Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media — My PhD dissertation

And after seven years of research, I present to you my PhD dissertation:

Here's a link to the abstract and to the pdf.

Needless to say, this has been a work of blood, sweat, tears, and love. I have a long list of people to thank for toiling beside me and for supporting me along the way. Without them, this project would not have been possible.

From the start of the writing process, I knew that I would want to share the finished product online. Thus, I have done everything I could to create a dissertation that is accessible to the public. I have deliberately chosen not to follow the traditional publishing route of turning my work into an academic book or a series of academic articles. Publishing my work online has made me super excited because it allows more people to actually read the paper and, hopefully, to build on top of my learnings. At the same time, the attention to my work has made me super anxious because of fears that people may not connect with my research or find it uninteresting.

But here I am, eager to share my dissertation with both excitement and anxiety. And at some point, after you have downloaded and read this pdf, I ask that you share your thoughts. I really do appreciate any and all feedback because it will help me with the next stage of this project. This dissertation will eventually take form as a mainstream non-academic book, which is why I have always called it the first draft of a book, which is tentatively titled, “Tales from the Chinese Internet.

So please share your criticisms, questions, confusions, and ideas. Please let me know what parts resonate with you the most and what parts you didn’t connect with. Don’t be afraid to be frank and direct with your critique. I thank you ahead of time for doing this. And I promise you, your feedback will find its way into the book.

I will be giving a talk that summarizes entire research in China at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University on Tuesday, Febuary 18 12:30pm EST. RSVP if you can come, otherwise it will be livestreamed and archived for the whole world to see.

A letter of gratitude

I started this dissertation on September 21, 2006, and finished it on October 22, 2013. For seven years, I moved through the world with a single-minded focus on my research. For each of the 2,224 days, I woke up thinking about my fieldwork. For each of the 3,706,960 minutes, my participants seeped into my bones and my dreams. For 223,603,200 seconds, I breathed this project until it became my skin.   

I want to acknowledge all of those who have flowed into my life in such profound ways. This ritual of gratitude marks the shedding of one phase of my life and the beginning of a new one. While I didn’t keep an exact count of all the support I received, I do want to recognize as many as I can because, as with any complex project, a dissertation is the fruition of many people, not just a single writer.

My mentors shaped this project from its inception—Richard Madsen, Christena Turner and Barry Brown at UC San Diego. Their insights and criticisms are woven deeply into my analysis. I would not have stayed in this program if I did not have the most amazing committee supporting my goals and vision. So thank you Richard Madsen, Christena Turner, Barry Brown, Isaac Martin, Jim Hollan, April Linton, and Benjamin Bratton. In my attempt to break academic norms, you all convinced me that I can stay in academia on my own terms; intellectual rigor and curiosity can still happen in a public-facing manner. For me, your wisdom and encouragement has echoed some of the important points that Martin Schwartz has made to fellow academics about the challenges students face in Ph.D. programs:

First, I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. . . . Second, we don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid—that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. . . . Science involves confronting our ‘absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. (2008)

I also am grateful for other faculty members at UCSD who have provided support throughout the years: Gershon Shafir, Dan Hallin, Barry Naughton, Kwai Ng, and Richard Biernacki.You will find bits of your advice, seminars, and office hour discussions sprinkled throughout my work. The awesome staff who made the entire Sociology department at UCSD run seamlessly deserve a big acknowledgement: Beverly Bernhardt, Tanya Pohlson, Susan Taniguchi, Stephanie Navrides, and Katrina Koopman.

My research assistants, Pheona Chen 陈苇如, Reginald Zhu 祝进文, Iris Ruan 阮晓昱, Shayla Qiu 仇娟, Allemande Niu 牛兆弘, and Chris Chang 张旭平, played a seminal role in the fieldwork and analysis of this research. Watching them transform into skilled ethnographers is the greatest proof that so much creativity is fermenting under the outdated and restrictive social structures of China.

There are a few individuals who deserve a special shout out for their support. Leah Muse-Orlinoff has been with me since the first day I started this project in September 2006, bringing me endless laughter and scholarly rigmarole. Hours of long conversations over Skype, pho, and caldo with Leah shaped my research direction and analysis. (Leah, this next sentence is just for you.) Verka Serducka forever Гоп, гоп, гоп. чiда, гоп, А я спiваю. Гоп, гоп, гоп, чiда, гоп, А я танцюю Gop, Gop, Gop, Chida, Gop, A ya spivayu.

I am forever indebted to Jin Ge  for being my first introduction to the city of Wuhan and some of my key participants. From our collaborations on World of Warcraft goldfarmers to researching internet cafes of Shanghai, I discovered so much of China through Jin Ge’s experiences. It is rare to meet a research colleague who is as generous as Jin Ge. I came to see Jin Ge’s family as my own family in China; they always took care of me with such love. Jin Ge introduced me to Xiao Tie 小铁 (辛颖) who, later introduced me to many of the people who would become my research assistants.

Silvia Lindtner and Gloria Xu always provided me with a home and a warm shower wherever they were in China. Gloria Xu also deserves an extra big thank you for all the translation expertise and cultural guidance she provided. Jack Qiu’s advice to always connect fieldwork to theory from our dinner in Hong Kong stayed with me throughout my travels. During my last year of research in China, I spent a lot of time with Professor Chou Changcheng 周长城 at Wuhan University’s Sociology department where I was made to feel at home.

I would like to give a big bear thank you to An Xiao Mina for the hours of phone calls and emotional support and for the friendship that emerged from our time together in China. danah boyd offered endless encouragement every time we saw each other and set up many opportunities for me to share my research. Lyn Jeffery’s constant reassurance gave me the confidence to keep going in times of doubt.

A big shout of gratitude goes to Ellen Seiter who encouraged me to pursue a PhD. Adriene Hughes’s friendship and hospitality gave me a refuge to which I could retreat in times of stress, so thank you for being there from the beginning to the end. Manny de la Paz is the best graduate director a program could have, not least because of his role as my unofficial therapist.

During the last year of writing, I nearly quit several times. But every time I thought I couldn’t make it, someone always intervened. Kevin Slavin gave me his entire apartment to use as my writing space. For 9 months, I would walk across Brooklyn from my place to his at 8 in the morning to write until 9 at night. When I needed to leave my city to concentrate on writing, Jess Goldfin and Claire Rice fought hard to find me a writing space in Boston, and even though it didn’t work out, I appreciate their efforts greatly. Likewise, Kavitha Rajagopalan, Susan Tratner, Guo Xinxin 郭欣, Zheng Xue Wu 鄭學武, and Nora Abousteit offered their apartments and offices for me to use while I was writing. Then when I thought I was too burnt out to find a place to finish my last phase of writing, Marisa Jahn and Doug Lasdon generously gave me their farmhouse in upstate New York for an entire summer. For three months, I worked in Marisa’s art studio, overlooking acres of land and forest, which provided me with just the right amount of isolation and inspiration. 

When I had writer’s block, Miki Meek lent me a copy of Anne Lamott’sBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, which provided indispensible writing advice. Whenever I would get stuck, I recreated Lamott’s visual one-inch frame and pulled myself out of my rut. Martin Thörnkvist and his team at Media Evolution arranged a home for me in Malmö, Sweden to finish the last month of writing before I submitted the dissertation to my committee. All the wonderful people of Malmö, including Magnus Thure, Fredric Öslöf, Kajsa Bengston, Petter Karlsoon,Sara Frizton, and Jesper Berg, gave me so much energy during those last few weeks of writing.

Kate Miltner came on as my research consultant towards the final stages of editing and her comments drastically improved and clarified the theory of the Elastic Self. Clay Shirky provided an institutional home (and library access!) in NYC by offering me a fellowship at NYU’s Interactive Telcommunications Program. He also gave me great advice on how to better articulate the theory of the Elastic Self. My deepest appreciation is owed to Morgan Ames for all of her editing and feedback on early drafts and the methods chapter. Sean Kolodji’s copyediting has immensely improved the tone of my work. I am grateful to Jay Dautcher for taking my entire dissertation and formatting it into a readable document. During the last stretch of editing, Rocky Citro provided excellent technical editing tips and formatted the entire document to meet filing requirements (I would highly recommend his services!).

Many institutions provided support of the research activities reflected in this project. University of California Pacific Rim Research Fund gave me preliminary funding and another round of doctoral research funding. University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States provided generous support for research on technology use in rural areas. I am grateful to Bill Blanpied who played an important role in encouraging me to apply for National Science Foundation funding, which allowed me to conduct fieldwork inside China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). The folks at CNNIC were so generous with their time. In particular, Wang En Hai 王恩海 and Daniel 池大治 provided invaluable guidance.

The Fulbright Fellowship enabled me to conduct my last year of uninterrupted fieldwork. Under Janet Upton’s leadership, the Fulbright program was a constant source of support during my fieldwork in China. I am grateful to the entire Sociology Department at Wuhan University for hosting me. Thank you to Dan O’Sullivan and all those who run NYU’s Interactive Telcommunications Program for allowing me to have an institutional home. I am also grateful to the following institutions for fellowship and conference support: Worldwide University Network at Leeds University; Young Scholar Award for the China-India-US Workshop on Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Workshop at the National Indian Institute of Science; the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto, Canada; and the Transatlantic 2020 Fellowship with the British Council.

My dissertation greatly improved from talks and presentations, including The Conference in Malmö, Sweden; Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions Conference at UC Berkeley in Berkeley, CA; International Sociological Association's Research Committee on Poverty, Social Welfare and Social Policy in Stockholm, Sweden; IDEO in Shanghai, China; Lift in Geneva, Switzerland; South by Southwest in Austin, Texas; Mobile Life in Stockholm, Sweden; Reboot's Financial Inclusion in China's panel in NYC, NY;  Tumblr Arts panel with Hyperallergic in Brooklyn, NY; Webstock in Wellington, New Zealand; Microsoft in Beijing, China; and Microsoft’s Social Computing Conference in NYC, NY. Thank you to my speaking agent, Fons Tunistra at China Speaker’s Bureau for organizing opportunities for me to talk about my research.

I also want to thank all those who gave me opportunities to write about my fieldwork for a mainstream audience: Steve Daniels at Makeshift, David Rowan at Wired UK, and Leslie Jones at That’s Shanghai. Kaiser Kuo’s and Jeremy Goldkorn’s “Sinica Podcast” on Sex and Marriage gave me a chance to talk about my fieldwork as I was wrapping up the last few weeks of work. Speaking to Benjamen Walker on his podcast “Too Much Information” provided an excellent outlet to reflect on my fieldwork.

Thank you to Barry Brown and Jofish Kaye for setting up my research stint at Nokia, which allowed me to have unparalleled access to researchers who were also grappling with similar questions in a more commercial and applied context. Through my time at Nokia, I met some of my closest intellectual bosom buddies, Morgan Ames and Janet Go. I also met Ying Liu from Nokia Research Labs in Beijing who helped arrange my visits to the lab.

Thank you to those in China who provided me friendship and laughter during my fieldwork—it was a magical period and I look forward to many more memories—Jon Jablonski, Abi, Juan Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Xiao Tie, Ian Gross, Lily Zuo, Rebecca Kantor, Deng Fei 邓飞, Guo Xinxin 郭欣, Zheng Xue Wu 鄭學武, Lao Meng 孟繁永, Hudson Lockett, David Wertime, Angel Hsu, Angela Ni, Roger Ibars, Tony Toon 童声杨, Lisa Ma, Mary Bergstrom,Richard Kelly,Johan Lagerkvist, Neil Schmid, Marcel Green, Sarah Swider, Gregory Perez, Jan Chipchase, Danyll Willis, Benjamin Joffe, Kavitha Rajagopalan, Matthew Young, Alice Huang, Amelia Hendra, Jerome Goh, Giovanna Puppin, Marco Ambrosio, Raymond Amrbosi, Graham Webster, James Landay, Dominic Tan, Elisa Oreglia, Gary Rieschel, William Moss, Philip Pan, Sue Tan,Jiashan Wu, Gregory Leuch, and Lokman Tsui.

Almost all of these people have listened to or read bits of my fieldwork in various forms. And for that, I thank them. But in addition to the people above, there's a long list of others who have done the same. To these people, I gave thanks as well: Adriana Jacobs, Judy Rosseilli, Erin Cech,Clive Thompson, Paul Denlinger, Richard Burger, Adam Bluestein, Adam Greenfield, Jessi Levine, Mark Kaigwa, Benjamin Bacon, Lauren Anderson, Roger Sanjek, Nicolas Nova, Mark Warschauer, Benjamin Carlson, Debbi Evans, Kyle Smith, Mark Vanderbeeken, Panthea Lee, Sam Ladner,Geraldine de Bastion, Jake Barton,Liz Lawley, Lili Cheng, Roy Christopher, Alex Leavitt, Setsuko Matsuzawa, Ben Hammersley, Hrag Vartanian, Anna Jobin, Patricia Sunderland, Rita Denney, Karen Klein, Roger Magoulas, and Katie Marker.

The co-founders of Ethnography Matters, Heather Ford, Jenna Burrell, and Rachelle Annenchino created such an important community for me to bounce around ideas. I also thank Jason Li, of 88 Bar, for maintaining a community for those interested in Chinese media. 

Even though this project documents my work in China, it builds on all of the fieldwork I have conducted around the world. From the families of rural Oaxaca to the teens of the South Bronx and the families of India—your voices are always with me.

Everyone I have mentioned so far provided advice, encouragement, help, sanity checks, and laughter along the way. There's so many others colleagues, friends, and family who have also done the same. You may have texted me, DM'ed me, or a given some words of encouragement. Whatever it was, I remember it, and I thank you: Sunny Bates, Liane Baskin, Jakey Toor, Prerana Reddy, Zach Hyman, Che-Wei Wang, Taylor Levy, Baratunde Thurston, Zadi Diaz, Steve Woolf,Laura McCrum, Elspeth Roundtree, Brady Forrest,Joshua Kinbgerg, Tanya Menendez, Mohan Kanungo,Jeff Ferzoco, Grecia Lima, Donna Lazarus, Rebecca Tabasky, Craig Mod, Elisha Miranda, Jessica Cordova, Rich Radka, Ken Ikeda, Kati London, Jean Burgess, Rachel Parker, Roger Aerenstrup, Alex Pasterneck, David Cheng Chang, William Davis, Lee-Sean Huang, Ayman Shamma, Phillip Oxnam, Marisa Catalina Casey, Mary Gray, Tina Layton, Miranda Mulligan, Carlyle Leach, Vinay Gupta, Molly Tempelton, Carla Borsoi, Mike RugnettaKristen Joy Watts, Sarah Keane, Marcella Szablewicz, Melinda Theodore, Héctor Romero Ramos, Stephanie Little, Magnus Erikkson, Irina Shklovski, Joanne McNeil, Sara Marie Watson, Mimi Ito, Calixte Tayoro, Dave Sylvia, Maggie Garner, Fan Lizhu, Chen Na,  Ajay Kapoor, Todd Lester, Alexandra Zobel, Hugo Espinel, Shannon Spanhake, Simon Roberts, Alexandra Mack, Christina Dennaoui, Audrey Evans, Normita Rodriguez, Emilia Wiles, Mia Diaz Edelman, Noel Hildago, Priya Parker, Bari Zahn, Michael Wang, Erica Tran-Wang, Emily Wang, Candice Shaw, Tanny Cheese, Marvin Cheese, and Sheila Frye.

I cannot forget to also thank all the canine creatures that have showered me endless doggy hugs, Elle, Lucy, Samba, Peso, Monkey, Jack, and Mia.

I am beyond grateful to my grandmother, 高為鳯, and grandfather, 黃孫鏗, for instilling in me a love for knowledge and justice.

To my partner, Kenyatta Cheese, who dealt with the difficulties of long periods of separation and always allowed me to be vulnerable, I give you an infinite galactic unicorn basket of gratitude.

When I embarked on this research in 2006, I started something that was seen as radical at the time -- posting live updates, questions, and summaries to my tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. This ongoing collective input in the form of tweets, comments, and platform specific affirmations greatly improved my work and energized me. During my last stint of fieldwork in China, I started ‘live fieldnoting’ my work by posting daily pictures to Instagram with the hastag #bytesofchina. This allowed the public to see some of my pre-analysis observations and comment on them in a way that was immediate and useful. In addition, during the last year of writing, I posted one picture every day to Instagram with the tag #synthesisnow. Even though I didn’t personally know many of the people who liked and commented on my photos, what mattered was that I felt that I had a group of people cheering me on even when I was too tired to continue. Thank you. It meant so much that I could share my process with everyone.

Now that this project is done, I move on to the next phase with great encouragement from those who have who have helped me see the value of converting the work of this dissertation into a book – in particular: Nathan Englander, An Xiao Mina, Richard Madsen, Clay Shirky, Clive Thompson, Lyn Jeffery,Anand Giridharadas, Gary Rieschel, Philip Pan, Miki Meek, and Sunny Bates.

As I move forward, I will never forget what I owe to all of those who have allowed me into their lives, knowing that they would, in some way, be a part of my research. The many youth, parents, civil servants, strangers, entrepreneurs, street vendors, shopkeepers, corporate executives, and travelers who gave me invaluable leads, tidbits, and advice, are too numerous to each be mentioned here by name, so I thank them all collectively.

The story of China is a story of people’s perseverance, resilience, and fortitude balanced against a rapidly changing society. Because of that, it is a story that shares commonalities with those of other groups that have experienced massive change. The depth of the stories that I have heard has given me a great responsibility to make sure that I continue to share the stories with the world in the most authentic way possible. This dissertation is a start towards fulfilling that obligation, but I know that my job does not end here. The world is filled with stories and I’m going to continue to do my part to tell them.

Talking to Strangers: Chinese Youth and Social Media [download pdf]

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.