Tricia Wang, ethnographer and sociologist

Even at her young age, Tricia Wang already has much experience under her belt. From hip-hop education advocate to company consultant, she’s dipped her toes into understanding many different projects and issues. She is seemingly always on the move from place to place, but Abby McBride managed to track her down for a sneak peek into her latest research on non-elite youth and migrant workers’ use of technology.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was raised in California, USA and moved to NYC about ten years ago. In NYC, I worked as a hip-hop education advocate, youth media strategist, and community organizer. I turned to the field of sociology in 2006 and now research how people use digital tools all over the world, but most of my time is spent in Mexico and China. I also consult with companies who want to better understand lower-income communities and their tech-use culture. I’m spending this year in China just conducting research, and I feel super lucky to be here. When I am not researching, I love to eat and to train dogs. I am the proud owner of the sweetest pit-bull ever! I also co-run a food blog on the magic of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup.

For your current research, why did you choose to look at China’s non-elite youth and migrants’ workers?

I have always worked with communities on the edges of society, from youth in low-income Black and Latino communities in NYC to undocumented young migrants coming into California from Mexico.

“My work with non-elite youth and migrants in China is a natural extension of my interest in fostering greater understanding for people who stand outside of the mainstream.”

We’ve also seen one of the world’s most rapid expansions of mobile phones and Internet architectures in China, and the Chinese administration has successfully ensured that its digital revolution has reached an immense number of new users. This alone makes China an incredibly unique place to do for research on digital culture.

What are some of these workers’ hopes and dreams?

They actually share the same dreams with most people around the world: finding a stable job, meeting someone special, giving their parents a more comfortable life, and having opportunities to improve their life chances. This current period of development in China is like a big race to reach the dream of having a comfortable life, but not everyone has an equal start; people from villages and smaller cities face challenges that more long-settled or life-long urbanized people do not.

Is technology the ticket into the middle-class for migrant workers?

I wouldn’t say ever say that technology alone is the ticket for upward economic mobility—technology per se is almost never a silver bullet for economic development. However, I would say that digital technology is an important factor among many others such as social and economic stability, access to education, and health in helping migrants get ahead.

In what ways do you see migrant workers’ constructing their own technological needs?

I don’t necessarily see people constructing technology needs, but I see people constructing social needs and using technology to fulfill them. Young people (but not limited to them) want to feel validated. They want someone to listen to them, and to care about them. Deep friendships are created out of multi-player games. In the in-game chat or post-game chat on QQ, they are often willing to share really emotionally complex and deep things about themselves that they feel they can’t share with their offline friends or family.

Can you tell us a little bit about the influences of “third places”?

Third places are a mix of public and private spaces where people can freely interact outside the confines of home (first place) and work (second place). Places like parks, libraries, bars and coffee shops have been important social spaces for Western cities, but in China, we don’t see many third places. Sure, there are a lot of entertainment places like KTV…and more KTV! But people go to KTV with an existing group of friends. You don’t go to KTV to mingle with new people (unless you are you-know-who). Over the last 10 years we’ve seen the emergence of third spaces in first tier Chinese cities in the form of McDonalds, KFC, and now Starbucks. But for lower-income people, Internet cafes have emerged as the new, and I argue most important, third space. In these thousands of cafes scattered around cities, youth are actively programming virtual and urban space to work for their own tech and life needs. They not only go to cafes to play games and watch videos, they also look for work, share info, hang out, and talk with their family and friends in other villages or cities. Oh, and sleep!

How is the trend of digital urbanism evolving and affecting interactions within cities?

Digital urbanism is the process of millions of low-income people from the countryside becoming urbanized through low-cost digital tools. Unlike prior periods of urbanization that required hundreds of years to achieve, we currently see the world’s fastest wave unfolding in China.

Digital urbanism radically changes the way migrants become part of the fabric of the city, as they have the opportunity to interact with the city at a much more granular and immediate level through their digital devices. In China we’re seeing Digital Urbanism 1.0, where most people are using feature phones, primarily using SMS and lightweight services such as QQ chat and games. But some people are moving into Digital Urbanism 2.0 with smartphone adoption, where users can go online via WIFI or 3G and download apps. When content service providers and advertisers begin to use HTML5 en masse, we’re going to see greater in-browser and app interactivity with users. Smartphones are still not as affordable for low-income markets, but change will come eventually, which is when we will see more opportunities for what venture capitalist John Doerr calls SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile).

What new problems and inequalities do migrant workers face due to technology?

Phones are now so affordable that cell phone ownership among migrants in China is practically universal. And actually, migrants are more dependent on their mobile than non-migrants because their mobile phones are often their only digital device; they can’t afford computers or other kinds of personal technology. For the migrants that I’ve been interviewing, being so dependent on a mobile phone isn’t necessarily a problem unless they lose it, can’t charge it, or are restricted from using it in ways that they desire.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your research?

One of the biggest challenges I face is that there are too many great stories to follow and there is only one of me! I wish I could be in 10 different cities at one time. Another challenge is that the Chinese internet from social media to games and to news overwhelms me. For example Sina Weibo is doing so many innovative stuff with their platform that wish I could just simply be on it 24/7!

What’s your favorite part of doing fieldwork?

The most amazing part of fieldwork is that I develop close friendships with migrants and students. They share their lives with and they take great care of me.

“Most of the time, I don’t feel like I am ‘working.’”

How about any funny stories?

I have many funny stories but I only share them over a drink! So you’ll have to take me out for one to hear them. [laughs]

What are your must-have techie gadgets?

This isn’t a gadget, but it’s important to gadgets – batteries! I am a battery-carrying monster. You will always find me with two sets of batteries for all my mobile devices from cameras to phones and audio recorders.

Read more about Tricia’s work at www.triciawang.com.

 

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