the cell phone factory. Li Jie and her husband returned to selling clothes on the street. Ray is now looking for work through online websites.

Among street vendors, those with permanent spots are the most well off, especially in touristy or business areas. They usually have stable relationships with local authorities and sell clean food. The most vulnerable are the ones like Li Jie’s family, working in a temporary location and not socialized into the unspoken system of payments in exchange for security. 

My work as an ethnographer and sociologist is all about living with people and listening to their stories. Most recently, I’ve done research in China and Mexico. My objective is to come up with socially and comercially relevant insights for companies and organizations into how people use digital tools (like cell phones and the Internet) in their daily lives. I’m looking at the topic holistically, so I pay attention to the absence of use too. I also spend time with more elite users such as students. Though my time with Li Jie’s family may seem like it has nothing to do with digital tools, it actually tells a lot about the future of online sociality.

Li Jie and her family relied completely on people they knew for information, from Ray’s friend telling them about the site to Ray asking his other friend to help out. When they did rely on strangers, such as buying the used freezer, they were cheated. It’s easy to understand why it’s safer for people to rely on those they know. Relying on people you know for advice and connections is Chinese tradition. But things change over time, and one thing I’m keeping an eye on is what sources people trust for information.

After tracking migrant job-search patterns for more than seven years, I’m noticing a shift toward impersonal sources for job leads. Although this story doesn’t illustrate that, I have many others that do. While in the West we’re used to the idea of relying on impersonal sources for referrals, only in recent Chinese history have the risks of interacting with unknown sources been minimized.

When people are more willing to trust sources they don’t have personal relationships with, there’s market opportunity that makes starts-ups like possible. Daguu is the world’s first job search service via text message for blue-collar workers. The entire service is contingent on migrants trusting Daguu for referrals as opposed to family. Daguu’s motto is “At home rely on the parents, outside rely on Daguu.”

Many people will see Li Jie and her family as a story of disadvantage, but that’s not how I see it. When I ask her about the chengguan, she tells me that they aren’t reflective of the central government’s policies. Central government has no idea to what extent local authorities mistreat migrants, she says.

The people on the bottom have the most patience for change. They endure unsanitary working and living conditions because they trust hard work will lead to a better life. But I can see a generational difference. Li Jie’s generation works in the hope that they will one day retire to their village, enjoy their air and land and see their kids succeed. Their hope is defined in terms of what they’ve already experienced, village life and children. Ray’s generation has hopes that are more defined. Migrants like him don’t want to return to the village. They want to participate in the urban middle class.

These are two different sets of hopes. Hopes articulate expectations about the future. The entire global economy hinges on people’s expectations of how markets will perform. The future of China also depends on people’s expectations and trust. I would not underestimate the power of 300 million Li Jies and Rays. Their hope is so enduring, yet, if history shows us anything, it’s also so fragile. 


Article in Wired UK: 'Building transparency in China, one lunch at a time'

After speaking at LIFT 2012 in Geneva, Switzerland, I got to spend some time with co-speaker, David Rowan, who is the editor of Wired UK. David has spent a lot of time researching how the internet is changing Africa. He gave a talk about at LIFT 2012 and wrote an article about it. 

After hanging out with Daivd, he asked me to write a piece for Wired's July issue.

It was hard to chose a topic becuase I witnessed so much in my fieldsite. I ended up writing about Free Lunch, a program that I've been researching for the last year. 

Here's the article! Building transparency in China, one lunch at a time

I've spent a lot of time with Deng Fei, the creator of Free Lunch. We traveled to participating schools in the country side and to his home. It'll take more than just one article to share what I saw, but this is a start! 

I want to thank my amazing research assisstant, Reginald Zhu. Without Reginald, I woudln't have known about Free Lunch. Reginald is also the one who tracked down Deng Fei when he gave a talk at Wuhan University. He was incredibley resourceful and resorted to spy tactics to track Deng Fei down!

Reginald has been at my side for several of our fieldwork trips out to the villages and to Free Lunch's office. Free Lunch was so impressed with Reginald that they invited him to be an intern during his summer break. 

My other research assistants, Iris Ruan, Pheona Chen, Allemande Niu, and Shayla Qiu, also provided invaluable support. 



Op-Ed with An Xiao Mina in Wired's Threat Level: Real-Name Registration Threatens the Lively World of China’s Microblogs


As researchers of the Chinese inter-webs, An Xiao Mina and I always get lots of questions about what happens on Weibo. People think that the only thing that happens on Weibo is censorship or resistance. In reality, it's somewhere in the middle. So we wanted to write an article that would capture what really is happening on Weibo. It's in English and Chinese below. Enjoy! 

Real Name Registration Threatens the Lively World of China's Microblogs - Wired - 4.2012 [中文: 实名制威胁中国微博的活跃世界]


Presented paper that I co-wrote with Barrry Brown at Mobile HCI 2011

I got to spend a wonderful few days in Stockholm, Sweden for Mobile HCI 2011. I presented a paper that Barry Brown and I co-wrote about our research in mobile use in Mexico, Ethnography of the telephone: Changing uses of communication technology in village life. Here is the pdf and the abstract of our paper:

While mobile HCI has encompassed a range of devices and systems, telephone calls on cellphones remain the most prevalent contemporary form of mobile technology use. In this paper we document ethnographic work studying a remote Mexican village’s use of cellphones alongside conventional phones, satellite phones and the Internet. While few homes in the village we studied have running water, many children have iPods and the Internet cafe in the closest town is heavily used to access YouTube, Wikipedia, and MSN messenger. Alongside cost, the Internet fits into the communication patterns and daily routines in a way that cellphones do not. We document the variety of communication strategies that balance cost, availability and complexity. Instead of finding that new technologies replace old, we find that different technologies co-exist, with fixed phones co-existing with instant message, cellphones and shared community phones. The paper concludes by discussing how we can study mobile technology and design for settings defined by cost and infrastructure availability.

This paper is a shorter version of a paper that we presented at the International Communication Association (ICA) [pdf] in Chicago. I learned a lot through re-writing this paper with Barry (who publishes papers in his sleep).

For me, the new version was difficult to write because we had to cut so many details out from our original ICA paper, but it gave us an opportunity to tell a different story about our data. While we had to leave out a lot of data, it allowed us to highlight our data in different ways. I personally don't like writing academic papers, but if there is anyone I would do it with again, it would be Barry.

This was my first time at Mobile HCI, so it was super fun to meet new faces and see old friends. But best of all, I got to spend time with Barry, who is now moving from UC San Diego to Mobile Life in Stockholm to start a new research group. Sadness for me, but wonderful news for his colleagues in Sweden.


Speaking at Mobile Life in Stockholm, Sweden.

I had a great day speaking at Mobile Life VINN Excellence Center in Sweden.

The Mobile Life research centre at Stockholm University with SICS and Interactive Institute as strategically important research partners, is located in Kista outside Stockholm, Sweden. The Centre started in 2007 and has funding until 2017. After three years, the Mobile Life Centre has grown to be about 50 researchers, exploring experiential, leisure and playful mobile and ubiquitous interactions.

The research is interdisciplinary, involving researchers from computer science, interaction design, sociology, psychology but also game designers, artists, dancers, and fashion experts. The Centre’s competitive edge lies in making serious research on what we might normally portray as “unserious” activities in collaboration with our industry partners Ericsson, Nokia, Microsoft Research, TeliaSonera, Company P and Bambuser.

It was lovely to take a break from doing fieldwork in China. I got to talk about design in China with non-elite users and hear a bit about what the researchers were doing. 

I hope I get to visist again as my dear advisor, Barry Brown, is now joining the center and starting a new research group.

Thanks to Oskar Juhlin and Barry Brown for organizing the talk!


"Technology for Migrant Workers" Interview in Agenda Magazine

 I had a lovely time chatting with Abby McBride from Agenda Magazine.

Here's the article: Tracking Technology Among China's Non-Elite [pdf download].

I shared my thoughts on what Digital Urbanism 2.0 will look like when 3G smartphone use will be more pervasive and affordable. We also talked about the kinds of inequalities migrants face, what kind of dreams they have, and how they make do tough situations.

By the end of the interview, I admitted that the Chinese internet is absolutely overwhelming. There are so many new products, ideas, and practices emerging everyday that it's impossible to keep up. Luckily I have a great team of research assistants. If you're curious about what my research assistants are reading, check out our open tumblr blog. And for the latest info from my fieldwork, my reseach blog is Bytes of China.

The best part about chatting with Agenda Magazine was receiving the actual magazine and learning about all the other people who were interviewed and doing amazing work and creating really cool stuff.

What struck me in all of these interviews were each of their undestanding of the "social."

*Thanks Jennifer Thome and Abby McBride! :)


The Atlantic covers my research on Weibo Instant Photo Phenomenon

Alexis Madrigal, senior editor of The Atlantic, wrote about how Weibo users are using it as a dating site based off of my research on Weibos' Instant Photo Singles Rescue Phenomenon

Madrigal makes a great point about this phenomenon: excellent thing about the development of the Chinese Internet is that Americans get to look across the Pacific at something technically like our own tubes, but distinct along many vectors. Let it serve as a reminder that these systems are both contingent (i.e. stuff just happens) and influenced by the culture in which they're implanted.

I am in love with Madrigal's writing. I have a few favorite writers (e.g. Paul Ford, Anil Dash, James Gleick, Adam Gopnik, Tom Standage) who blend technology, everyday life, and big social issues into a warm blanket, and Madrigal is one of them. I just bought his newly released book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. I can't wait to dig into it. Another one of my favorite oldie Madrigal piece is his sensitive and insightful reply to Zadi Smith's claim that facebook was making us less social, Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith. I subscribe to his RSS feed and put in folder, "FAVE WRITERS."


An Xiao Mina's Article About my Research on Chinese Migrants living in Internet Cafes (Huffington Post)

Design strategist, new media artist, and digital community builder Anxiao Mina interviewed me for her latest article in Huffington Post on internet cafes in China, The 21st Century Saloon: A Peek Inside China's Wangba, or Internet Cafes. I really like the way Anxiao narrates our interview - she captured the essence of our trans-Atlantic conversation! (I have written more details about this talk in my post-SXSW notes here.) Here is the interview below, or you can read it on Huffungton Post. Thanks Anxiao!

It's 5 in the morning on a Monday, and California native Tricia Wang is waking up in a second-tier city in central China. An ethnographer and researcher in how disadvantaged groups like migrant and low-income communities use technology, she immerses herself in her research environment.

Today's office is a smoky wangba (网吧: Internet cafe), where she was lucky enough to snag a couch to crash on. Many of the patrons around her are sleeping upright, or sideways, at their desks. All around her are computers, computers, computers, and hundreds of individuals, almost all of them migrants from different parts of rural China.

Click to read more ...


My new blog about my research in China: Bytes of China! 

I’ve just moved to China to fieldwork on how non-elite users, youth, and migrants are using cellphones and the internet. I’ve decided to keep a separate blog of all my ethnographic observations so that it doesn’t get mixed in with my general observations about culture and technology on Cultural Bytes.

I will still blog on Cultural Bytes, but just not as often as most of my brain for the next year will be focused on just China. If I have Bytes of China posts that are specifically about culture and technology, I will repost them to Cultural Bytes.

See you on Bytes of China! Here is the RSS feed.

More about Bytes of China and the themes that I will be writing about.


Fun interview about Chinese migrants and internet cafes with Benjamen Walker's radio show, Too Much Information

I love the way my interview turned out on Benjamen Walker's Too Much Information. We met in Austin, Texas at SXSW and he ended up super fun to work with.

Benjamen has traveled to China several times and the converstaions we had was so refreshing. He didn't ask the same old questions that reporters usually go with.

We had a lovely conversation about the topics I had brought up in my SXSW presentation on Chinese migrants. Here's the episode below, Too Much Internet.  My interview is the last one starting at 38:45 (easier to select time code with the soundcloud file).

And check out the amazing line up of people he has on his show from Paul Ford to Analee Newitz!

Click to read more ...


Slides/Notes for my SXSW talk on my research in China & some reflections about SXSW 

Had great feedback from my sxsw panel #300MM! It's over!

En route to China, I stopped in Austin to give a talk at my first time at SXSW Interactive. What did I overhear the most at SXSW? 

Web 3.0 is here!  The reign of the virtual! Networked Sensors take over the world! This is all so new! Singularity man! Social media for good! The age of social media has dawned! Get online or perish! Gaming for good! Game to change the world!

These statements reflect the general level of techno-utopianism that I find at conferences on anything related to the internet. There usually is little room for critical analysis or social historicizing.

As Roy Christopher points out, we live in an age of information abundance but at times it seems like our abilities to historically contextualize current events is scarce. He's right and this particulary true for the SXSW audience who is so focused on the "new" that the "old" seems irrelevant. I have lots of qualms with technological uptopianism, but I think what's make it worse is historical amnesia. Many of the talks seem to think that the technology itself - or this year the focus was on social media or games themselves will solve our reality and make us "better."  An example of this is Simon Mainwaring's We First: How Social Media can Remake Capitalism and Build a Better World and Jane McDonigal's Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better.  The ideas promoted in these books aren't necessarily wrong, but I find the analysis in these books resting more on future talk than on grounded research.

So for my first SXSW, I decided to give a talk that would not only illustrate my analysis and research on internet users in China, but also provide historical context for what we're seeing in China.  I explored the idea of telling a story that would be an old one - a story that would historicize the internet so that we could see how human emotions can create powerful reactions that repeat itself in differnet mediums, processes, and outcomes. I did this by paralleling the contemporary panic around rural-urban migrants in Chinese internet cafes to the 20th century panic around Italian and Irish immigrant in American saloons.  

Click to read more ...


Moving to China to do research! Will be blogging my year on!

moving to china! I'm happy and sad...Good day world! it’s finally happening! I’m moving to China to do my research! wooohoo!

So I’m moving to China to do my research, and then coming back to write something that I hope to buddha doesn’t kill my soul to write creative non-fiction. (here’s some more details about my research). I have a post on my personal blog about all the things and people that I will miss so dearly.

So in addition to doing my research, I’ll be posting daily observations on Bytes of China. I’m making a committment to post a little thought every other day. One, this let’s friends know that I’m alive, and second when I’m writing up my fieldnotes every month I would love to see over time what observations I chose to make public. While I plan to keep 99% of notes just for my eyes, there’s something very lovely about posting a short blog post that will be immediately read. It keeps me connected to the real world - otherwise I would get lost in my thoughts and forget that I have a responsbility to carry out when I return from the field - a responsibilty to translate what I see into greater understanding.

New RSS Feeds!

And for people who use RSS readers - I’ve combined all my blogs into ONE feed (using yahoo pipes). I created one feed just for research blogs and another feed for all blogs. You can find all the rss feeds at the bottom of my website.

Click to read more ...