Dr Xinyuan Wang is the Daphne Oram Award Lecture winner for Digital Innovation. This Award is in recognition of their cutting-edge work and committed public engagement efforts. Full details of the 2020 Award Lecture winners can be found here: www.britishscienceassociation.org/news/introducing-our-2020-award-lecturers

The following interview with Xinyuan has been written by Alan Barker, freelance writer


Xinyuan Wang lived for fifteen months in a factory town in China, learning how young people are using social media to craft new identities for themselves. More recently, she has just finished field work in Shanghai, exploring how older people are embracing digital in surprising ways. What can her work tell us about the way the online and offline worlds are interacting in our lives?

So, what is a digital anthropologist? 

We aim to understand the impacts and consequences of digital technology through classic fieldwork. can study people using surveys or questionnaires, but people know they’re being watched. As Margaret Mead said, what people say, what they do, and what they say they do are three entirely different things.

So, we anthropologists use ourselves as a workshop: we throw ourselves into this huge laboratory called society. I do fieldwork the same way people make friends. I experience life with them.  Eventually, I can observe their life almost as they do 

Your work is part of a wider study. 

At UCL, Ive been part of two global studies funded by the European Research CouncilWhy We Post – which was about social media – and Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing. Both studies compare my work with eight or nine simultaneous studies. Why We Post is finished, and our 11-volume series of books has reached one million downloads globally.   

What were you looking for in these studies? 

I don’t go with a hypothesis; the most interesting findings are those you didn’t even know you would encounter. So, it’s about trying to keep a blank and open mind. 

Is that really possible? To have a blank mind? 

Not entirely blank, but at least open to an unexpected otherness. I was brought up in China but I spent ten years in the UK. When I returned to China, I had this return culture shock. And the two groups I’ve been studying are very far from the life that I was familiar withSo, I have to absorb their point of view, not test my own.  

You also respond as an artist. You’ve created this beautiful book… 

I was trained in Chinese traditional painting and calligraphy. The art project was inspired by my fieldwork but also helped me keep my balance during the projectAfter a few weeks in the factory town, I was so bored when the initial excitement about exotic things had fadedBut that’s people’s lives. In a way, I needed to feel the same boredom to understand why they value digital. I then turned to my art skills to tell the story of my fieldwork.   

What did you learn about the impact of social media on these people’s lives? 

Budget smartphones gave migrant workers their very first private access to the internet and in some cases to even the possibility of privacyPoorly educated migrant workers suffer appalling social discrimination in citiesSo, they craft a world with self-respect online. They download nice photos and post them on their social media profiles. Offline is where they keep their bodies alive – but online presents the world they aspire to. As one of them said to me: “Life outside the smartphone is unbearable.” As my monograph Social Media in Industrial China argues, therea dual migration: from the countryside to the town, and from offline to online.  

More recently, you’ve been studying a different group. 

I’ve been working with older people in Shanghai. They grew up in the Cultural Revolution with terrible political turbulence and violence. They spent years in the countryside, receiving socialist re-education by farmers; and then they came back to Shanghai with little education, and got poor jobs. Now theyve retired, they’re suddenly encountering a new revolution: the information revolution. Smartphones allow them to develop the interests and hobbies they’d always wanted to pursue but couldn’t, and even allow them to live some aspects of that youth which has previously been wasted.  

So digital gives them a new sense of freedom? 

Yes, but also freedom in a sense of collective choice. It’s quite different from the West. For older people here, accessing technology is a personal choice. For these people in China, the smartphone is also understood as the manifestation of the Chinese citizen’s duty towards revolutionary modernization, and people are empowered through the possibilities provided by smartphones. My research raises complicated and sometimes contradictory relationships between privacy and surveillance, memory and inspiration, youth and the possibilities of life in later life.  

What are the big questions you think emerge from these two studies? 

Anthropology doesn’t just explore what’s happened in our societies, but also provides insights into who were becoming. We need to rethink this fine line between offline and online. Its not between the real and the unreal. Especially with this pandemic, everybody is now realising that the digital is so deeply embedded in our lives. Whats happened to these people I studied is happening to all of us. We’re all discovering new experiences digitally: connecting with our families, dwelling onlineA common concern is that the digital makes us less human, that mediated relationships are not authentic. Ironically, this idea has spread thanks in part to the proliferation of digital. More importantly, it’s a myth. We’re always mediated by our social roles and by social expectations. These two populations show that digital helps people experience a humanity thats been thwarted in their offline lives. Understanding the Chinese experience can help us appreciate whats special and different about our own experiences of digital technologies.  

Alan Barker is a writer, trainer and coach specialising in communication skills. He has been working with the British Science Association since 2015. Alan’s webinar, Storytelling for Scientists, is on the 3M YouTube channel.