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.
Having spent several years building technology programs in underserved communities throughout NYC, I learned that only giving people tools is a technologically deterministic approach that doesn’t lead to long-term impact. People need social capital; social skills and social networks that can translate into well-paying jobs. Without a social layer bridging their technical skills into social networks, I saw my students unable to translate their technical skills into obtaining stable jobs.
When I started working in industry, I saw the same thing happening. Leadership over-relied on technological solutions for important decisions. During my time at Nokia, I witnessed executives overlying on quantitative data that predicted stable growth in feature phones. As one of the first people to predict their downfall, I informed them that based off of the insights from my ethnographic fieldwork that needed to change their business strategy to meet the needs of consumers that would soon want smartphones. But my warning fell on deaf ears because leaders were convinced that their quantitative data was more reliable. I was in a deja-vu. Instead of watching students, I was seeing an organization unable to connect to the external world. In both cases, they were disconnected from all the ways that the world was changing and they didn’t have the networks to be their best.
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 thier 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.
Now I work with everyone from internet giants to Fortune 500 companies and NGOs.
The formal bio that people usually ask for:
Tricia Wang is a global technology ethnographer. She is the co-founder of Constellate Data, a consultancy that helps companies understand people with data.
Recognized as a leading authority on customer strategy, design research, China, and social media, Tricia’s work and points of view have been featured in Slate, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, Fast Company, Makeshift, and Wired. She speaks routinely to corporations such as Proctor & Gamble, Nike, Wrigley, 21st Century Fox, Tumblr, and has keynoted at Lift, Webstock, The Conf, TEDx, and events around the world.
With more than 15 years’ experience working with designers, engineers, and scientists, Tricia has a particular interest in designing human systems. She advises organizations on integrating “Big Data” and what she calls Thick Data — data brought to light using digital age ethnographic research methods that uncover emotions, stories, and meaning — to improve strategy, policy, products, and services. Organizations she has worked with include P&G, Nokia, GE, Kickstarter, the United Nations and NASA. She recently finished an expert-in-residency at IDEO where she extended and amplified IDEO’s impact in design research.
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, 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 Communication and PhD in Sociology from UC San Diego. She holds affiliate positions at Data & Society, Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet Studies, and New York University's Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP). She is also a Fulbright Fellow and National Science Foundation Fellow where she is the first Western scholar to work with China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in Beijing, China.
She also oversees Ethnography Matters, a site that publishes articles about applied ethnography and technology. She also co-started a slack community for ethnography in industry. She also contributes to to 88Bar, a site focused on technology, media, and arts in Greater China
Tricia began her career as a documentary filmmaker, an HIV/AIDS activist, a hip-hop education advocate, and a technology educator in low-income communities. 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.
Having worked across four continents; her life philosophy is that you have to go to the edge to discover what’s really happening. 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.