Why do I care?
For a brief while, I thought technology could be the answer to almost everything, but then my work proved me wrong. I really believed that building the right technological solution could enable us to the right decisions.
I spent several years in the early 2000s building technology programs in underserved communities throughout NYC for non-profits. But my programs didn't result in long-term impact for communities. The entire system of non-profits operated with technological solutionism as a guiding value: they only provided grants to build tech centers and tech skill training programs, but not social capital programs to teach youth how to translate their technical skills into the job market. This was my first time encountering a theme that I would continually see in my careers: providing technology is not enough. Availability does not automatically translate to accessibility. And even accessibility doesn't necessarily translate to prosperity.
When I started working in industry in the mid 2000s, I saw the same pattern of technological solutionism. It started with Nokia, where I witnessed business leaders over-rely on quantitative data that they interpreted as evidence of predictable stable growth in their feature phone market. I was of the first people to warn them that this interpretation could be the seed of their downfall if they didn't change course quickly. Based off of my ethnographic fieldwork in emerging markets around the world, I informed them that they needed to change their business strategy to meet the needs of consumers that would soon want smartphones, not feature phones. But my warning fell on deaf ears because leaders were convinced that their quantitative data was more reliable than ethnographic thick data [watch my talk on TED]. I was in a deja-vu. Like the non-profit tech programs I built, I was seeing an organization over-rely on technology, and this reliance was leading them astray.
My experiences of watching the non-profit sector and private industry privileging technology at the expense of human beings have deeply shaped my work. In all of my fieldwork around China, Mexico, and India, I learned about the importance of human desires shaping the way technology is actually used once in the hands of people. In China, I watched people repurposing social media sites to escape the repressive powers of society. In Mexico, I watched immigrant communities redesign cellphones to fit their needs of living in precarious cross-border conditions. In India, I watched women gain power their cellphone ownership in families. All of these stories speak to the importance of the social layer where emergent human behavior happens outside of market or organizational forces.
These formative experiences inform my belief that we need to invest in socialware, not just hardware. And we can get scale when we invest in these two things together, strategically.
I am so excited that I get to work with Fortune 500 companies and NGOs who share similar beliefs.
The formal bio that people usually ask for:
With astronaut eyes and ethnographer curiosity, Tricia Wang is obsessed with discovering the unknown. Tricia is a global tech ethnographer living at the intersection of data, design, and digital. Her passion is to help organizations uncover how our bias towards the quantifiable comes at the expense of profits and people, and how to fix it. She is the co-founder of Sudden Compass, a consulting firm that helps enterprises move at the speed of their customers by unlocking new growth opportunities in their big data with human insights in their digital transformation. Organizations she’s worked with include P&G, Kickstarter, Spotify, and GE. She also co-founded Magpie Kingdom, a consultancy that helps globally minded companies gain actionable insights about the Chinese consumer. Their newsletter, Magpie Digest, unpacks trending conversations in China to reveal insights about youth culture and macro social implications.
Tricia’s work with Fortune 500 companies and her fieldwork research have been featured in Techcrunch, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Slate, Wired, The Guardian and Fast Company. She has taught global organizations how to identify new customers and markets hidden behind their data, and amplified IDEO's design thinking practice as an expert-in-residence. She is a pioneer in popularizing the need for companies to integrate Big Data and what she calls, Thick Data, which she describes in her talk on TED, that received over 1 million views in just under six months.
Tricia is a sought after keynote speaker, having spoken at CISCO, IBM, National Health Institute, Procter & Gamble, Nike, TED, Wrigley, 21st Century Fox, and Tumblr. Her most recent talk at The Next Web is about how marketing sold its soul to ad tech by believing that it would be the magical big data solution to understanding customers. Her favorite talk that’s she ever delivered is the opening keynote at The Conference, where she zipped through the wild history of linear perspective and its influence on how we think and form organizations.
She has spent 20 plus years researching the social evolution of the Chinese internet, and written about the "elastic self," an emergent form of interaction in a virtual world. Her writings on China cover her time living with migrants to spending nights in internet cafe and working with internet policy-makers. She was the first Western scholar to work at China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), China’s equivalent to the USA’s FCC (Federal Communications Commision).
When not working with organizations, she spends the other half of her life researching the intersection of technology and culture--the investigation of how social media and the internet affect identity-making, trust formation, and collective action. Particular topics of interest include social media, personal data, China, anonymity, and the bias towards the quantifiable. Through extensive fieldwork in China and Latin America from living in internet cafes with migrants to working undercover alongside street vendors, her style of hyper-immersive ethnography gives her a unique perspective on what is actually happening on the ground, an outcome that she believes is critical for organizations to understand if they want to form a lifelong relationship with their consumers as people. During her projects she has pioneered ethnographic techniques such as live fieldnoting, which uses social media tools to share real-time fieldwork data.
Tricia has a BA in Communications and Ph.D. in Sociology. She holds affiliate positions at Data & Society, Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet Studies and New York University's Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP). She is a Fulbright Scholar and National Science Foundation fellow. She co-founded Ethnography Matters, a site that publishes articles about applied ethnography and technology. She co-started a Slack community for people who use ethnographic methods in industry.
Wang began her career as a documentary filmmaker at NASA’s Earthkam, a program started by Sally Ride to give students opportunities to interface with the International Space Station. She transitioned into social justice work in NYC by running the world’s first television station for youth-produce media. She went on to design after school tech and arts programs for first time college attendees in underserved communities and develop cultural programs for youth around hip-hop. She is also proud to have co-founded, H2Ed, the first national hip-hop education initiative in collaboration with Bronx Museum of Arts, Queens Museum of Arts, and The Schomburg Center; eventually turning into the Hip Hop Education Center at New York University. Having worked across four continents; her life philosophy is that you have to go to the edge to discover what’s really happening. Recently, she realized she prefers the misery of uncertainty over the certainty of misery. She's the proud companion of her internet famous dog #ellethedog.
Some fun bits before we dive into the projects
I currently split my time between New York, California, and my research sites in China and Mexico.