Elisa Oreglia Profiles Rural Chinese Internet Users

China has over half a billion Internet users, according to the most recent statistics, and 136 million of those are in rural China. Although Internet use is booming in China’s urban centers, the conventional wisdom suggests that rural China is slower to adopt the new technologies — especially older, less-educated Chinese villagers.

New research by School of Information doctoral student Elisa Oreglia looks under the surface of rural Chinese Internet use and reveals a richer, more nuanced relationship between older, less-educated Chinese villagers, computers, and the Internet.

Oreglia presented her research at this week’s Chinese Internet Research Conference in Los Angeles. Her paper, “The Sent-Down Internet: Going Online in Rural China,” was awarded the conference’s Best Student Paper award.

Oreglia’s paper is based on ethnographic research that she conducted in three small Chinese villages between winter 2010 and summer 2011 as a part of her doctoral research on the role of migrant Chinese workers in the spread of technology.

One of the most striking findings in Oreglia’s research is the reality behind the many older villagers’ insistence that they did not — or could not — use the Internet. Despite their denial, Oreglia often observed them using the Internet, albeit in limited ways and with familial assistance.

“The most common answer I received to ‘Do you use the Internet?’ was a firm ‘不会 – I cannot,’ and only participant observation and further probing showed the richness of use behind this answer.”
—Elisa Oreglia

Oreglia’s research probes the ways that computers function in families: how older family members often become comfortable with computers by observing their younger relatives, and the degree to which older villagers eventually become autonomous users.

Oreglia’s ethnographic approach also explores the cultural assumptions about Internet use among the Chinese villagers she interacted with — in particular, the assumption that older people, the less-educated, and women should be less technically adept.

These assumptions can present a barrier to many older people. “But there is a positive aspect to this (self-)perception of inadequacy,” Oreglia observes; “women are more willing to ask for help, to be taught by their children, and to ask again when they forget or get stuck.”