Alipay and WeChat Pay are everywhere in China – new paper for CSCW 2020 + reflections on cross-cultural research

This is a super-weird week to be submitting the camera-ready version of this research paper for publication at CSCW 2020. On Thursday, the “Executive Order Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat” set a countdown of 45 days until the Tencent app would be “banned,” along with ByteDance’s TikTok. It recognizes what we document – the central role that these apps’ financial transactions play in the U.S.-intertwined Chinese economy.

Of course: I agree that apps such these, and Alipay and WeChat Pay, collect a lot of data about us while we go about using them for both fun and serious self-expression, and that this data is obtainable through various processes by the government of the country in which their parent companies are headquartered. I’ve long worried about our data security and privacy with regards to a constellation of mobile social media and short-form video apps, along with mobile payment options such as Apple Pay, Google Wallet Google Pay, PayPal, Venmo, Zelle, Square Cash, and Facebook’s Messenger and Novi. (Disclosure: I work at Facebook this summer, on marketing/ad data literacy.)

I felt a grief, however, at thinking of our global internet shrinking just a bit more from fully embracing the marvel of how newly connected so many of us can live and work despite our physical boundaries and limitations. The pandemic has sharpened my keen appreciation for how WeChat and other social media help family and friends bridge great distances, and for how much education, business and other knowledge work depends on reliable and usable communication software being available to everyone, everywhere.

It has been a joy and fascination to help pilot and design research into a very different manifestation of internet-enhanced life than the one I know in the U.S., directed by lead author Hong Shen (also a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Media) and with fellow HCII Phd researcher Haojian Jin and my awesome advisors, Laura Dabbish and Jason Hong. In China, you don’t have to go out with your wallet, just your phone! Even street vendors have QR codes for you to scan! Which gives rise to new forms of communication, such as attaching a message with a transfer equal to a penny! and new threat models, such as thieves coming in the night and replacing the QR code printout with their own!

And that was just from the pilot interviews. Read the preprint version of the paper for specifics on what my Chinese co-authors discovered when they conducted a survey (n=466) and interviews (n=12) in China about the advantages and the pitfalls of moving to a largely mobile and cashless economy.

I spoke up about my interest in the project in part thanks to Dan Grover, whose blogging (in English, thankfully 🙂 ) about his experience of working at WeChat as a product manager had piqued my interest in the various advances in the Chinese social media ecosystem. I couldn’t agree with him more in his tweeted responses to the EO on Thursday night:

“Matching Up Adults in Work Groups” – Exploratory Survey Research for Spring 2020 Class Project

One advantage of still (STILL) taking courses toward my Phd is that I can leverage our group projects to explore research questions outside of my core area. This one got a little “meta” – we looked for the factors that are key to students creating groups for successful course projects!

The following is a blog post that we created for our final project in Social Web in HCI, taught by Geoff Kaufman and Hiro Shirado. My teammates are Ruiqi Hu and Endong Zhu.

In current society, collaboration is a vital component of daily life. People collaborate for diverse personal purposes such as romantic dating, pursuing shared interests, addressing community issues, and solving technical problems. This has led to the rise of dozens of computational systems for “social matching” (Terveen & McDonald, 2005). The rise of team-oriented productivity structures in academia and industry has similarly motivated work to create tools for professional social matching (Olsson et al., 2020). While socio-technical research has led to useful solutions for instructors matching up students in group projects – such as CATME ( and Pair Research ( – we seek to create a computational tool for students who want to self-organize their project groups.

To help us better envision what such a tool might need for its data inputs, we undertook an exploratory research project in Spring 2020 for the Social Web course in the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. First, we undertook a literature search through Google Scholar and our existing reference libraries, and we interviewed subject matter experts and gathered feedback from classmates on what competitor tools exist and what other published research was relevant. From this process, we identified several key variables such as team size, fraction of newcomers and incumbents, team skills, and personality traits, from which to create a statistical model of which input variables mattered most for the desired outcomes of excellent grades and group-work satisfaction.

Then, we designed a pilot survey to help us explore these variables with a real-world dataset. We crafted a codebook of survey items corresponding to these variables, from which we then designed and wrote an online questionnaire in Google Forms. We then recruited survey respondents from among our class and personal networks, and we cleaned and prepared the resulting data for statistical analysis using multilinear regression. Finally, we produced charts and graphs to visualize the most important inputs for determining our respondents’ stated grade and satisfaction outcomes.

Our results showed, first, that the more “weak ties” or acquaintances that were reported in the group, the lower were the project outcomes. We theorize that this is because working with acquaintances will lower people’s expectations for the project – students may just want to “hang out” with their school friends instead of focusing on the quality of their projects.

Figure 1: The number of weak ties in a group is negatively associated with top-percentile project outcomes.

Second, our results show that the personality trait of “negative emotionality,” such as a tendency to anxiety, is positively associated with both project outcomes AND satisfaction. This finding is surprising to us, because we assumed that this trait would have negative effects on outcomes due to creating psychological obstacles or group friction. However, it may be that students who worry more tend to care more and devote more efforts to the project.

Figure 2: The “negative emotionality” personality trait is positively associated with top-percentile project outcomes AND satisfaction.

This work has validated our initial hunch that using a psychometric and skills-profiling tool may help students to self-assemble a group for their course projects that is more likely to lead to excellent grades and high satisfaction. We see the need in the future to collect a larger survey sample, with a monetary incentive for participation rather than “social capital” among the convenience sample, in order to test whether we can replicate the results.

My tips for conducting an online Zoom class amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Phew, what a semester! I ran a section of our Programming Usable Interfaces course here at Carnegie Mellon University, and I mentored several student assistants and two research associates for our HCII Social Cybersecurity research project – all while taking a required course (Social Web, roughly a survey of Computer-Supported Collaborative Work and Social Computing) and an elective (Computer Science Pedagogy). Oh and finished all of this AMID A PANDEMIC, while WORKING FROM MY CRAMPED APARTMENT with TWO INCREDIBLY FUSSY CATS.

It has been a steep learning curve to work out how best to use Zoom and other tools when carrying out university work. I found the following practices helped our sessions to work best:

  • Be very explicit in what you want students to do. I wrote out a script where I would verbally tell students to post in the Chat window, raise their hands with the icon or just unmute in order to ask questions or make a comment.
  • Use breakout rooms to facilitate discussion and social connection. No one will be able to see the discussion prompt slide once in the room, so it is best to keep it general or re-post the prompt via message once students have joined the groups.
  • Accept that you only get half the attention as in an in-person class – typical user is multitasking with in-home activities and distractions (in bed or cooking or managing kids/pets or doing laundry) – this includes me, when I’m not the lecturer, so I have empathy for this user persona!
  • No one will share screens or audio if the group is too big to fit in gallery view. This unfortunately amplifies the already present distancing of the video screen interface in any such conversation.
  • Rather than sharing links for additional material in Zoom chat, create a Slack workspace or use Piazza threads. Both are persistent and searchable, and Slack allows for lightweight engagement such as emojis. However, I also would upload to Canvas the (edited) chat transcript with my encoded mp4 file at the end of lab, for students who were not able to attend synchronously. I do not think a Canvas discussion thread is going to be useful for this, because the UI seems primarily designed for required discussion posts on assigned readings, but you could post it as an Announcement, which will be front and center for students.
  • Streaming videos can still be a fun and useful break in lecture – I had a lot of success showing a video demonstration of the Bootcamp.js grid system amid a lecture on using it for web design – but keep in mind you need enough bandwidth to stream multimedia and also need to configure your sharing settings properly: Turn off the video background or even your in person video altogether if needed, and check on Share Computer Audio when starting the screen sharing.
  • Stick with one persistent Zoom link for each type of meeting. It was a lot easier for me to simply create one repeating calendar item with a persistent Zoom URL, rather than constantly have to hunt for whatever the new Zoom link was for that day’s class or meeting. I saved my personal Zoom link for office hours and other activities that were likely to have happened in-person in my office. Use the waiting room feature or enable the password as part of the URL itself, if you are concerned about securing the meeting to only those unlikely to cause trouble. For one-off events, use a registration form to collect and vet attendees, then send a separate email with the actual Zoom link to the approved attendees.

Let me know in the comments what other practices you found helpful – or share on social media!