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Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media

Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media

with Tricia Wang, Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

February 18, 2014 at 12:30pm ET
Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 23 Everett St, 2nd Floor

When we read about the Chinese internet in the Western press, we usually hear stories about censorship, political repression, and instability. But there's a lot more to be learned about life on the other side of “The Great Firewall.”

Based on over 10 years of ethnographic research, Tricia Wang's fieldwork reveals that social media is creating spaces in China that are shifting norms and behaviors in unexpected ways. Most surprisingly, Chinese youth are sharing information and socializing with strangers. She argues that they are finding ways to semi-anonymously connect to each other and establish a web of casual trust that extends beyond particularistic guanxi ties and authoritarian institutions.

Chinese youth are discovering their social world and seeking emotional connection—not political change. Tricia argues that this reflects a new form of sociality among Chinese youth: an Elastic Self. Evidence of this new self is unfolding in three ways: from self-restraint to self-expression, from comradeship to friendship, and from a “moral me” to a “moral we.” This new sociality is lying the groundwork for a public sphere to emerge from ties primarily based on friendship and interactions founded on a causal web of public trust. The changes Tricia has documented have potentially transformative power for Chinese society as a whole because they are radically altering the way that people perceive and engage with each other. 

About Tricia

Tricia is a global tech ethnographer transforming businesses into people-centered organizations. Utilizing Digital Age design research methods, Tricia specializes in balancing qualitative and quantitative data analysis for institutions to fulfill their strategic goals. She advises organizations (large and small) on how to understand their "users" or "consumers" as people, not just datasets. She’s passionate about her work as a people champion in companies, start-ups, and non-profits. She has worked with Fortune 500 companies including Nokia and GE and numerous institutions from the UN to NASA. 

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. 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. During her projects she has pioneered ethnographic techniques such as live fieldnoting, which uses social media tools to share real-time fieldwork data. She is a thought leader on integrative approaches of combining Big Data and what she terms, Thick 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 research 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 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.

She is a visiting scholar at New York University's Interactive Telecommunication Program and Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet Studies. She received her PhD in Sociology at UC San Diego. She is also an advisory board member of Rev Arts in New York City. She is currently writing a book, tentatively titled, Tales from the Chinese Internet, which is about the Chinese Internet as an expressive space in which people 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.


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Past Event
Tuesday, February 18, 2014
12:30 PM - 1:30 PM