Building a jigsaw puzzle of Chinese social life

My project is to establish an online platform to document the many great changes in the personal and social lives of the Chinese people since the 20th century. This social history would be built mainly with user-generated content and crowdsourcing. 

I must be honest. I should admit that I haven’t been the best student. But at Stanford, all my “crazy” ideas have turned out to be not so crazy after all. 

To tell the truth, three months ago, my project didn’t seem so interesting. I had described the project as an online museum, which sounds a little too serious. And I wanted to make the project more appealing to young users. During a hot discussion of projects during the Knight Fellows orientation period, I had the idea of a “jigsaw puzzle.” And that helped move me toward a more interesting way of looking at my project. 

More liberal social mores 

In China, there are few systematic journalistic, historical or academic records or studies of what has changed in the day-to-day lives of people over the last decades. For example, the whole society is more and more liberal in attitude about marrige and sex. Most young people can decide by themselves who to marry. Divorce is more acceptable, and even homosexuality. Laptops and mobile phones were hard to obtain for common people in the late ‘90s, but now even iMacs and iPhones are more and more popular in China. Coffee was very rare in middle sized cities – not to mention Starbucks. 

Because the country is so big — there are over 1.3 billion people — the Internet would be a good place to collect and document the many individual memories and stories of those changes from millions of Internet users. 

On my platform, all visitors will be encouraged to be contributors, putting together this great jigsaw puzzle. Each user will add his or her own piece — that is their own experience of change. And as more users put in more pieces, the big jigsaw picture of changing Chinese social life will be revealed. 

This new view of my project was the result of learning to brainstorm the Stanford way. I learned this from seminars at Stanford’s, and from Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program and the entrepreneurship center at the School of Engineering. She led a seminar for the Knight Fellows on brainstorming. 

Re-thinking traditional thinking

With this advice, I tried to forget my project totally and break the frame of my traditional way of thinking. And the idea of “jigsaw puzzle” was born, with elements of “Farmville” or even “Second Life” thrown in. 

Even today, I’m surprised by my brainstorming results, and so are my project partners, for I had almost never played online games before this year because of heavy job. 

But my project partners all gave me a thumbs up. 

In addition, I had planned to launch my project from a website. But after other fellows gave me suggestions about mobile, I’m now considering doing mobile first. 

But I’m still not done re-thinking my project. I took two Stanford courses this fall that I hope will help me refine my project and evaluate the results. “Economic Sociology,” I hope, will improve my methodology, and “Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law” deepen my thinking, and enrich my understanding of the changes in my transitioning country. 

Some of the best privileges as a Knight Fellow are the great resources at Stanford, a very helpful network, and very close connection with the Silicon Valley. I attended some events in the Valley, developed a good relationship with some startups and associations, and even built some connections with angel investors. And I’ll attend a contest among Chinese innovators in the Valley soon. 

I’m sure these will all bring more changes to my project. Who knows how many crazy ideas I’ll have.