11 February 2014

Tricia Wang’s PhD dissertation — Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media

Be the first to share

Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media
by Tricia Wang
Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology, University of California, San Diego, 2013
Professor Richard Madsen, Chair

Abstract

The sudden availability of social media and open-market capitalism is creating new spaces in China that are shifting norms and behaviors in unexpected ways. This research investigates and explains the phenomena of semi-anonymous interactions among Chinese youth in online communities by introducing a sociological framework called the Elastic Self, which is characterized by 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. In informal online spaces, Chinese youth have achieved greater freedom to express heterodox identities without shame or anxiety by forging social bonds with strangers and maintaining distance from people they know, who might seek to enforce conformity to a single identity prescribed by traditional social and political norms.

Through these informal interactions online, Chinese youth are laying the groundwork for a public sphere with social ties based more on friendship than on blood ties or guanxi; on trust, rather than fear; and on self-expression, rather than self-restraint. These changes have potentially transformative power for Chinese society as a whole by altering the way that people perceive and engage with each other on personal and social levels. Under semi-anonymous conditions, Chinese youth are able to overcome the low levels of trust that characterize authoritarian societies and adopt broader forms of social trust that characterize more participatory societies. This increased trust enables youth to enter what I call the Participatory Phase, which is defined by engagement in citizenship practices that expand the public sphere through online debate that can precipitate offline civic participation. To get to that stage, youth must first pass through two critical phases—Exploratory and Trusting—during which they learn how to share information with and socialize with strangers in a low-risk context.

My research reveals that by creating an Elastic Self, Chinese youth find ways to connect to each other and to establish a web of casual trust that extends beyond particularistic guanxi ties and authoritarian institutions. To be clear, this new form of sociality gives youth a way to navigate Chinese society, not to disconnect from or to rebel against it. In doing so, youth are building the infrastructure of a civil society by establishing relationships in which they start out as strangers, thereby bypassing potentially restrictive social labels and structures that could otherwise prevent connection. Through semi-anonymous informal interactions, Chinese youth are primarily seeking to discover their own social world and to create emotional connections—not grand political change. Rather than attempting to revolutionize politics, Chinese youth are using these new forms of social engagement to revolutionize their relationships with themselves and each other.

Even though Chinese youth do not feel that internet censorship is a hindrance in their everyday lives, real name identification policies that limit communication to formal interactions threatens the viability of crucial informal online spaces where Chinese youth have been able to freely explore their identities. The future of the Chinese internet and Chinese society at large rests in this very tension that Chinese youth are negotiating between finding informal spaces where they can present an Elastic Self and formal spaces where they feel compelled to present a prescribed identity. The social and emotional changes catalyzed by the Elastic Self can only persist if the circumstances that allow them to flourish remain unencumbered.

> Download full dissertation
> Tricia’s thank you

Tricia Wang describes herself as a “tech ethnographer“.

Note that Tricia will be giving a talk at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on Tuesday, February 18 12:30pm EST. It will be live-streamed for those who can’t come and forever archived.

Be the first to share
1 August 2015
Nissan’s place-based design process
Megan Neese is a senior manager in the Future Lab at Nissan Motor Ltd., a cross-functional team tasked with uncovering new business opportunities for the future of automotive. In an article for EPIC, she explains how …
31 July 2015
[Book] Excited to announce the new book by John Thackara
How to thrive in the next economy by John Thackara Thames & Hudson August 2015, 192pp Abstract Drawing on a lifetime of travel in search of real-world alternatives that work, I describe how communities the world over are creating a …
22 July 2015
How ethnographic research helped transform a US paint company
Almost all business leaders now acknowledge that they would love to engage in the deep learning that long-term customer observation can foster, but in practice such endeavors are methodically undermined in the fast paced corporate …
22 July 2015
The student experience and the future of the library
Libraries have moved from being the location for search, access and advice to playing a much smaller role within a much larger information landscape, writes a researcher of JISC, the UK charity that champion the …
18 July 2015
Why does Tinder work? A biological anthropologist explains…
Users of the dating app assess potential partners in much the same way as neanderthals did, according to anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. "Tinder is nothing new," says Fisher. "It’s just …
18 July 2015
LSE anthropologist: microcredit only adds to poverty
Far from being a panacea, small loans add to poverty and undermine people by saddling them with unsustainable debt, argues anthropologist Dr. Jason Hickel of the London School of Economics: What’s so fascinating about the microfinance …
18 July 2015
An anthropologist on the Photoshop team
Almost two years ago, the Photoshop team pivoted to focus its energies and resources on design features and workflows. To be successful, the team needed to understand trends in design and tools, as well as …
17 July 2015
Interview with Amy Parnell, Director of UX at LinkedIn
SocialTimes recently chatted with Amy Parnell, the director of user experience at LinkedIn, to learn more about what goes into a redesign (or a slight tweak). What kind of research goes into design changes on LinkedIn, …

We are an international experience design consultancy helping companies and organisations to innovate their products, services and processes by putting people and their experiences first.

2 July 2015
Getting citizens involved in protecting fragile energy environments

A new project funded under the FP7 European Commission framework is getting citizens involved in testing new tools for reducing energy consumption during peak loads, in the hope that its pilot program will set the new state of the art for protecting locations with fragile electricity supplies. One of France’s most fragile regions The Provence-Alpes-Côte […]

5 May 2015
Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록 in Design 4 Disaster

Design 4 Disaster features an engaging illustrated safety manual for ship passengers, a personal project by Experientia designer Dohun YuLuck Jang 유록. After the Korean ferry accident last year, Yuluck (who is Korean) wanted to find a way to make safety manuals more interesting to read. He spent one year designing an interactive safety guide […]

16 March 2015
Better Health and Wellbeing: Giving the elderly in Singapore sparkling golden years

Invitation: sharing session, Singapore, 30 March 2015   What are the hopes and fears of the elderly in Singapore? How can designers offer solutions that support the elderly in managing their health and wellness? What can healthcare professionals do to help them keep active? What role can technology play in the elderly’s daily lives? Design consultants […]

1 January 2015
Happy Playful New Year
21 December 2014
Experientia’s Twitter feed live

Experientia has now its own Twitter feed. Four months of Putting People First posts and other links have already been uploaded. If you followed Experientia on Twitter through the feed of its CEO, Mark Vanderbeeken, make sure to now also follow the company (but don’t unfollow Mark, who will keep on tweeting away). And while […]

19 December 2014
Putting People First blog redesigned

Experientia’s Putting People First blog has been redesigned. It is now entirely responsive, allows for easier browsing, searching, and filtering, and features larger images on the posts. The entire history of posts remains accessible as before. We are still tweaking things and welcome any feedback.

See all articles