This week we are featuring an interview with 2013-2014 Berkman Fellow, Tricia Wang, as part of an ongoing series showcasing individuals in the Berkman community. Conducted by our 2013 summer Berkterns, the mini-series highlights the unique and multidisciplinary group of people within the Berkman community exploring the many dimensions of cyberspace. This week highlights Wang's interest in the ways Chinese youth interact online and her new way of thinking about the evolution of personal identity.
Interview with Tricia Wang
Tech Ethnographer and Berkman Fellow
Interviewed in Summer 2013 by Berktern Sanna Kulevska
How does technology make us human? This question is central to Tricia Wang’s fascination with how social media and the Internet affect identity-making, trust formation, and civic participation. As a member of the Berkman community, she focuses her research on the Chinese Internet in a book project tentatively titled, “Tales from the Chinese Internet.” This interest in China stems from her background investigating digital communities in emerging economies, a field in which she has proven herself to be a leader by creating a new sociological framework for understanding user interactions online, known as the “Elastic Self.”
While living in China off-and-on for over ten years, she witnessed the emergence of social media sites and their effects on the everyday lives of people who use them. Wang believes that today’s Chinese social media sites facilitate new interactions and create new spaces of sociality in Chinese communities, in spite of China’s “Great Firewall.” She notes that because Communism damaged social and personal bonds among communities, people stopped sharing information with each other. Today, this trust is being rebuilt through anonymous contacts that connect via new social media platforms.
Interestingly, it is anonymous contacts, not personal connections, that are the key progenitors in new trust formation. To explain the context and social significance of interactions with strangers, Wang introduces the concept of 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 public 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. The Elastic Self flourishes in informal modes of interactions with unknown people, as opposed to the prescribed self that exists in formal modes of interactions with known people.
Wang argues that these informal and formal modes of interactions are reproduced on social media platforms. For example, when using Tumblr or Reddit, people interact in the informal mode because they connect with strangers while keeping their identity anonymous. In contrast, when using Facebook or its Chinese equivalent, Renren, people interact in the formal mode because they often talk to people that they already know and use their real names; features that makes it impossible to be anonymous. In the course of this research, she discovered that Chinese youth are more willing to share risky information and stigmatized emotions in social media platforms dominant in the informal mode of interaction because youth feel that anonymity removed the risk of personal expression.
Wang observes three phases of Chinese youth’s evolving modes of interaction. There is an initial exploratory phase where youth learn how to interact and explore their identity in an anonymous context, then a trusting phase where youth start sharing information with strangers, and finally a participatory phase where youth engage in civic action. Wang argues that as youth move through these phases, they pick up specific skills and expand their networks, which in turn makes their identities more elastic. By becoming embedded in networks of strangers, Chinese youth are creating new relationships based on weak ties, not familial or guanxi connections. She explained that interactions with strangers ultimately allow youth to try on different identities: “Whether you are going to social media sites like Reddit or Douban or physical places like bars, these are informal spaces that allow us to play with our identities. […]Youth need the freedom to throw away identities. And we all need it too.”
This post is part of a current series of interviews with members of the Berkman Community. Previous entries: Bruce Schneier; Sara M. Watson and Yang Cao; Kate Darling, Hasit Shah, Dalia Othman, and J. Nathan Matias; Jeff Young and Sonia Livingstone; Shane Greenstein, Niva Elkin-Koren, and Amy Johnson
Last updated February 14, 2014