Journal Publications ( E - Equal contributions )

Chen, Y., Lu, A. J., & Wu, A. X. (2023). ‘China’ as a ‘Black Box?’ Rethinking methods through a sociotechnical perspective. Information, Communication & Society. doi:10.1080/1369118X.2022.2159488

Amid the ongoing pandemic and the so-called ‘New Cold War,’ physical mobility dwindles and political paranoia surges. China has been increasingly portrayed as a ‘black box’ in anglophone discourse, scholarly and popular alike. More than ever, digital platforms serve as the sites and means to know ‘the Chinese reality.’ In this paper, we mobilize insights from Science and Technology Studies (STS), especially its epistemological and ontological reflections on the ‘black box’ metaphor, to confront the ongoing ‘blackboxing’ of China and, in tandem, the embrace of digital platform data as ‘open source’ to penetrate China from afar. Foregrounding the role of technological infrastructures, research positionality, and power relations in knowledge production, we situate this phenomenon in broader shifts in geopolitics and academic ecology. We then suggest alternative routes for empirical investigation: (1) to reembed Chinese platform data in their sociotechnical contexts, (2) to approach a ‘networked China’ at and across different scales, and relatedly, (3) to attune to obscured positionalities in fieldwork and analysis. Ultimately, we urge communities of China researchers to attend to the politics and materiality of knowledge production and resist the pervading ‘New Cold War’ framing.

♦ China, science and technology studies, digital data, methodology, knowledge production

Wu, A. X. (2022). Data Science and the PhD Question: The Assetization of the Doctoral Habitus. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 41(4), 54–62. doi:10.1109/MTS.2022.3215880

In this essay, I approach corporate data science as contested expertise. In the early and mid-2010s, conventional business analysts, open-software techies, and STEM PhD graduates all struggled to legitimize their own qualifications. By examining routine data science career surveys, career narratives published by practicing data scientists, video, audio, and textual training materials, as well as “state-of-thefield” booklets released by various organizations, I trace how the stabilization of data science as new expertise was conditioned by the contestations surrounding the PhD question in a crowded job market. Studying this development also helps unravel the complex relationships between corporate tech and academia today.

♦ data science, expertise, big data, asseticization, habitus, profession, academia

Wu, A. X. (2022). Journalism via systems cybernetics: The birth of Chinese communication discipline and post-Mao press reforms. History of Media Studies, 2. doi:10.32376/d895a0ea.182c7595

In China’s reform era (1979–), to revitalize the newspaper for economic modernization, journalism scholars turned to American mass communication study after Wilbur Schramm’s visit in 1982. This familiar story of the birth of the Chinese communication discipline missed a critical thread. Faced with constant political contractions, systems cybernetics crept in: The supposed founder of communication, Wilbur Schramm, spoke in Claude Shannon’s name; China’s “King of Rocketry,” Qian Xuesen, pledged to augment Norbert Wiener; and Engels’s writing on dialectical materialism was seized upon as part of official Marxism. 1980s China is known for the revival of humanism. However, in the tightly controlled news sector, reformist scholars conjoined systems cybernetics and Engels’s Marxist philosophy, dismantling the human subject in the process. This articulation of the epistemology and ethic of newsmaking, which has persisted to this day in the disciplinary assumptions of Chinese journalism-communication, allowed the regime to depart from Maoism and legitimate a state-managed marketization. Excavating an unknown episode in the global history of cybernetics, this revisionist study sheds new light on the post-Mao trajectories of journalism and media governance. It also dislodges the ossified binaries between science and political ideology, and between socialist centralism and capitalist liberalism, which are prevalent in (post-)Cold War narratives.

♦ history of communication, cybernetics, journalism, Marxism, systems theory, information theory, reform, intellectual history

Wu, A. X. (2022). The ambient politics of affective computing. Public Culture, 34(1), 21-45.
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

Much attention to affective computing has focused on its alleged ability to “tap into human affects,” a trope also foundational to broader theorizations about big-data surveillance. What remains understudied and undertheorized is affective computing’s social life, where interested parties contest and collude on its deployment. This essay traces how such portable technologies as sentiment analysis and “like” buttons wound up redefining collective action in China, which partly explains the conservative turn observed in Chinese online cultures since the mid-2010s. It unpacks affective computing’s ambient politics—the fraught processes whereby social actors aggressively repackage, reinterpret, and remediate these technologies to fit their agendas, changing social standards for denoting emotions along the way. This essay calls to reorient critical analysis of affective computing away from its design epistemics to its ambient politics and, in parallel, to shift the focus from interiorized subjects to conditions of collective existence.

♦ China, sentiment analysis, Like button, emotion, affect, emotionology, social media, surveillance, positive energy, digital activism, affective governance

Wu, A.X. & Li, L. (2021). Localism in Internet governance: The rise of China’s provincial web. China Information.
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

Often analysing ‘the Chinese Internet’ as a national entity, existing research has overlooked China's provincially oriented web portals, which have supplied information and entertainment to substantial user populations. Through the lenses of the critical political economy of media and critical media industry studies, this article traces the ascendance of China's provincial web from the late 1990s to the early 2000s by analysing industry yearbooks, official reports, conference records, personal memoirs, archived webpages, and user traffic data. We uncover interactions between Internet service providers, legacy media organizations, commercial Internet companies, and the central and local governments – each driven by discrete economic interests, political concerns, and imaginaries about the new technology. Delineating the emergence and consolidation of China's provincial web, our study foregrounds the understudied political economy of online content regionalization at scale. Further, it sheds new light on Chinese media policy, Internet governance, and Internet histories, especially the widely noted conservative turn of online cultures after the mid-2010s.

♦ cyber sovereignty, internet governance, internet history, localism, media policy, regional media, political economy of media

Wu, A.X.E, Taneja, H.E, boyd, d., Donato, P., Hindman, M., Napoli, P., & Webster, J. (2020). Computational social science: On measurement. Science, 370(6521): 1174-1175. doi:10.1126/science.abe8308
| A twitter thread

In their Policy Forum piece on the state of Computational Social Science, Lazer et al. concentrate on access to platform trace data, while dismissing third-party market data (e.g., Nielsen, comScore) for its “opaque” methods and cost. Our letter calls for a keener appreciation of the measurement regimes of these two types of data, which is crucial to social scientific knowledge production.

♦ computational social science, measurement, platform trace data, third-party market data, data infrastructures

Wu, A.X. (2020). Chinese Computing and Computing China as Global Knowledge Production. Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience, 6(2).
| A twitter thread
| Short essay for AI Now Institute blog

As data-driven technologies and business models pervade on a global scale, China’s enormous digital economy often signals its dominating power by dint of data extraction. Complicating this view, this critical commentary focuses on knowledge production, an important dimension for examining the ways in which postsocialist China transpires in global political economy in the age of Big Data analytics. First, I show how Chinese commercial surveillance analytics profits from legitimation lent by the West-centric hierarchical academe. Then I move to transnational academic repurposing of Big Data from China, which becomes increasingly common. Such social research tends to yield specters of China that are untethered to the lived realities of those whose data are taken. Drawing on decolonial thinking and feminist care ethics, this commentary concludes by urging social scientists to “stay with the trouble,” making China “legible” in their computing of Chinese Big Data.

♦ knowledge production, data science, data extraction, surveillance, care

Wu, A.X. & Taneja, H. (2020). Platform Enclosure of Human Behavior and its Measurement: Using Behavioral Trace Data against Platform Episteme. New Media & Society.
| A twitter thread
| Short blog post at Data & Society's POINTS
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

Digital trace data from giant platforms are gaining ground in academic inquiries into human behavior. This trend accompanies contestations regarding representativeness, privacy, access, and commercial origin. Complementing existing discussions and focusing on knowledge production, we draw attention to the different measurement regimes within passively captured behavioral logs from industries. Taking an institutional perspective on measurement as a management technology, we compare platforms with third party audience measurement firms. Whereas the latter measure to provide "currency" for a multi-sided advertising market, the former measure internally for their own administrative purposes (i.e., prescribing behavior through design). We demonstrate the platform giants' two-fold enclosure of first the user ecology and subsequently the previously open market for user attention. By serving as a lifeline for scholarly research, platform episteme extends itself to enclose knowledge production. We conclude by suggesting ways in which academic quantitative social sciences may resist these platform enclosures.

♦ Audience Measurement, Platform Episteme, Computational Social Science, Digital Trace Data, Knowledge Production

Wu, A.X.E, Taneja, H.E, & Webster, J. (2020). Going with the flow: Nudging audiences online. New Media & Society.
| A twitter thread
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

Theories explaining the impacts of online media often swing between the actions of empowered individuals and the distribution structures put in place by powerful corporations. To explicate how these factors interact, we adapt the concept of audience flow to highlight the temporal dimension of web use and demonstrate how digital architectures subtly nudge masses of people into online attention flows. We identify sequential usage patterns through a network analysis of passively measured clickstreams, combined with data on website ownership and website architectures. Our sample, based on a panel of one million users, includes 1761 websites that reached at least one percent of Internet users in the US. Our findings reveal previously unseen patterns of online audience formation, which have implications for studying media effects and understanding institutional power on the internet.

♦ Audience Building, Audience Formation, Audience fragmentation, Clickstreams, Choice architectures, Media ownership, Nudges, Flow, Online Attention, Web Usage

Wu, A.X. (2020). The evolution of regime imaginaries on the Chinese internet. Journal of Political Ideologies 25(2): 139-161.
| Preprint version may differ from final publication
| Essay In Search of the Chinese Dissent: Notes from a Warping Online World in Ideology Theory Practice, on this study and its broader historical context
| Op-ed in Nikkei Asian Review "China's propaganda on Weibo and WeChat misplaced on Twitter and Facebook", building on this study and comparative analyses of global web traffic with Harsh Taneja

This study examines popular perceptions about the ruling state on the Chinese Internet before and along the state’s project of ‘online public opinion guidance.’ We chose two historical moments from 2011 and 2016, and systematically captured and analyzed massive amounts of speech traces on Weibo that contain the term tizhi 体制, a discursively flexible, yet distinctly Chinese concept onto which sentiments related to the state are projected. Combining semantic network clustering and critical discourse analysis, our analyses have revealed, historically and macroscopically, the relative dominance of differing ways of evaluating regime legitimacy on the Chinese Internet. We found that, among other things, the previously dominant legitimacy-challenging imaginary grounded in (Western) democratic references has imploded and become absorbed by a nationalist, ‘civilizational competition’ discourse that enhances regime legitimacy. Additionally, the legitimacy-criticizing imaginary within the party-state’s ‘reform framework’ has become depoliticized into administration-focused compartments. By exploring the ‘regime imaginaries’ held by ordinary people, this study complements the scholarship on Chinese state legitimacy that predominantly focuses on historico-structural analyses, policy initiatives, or the party elite’s normative justifications. It also makes methodological and conceptual advances for researching the complex cultural frames, political tropes, and repertoires of local references that comprise regime imaginaries.

♦ legitimacy, regime support, nationalism, social media, semantic network, discourse analysis, legitimation, public opinion

Wu, A.X. & Dong, Y. (2019). What is made-in-China feminism(s)? Gender discontent and class friction in post-socialist China. Critical Asian Studies, 51(4): 471-492.
| Preprint version slightly differs from final publication
| Invited essay in The Sixth Tone "The Making of ‘Made-in-China Feminism’"

Contemporary Chinese feminism has drawn much attention in academe and popular media, yet its ontological roots and the politics of naming has largely escaped scrutiny. To intervene, this paper first demonstrates that China’s post-socialist transition gives rise to a new gendered structure of power, in response to which urban young women have assembled various discursive and material practices in their struggles. Second, we argue that the social disrupture and shock caused by these practices have led to the popular perception that an undifferentiated “feminism” has been proliferating in contemporary China. Combining historiographical and ethnographic research, we map out the overall landscape of women’s agitations and identified two latent strands of “made-in-China feminism”—with varied sociopolitical significance—that engage with cultural norms at the grassroots level. We further explicate the ways in which the anti-feminist backlash attempts to contain female transgressions at the present conjuncture. In grasping China’s ongoing gender antagonism with its full complexity, this paper discusses the limitations of existing scholarly approaches to contemporary Chinese feminism. Ultimately, our analysis seeks to contribute to the ongoing conversation on imagining a feminist politics in non-Western societies that disrupts the political, economic, and cultural orders all at once.

♦ feminism, neoliberalism, gender, class, hegemonic displacement, post-socialism

Wu, A.X.E & Taneja, H.E (2019). How did the data extraction business model come to dominate? Changes in the web use ecosystem before mobiles surpassed personal computers. The Information Society, 35(5): 272-285.
| Preprint version slightly differs from final publication

It is widely believed that the spread of data extraction technologies on the Internet has led to the erosion of traditional professional content providers and the transformation of the online media ecosystem. To investigate this shift in media ecology, we conduct relational analyses of actual user behavior, departing from existing research that primarily focuses on business institutions and designs of technology. We assess the prevalence of the data extraction business model by grouping websites along two architectural traits that afford data extraction—user content generation and curation—and analyzing how some website architectures get privileged in the web use ecosystem. Since data extraction is relational, we advocate a network measure to capture shared usage in addition to individual popularity of websites. Our analyses of world's 850 most popular websites in 2009, 2011, and 2013 reveal that data extraction fostered a two-tier hierarchical web use ecosystem, marked by interdependence between professional content producers and data extractors. Our study thereby shows that the dynamics in play are more complicated than what is captured by explanations centered on either capabilities of platform giants or the decline of traditional journalism and media organizations.

♦ data extraction, user-generated content, curation, intermediation, web usage, media industries, platformization, advertising

Taneja, H.E & Wu, A.X.E (2019). Web infrastructures and online attention ecology. International Journal of Communication, 13, 736-756.

The Web has given rise to novel infrastructures for content curation and user content generation. Existing literature connecting website features and user behavior concentrates on a small number of popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, and Wikipedia. This study raises the analytical scheme from the particularities of singular websites to “formats” shared across sites. Through measures we employ to gauge distinct aspects of attention, we analyze traffic to the world’s most popular sites at three time points and determine their website formats with the assistance of human coders. We found that, compared with websites invested in producing original content, the curatorial websites tend to serve as attention hubs, and websites driven by user-generated content serve as attention bridges. Methodologically, this study advances the project of capturing the interconnections within the online attention ecology. Empirically, our findings show how this ecology evolved in relation to Web infrastructures.

♦ format, UGC, curation, web usage, web infrastructures, online attention ecology

Taneja, H.E & Wu, A.X.E (2018). Pathways to fragmentation: User flows and web distribution infrastructures. Proceedings of the 10th ACM Conference on Web Science (WebSci'18), 255-259.
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

This study analyzes how web audiences flow across online digital features. We construct a directed network of user flows based on sequential user clickstreams for all popular websites (n=1761), using traffic data obtained from a panel of a million web users in the United States. We analyze these data to identify constellations of websites that are frequently browsed together in temporal sequences, both by similar user groups in different browsing sessions as well as by disparate users. Our analyses thus render visible previously hidden online collectives and generate insight into the varied roles that curatorial infrastructures may play in shaping audience fragmentation on the web.

♦ Clickstream, fragmentation, network analysis, infrastructure, curation, web usage

Wu, A.X. (2017). Brainwashing paranoia and lay media theories in China: The phenomenological dimension of media use (and the self) in digital environments. Media, Culture & Society. OnlineFirst
| Preprint version slightly differs from final publication

Drawing on the phenomenological tradition, this article focuses on the “lay media theories” that ordinary people rely on to orient their media use. Existing scholarship on certain perceptions users hold about media and their behavioral consequences tends to assume that these perceptions by default rest on a sense of self that is pre-existing and immune to media. My empirical research troubles this theoretical assumption. Analyzing interviews and ethnography in China, I investigate the media practices of certain individuals under the influence of “brainwashing paranoia.” Through their engagements with the information abundance on the Chinese Internet, these individuals had, over time, revamped rather than enhanced their established political beliefs. I argue that, in today’s high-choice environments, users’ lay media theories, especially their conceptions about media in relation to the self, should be taken into account as one major sociocultural factor that moderates or mediates the age-old tendency for selective exposure.

♦ reception study, censorship, interviews, phenomenology, self, Internet, selective exposure, lay theory

Taneja, H.E, Wu, A.X.E, & Edgerly, S. (2017). Rethinking the generational gap in online news use: An infrastructural perspective. New Media & Society. OnlineFirst
| Preprint version slightly differs from final publication

Our study investigates the role of infrastructures in shaping online news usage by contrasting use patterns of two social groups—millennials and boomers—that are specifically located in news infrastructures. Typically based on self-reported data, popular press and academics tend to highlight the generational gap in news usage and link it to divergence in values and preferences of the two age cohorts. In contrast, we conduct relational analyses of shared usage obtained from passively metered usage data across a vast range of online news outlets for millennials and boomers. We compare each cohort’s usage networks comprising various types of news websites. Our analyses reveal a smaller-than-commonly-assumed generational gap in online news usage, with characteristics that manifest the multifarious effects of the infrastructures of the media environment, alongside those of preferences.

♦ millennials; boomers; infrastructure; online news; news preferences; social media; legacy media; political polarization

Wu, A.X.E & Taneja, H.E (2016). Reimagining Internet geographies: A user-centric ethnological mapping of the World Wide Web. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 21(3), 230-246. (Open Access)
| Invited essay in The Conversation: "Reimagining the Internet as a mosaic of regional cultures"; 中文 translated and published by Groundbreaking.

We propose a new user-centric imagery of the WWW that foregrounds local usage and its shaping forces, in contrast to existing imageries that prioritize Internet infrastructure. We construct ethnological maps of WWW usage through a network analysis of shared global traffic between 1000 most popular websites at 3 time points and develop granular measures for exploring global participation in online communication. Our results reveal the significant growth and thickening of online regional cultures associated with the global South. We draw attention to how local cultural identity, affirmative state intervention and economic contexts shape regional cultures on the global WWW.

♦ cross-cultural comparison; Internet studies; media choice; network analysis; regional cultures; web use

Wu, A.X. (2015). Historicizing Internet use in China and the problem of the user figure. IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, 37(4), 2-4. (Open Access)
| Preprint version slightly differs from final publication

To those writing user-centric histories, China provides an opportunity to look at the profound implications of the underlying conceptions of the user figure and thus highlights the importance of the historian's critical awareness. Although rigorous scholarly histories on the subject are still in their infancy, historical narratives about the Chinese Internet prevail in popular media, institutional reports, and scholarly works. However, these narratives are generally organized around two visions of the Chinese Internet and its users. In this article, the author digs deeper into these preestablished conceptions and illustrates how they do not account for historical understandings of Internet use and sociocultural changes.

Wu, A.X. (2014). Ideological polarization over a China-as-superpower mindset: An exploratory charting of belief systems among Chinese Internet users, 2008-2011. International Journal of Communication, 8, 2243-2272. (Open Access)
| Summary in Chinese / 中文 by CNPolitics

This study explores ideological polarization among Chinese Internet users by examining both the structure of local belief systems and temporal changes of opinions. It implements research tools investigating voters’ cognition and behavior in democratic societies, including those concerning Internet use and political polarization. To probe this sensitive terrain, it employs network and relational class analysis to a unique historical data set: online records of the Chinese Political Compass self-assessment (2008–2011). Results demonstrate that the overarching ideological division of the Chinese Internet is split between nationalism and cultural liberalism. Groups of “ideologues” and “agnostics” that differentially contributed to overall rapid polarization are also identified. The study further speculates how, in nondemocratic societies, Internet use may influence people’s political views through different mechanisms.

♦ belief system; Internet; nationalism; polarization; political culture; public opinion; semantic network

Taneja, H.E & Wu, A.X.E (2014). Does the Great Firewall really isolate the Chinese? Integrating access blockage with cultural factors to explain web user behavior. The Information Society, 30(5), 297-309. (Equal authorship)
| Preprint version may differ from final publication
| ICA Outstanding Article Award 2015: ICA Newsletter
| Media coverage: The Washington Post
| Full Chinese / 中文 version in Communication & Society / 傳播與社會學刊 (Open access)

The dominant understanding of Internet censorship posits that blocking access to foreign-based websites creates isolated communities of Internet users. We question this discourse for its assumption that if given access people would use all websites. We develop a conceptual framework that integrates access blockage with social structures to explain Web users’ choices, and argue that users visit websites they find culturally proximate and that access blockage matters only when such sites are blocked. We examine the case of China, where online blockage is notoriously comprehensive, and compare Chinese Web usage patterns with those elsewhere. Analyzing audience traffic among the 1000 most visited websites, we find that websites cluster according to language and geography. Chinese websites constitute one cluster, which resembles other such geolinguistic clusters in terms of both its composition and its degree of isolation. Our sociological investigation reveals a greater role of cultural proximity than access blockage in explaining online behaviors.

♦ access blockage, audience duplication, censorship, cultural proximity, culturally defined markets, Internet, filtering, globalization, media choice

Wu, A.X. (2014). The shared pasts of solitary readers in China: Connecting web use and changing political understanding through reading histories. Media, Culture & Society, 36(8), 1168-1185.
| Preprint version may differ from final publication

This article complicates our understanding of the cultural and political impact of the internet in non-liberal societies by foregrounding people’s socially constituted reading practices across print and cyberspace. It places internet use in the context of both social and personal reading histories, as well as in the evolving cultural field across media. I examine the reading practices of 26 Chinese individuals, who developed alternative political understandings through their internet use. Their alternative views, I found, emerged not just through their engagement with the web but as a result of a longer history. Their distinct web use patterns have roots in their pre-internet reading practices. A specific reading disposition for ‘self-development’ may have led to their continuing divergence to niche reading materials as the domestic cultural field diversified. This reading disposition, I argue, prepares people to later engage with the internet in ways that facilitate changes in their political understandings.

♦ books, China, internet, political change, politicization, prosopography, reading history, subject-formation

Wu, A.X. (2012). Hail the independent thinker: The emergence of public debate culture on the Chinese Internet. International Journal of Communication, 6, 2220-2244. (Open Access)

Investigating the Internet’s political consequences in China, current scholarship focuses predominantly on some individuals’ ready contention against state apparatuses and unjustifiably ignores how Internet use may bring about cultural changes with political implications among a larger population. This study examines the emerging Chinese online debate culture from early 2006 to mid–2011. Taking the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse, it is based on online ethnography and discourse analysis. It presents a trajectory of the “independent thinking”–centered normative discourses on debate in Chinese cyberspace and how varied social actors interacted with these discourses. The findings suggest that the indigenous public debate culture that has arisen from Internet communication in China entailed certain behavioral and attitudinal changes supportive of democratic governing.

♦ online debate, online deliberation, symbolic interactionism, sociology of knowledge approach to discourse, cultural change

Wu, A.X. (2012). Broadening the scope of cultural preferences: Movie talk and Chinese pirate film consumption from the mid-1980s to 2005. International Journal of Communication, 6, 501-529. (Open Access)

How do structural market conditions affect people’s media consumption over time? This article examines the evolution of Chinese pirate film consumption from the mid-1980s to 2005 as a structurational process, highlights its different mechanisms (as compared to those of legitimate cultural markets), and teases out an unconventional path to broadening the scope of societal tastes in culture. The research reveals that, in a structural context consisting of a giant piracy market, lacking advertising or aggregated consumer information, consumers developed “movie talk” from the grassroots. The media environment comprised solely of movie talk guides people’s consumption of films toward a heterogeneous choice pattern. The noncentralized, unquantifiable, and performative features of movie talk that may contribute to such an effect are discussed herein.

♦ piracy, cinema, cultural consumption, cultural imperialism, internet, taste, media choice, media history

Wu, A.X. (2006). Journalistic coverage of domestic violence in China (报道家庭暴力:新闻专业主义给中国媒体的借鉴与思考). Collection of Women's Studies (妇女研究论丛), 70(1), 63-66.


Moinak Biswas. Body and spirits of independence (独立的种种身体与精神). The Independent Critic (独立评论), 2012 (2): 74-77. (With W.-K. Wong & H.-W. Chang)

Ashish Rajadhyaksha. The 'Bollywoodization' of the Indian cinema: Cultural nationalism in a global arena (印度电影的宝莱坞化:全球舞台上的文化国族主义). In Ashish Rajadhyaksha (Ed.), You Don't Belong: Pasts and Futures of Indian Cinema (你不属于:印度电影的过去和未来) (pp. 147-171). Shanghai Renmin Press, China, 2011.