One of my earliest memories is of my mother’s friend, crying over a trivial issue I cannot recall. I remember the creases and lines of her face, infused with anguish, distorting the formerly placid features she bore as a young woman. I hoped to soften her sorrow, so I widened my eyes and gave her a grin so broad that my cheeks flushed healthily. She burst into a smile, laughing at how hilarious I looked. This moment proved most influential, for it reinforced the fact that I am here not only for myself but also to generate meaning for others.
As a teenager with a riotously vibrant and puerile mind, I used to picture myself as the sun, or a lion—some being that acts as a power source from whom others derive enlightenment, encouragement, and empowerment. This sense of commitment, coupled with my extraverted nature, was easily transformed into an eagerness to speak, communicate, and effect change. I yearned to be seen and to be needed in a positive, powerful way. Speech was my first attempt; acting was the second. Through speech, my audience could hear my advice; through acting, the spectators could grasp the thoughtful ideas implied by my movements.
Yet the two mediums carried the same drawback: finite time and space, and the limited perspectives of the performers and the audience. Speeches and plays often take place in a meager hall under time constraints and with a modest audience. My influence was bound by space, as if an impervious barrier kept my contributions in, hardly allowing my feeble voice ever to reach people outside the confines of that room. Furthermore, the content of a speech or play is neither persistent nor able to be preserved by often oblivious human beings.
Our narrow perspectives are further tapered by the materiality of the world. Our eyes at times trump our mindset because we are overwhelmed by the physical reality before us. Whenever I spoke during speeches, I would become the vision of the beholders. They would notice my plain face, my modest gestures, my yellow skin, and my gender which, to a certain extent, colored my speech as well as their judgements. The same applied to acting: the audience’s perception of a character would depend largely on my own interpretation of that character, not the viewers’. This is inevitable in the field of acting but ran counter to my intended goal. I hoped the meaning I sought to generate would be individual, personally applicable, and thus free from any preconceived notions.
And this is where technology came in.
I first encountered the computer during my computer science class in junior high. Enthralled by this novel appliance, I snuck onto a social media website and chatted with netizens who watched the same Japanese anime as me. This was unprecedented; never before in my life had I interacted with a group of complete strangers whose faces I could not see. Whereas sight often precedes verbal communication in face-to-face conversation, the reverse is true on the computer: words precede sight. Generally, in instances of verbal communication, spectators evaluate the writer in light of his or her expressed content rather than passing judgement on the writer first. In other words, when interacting online we are liberated from the shackles of our looks, our background, and our social status. Presumably any of us could become entrepreneurs or celebrities while retaining our identities as normal human beings. For online writers, the capital prerequisites are significantly lower than those in traditional writing and publishing, nor are there limits on time and space because anyone can access computer-based content at any time.
Perplexed by the miraculous potential of technology, I thrived as a virtual citizen denuded of anything but my mind. I began posting on a Chinese online discussion forum about my experiences learning English. I explained in detail how I overcame problems of pronunciation, how I learned to improve my English speaking skills, how the outmoded English taught in school bore little resemblance to the actual English used today, etc. “Audience” from all over the nation, seemingly from as young as 10 to as old as 50, would ask me questions about English. They did not appear ashamed to ask questions to “a young nobody who brags about what she knows about English.” Instead, they became inquisitive, eagerly seeking answers and meaning for their own good. The messages I posted had nothing to do with my family background, how “my mother knows the right way to teach me” or “how I live in a seemingly affluent family.” So readers interpreted my messages according to their personal experiences and background.
Technology facilitates purely spiritual conversation; it is devoid of materialistic identities. I intended to explore this characteristic further through various media. I wanted to see how far I could go. Hence, after graduating from high school, I decided not to go to college immediately. Instead I boldly chose to launch an online education platform to help others learn to speak English. The students were composed of my followers from several popular online discussion boards. The channel through which I taught was a Chinese mobile phone application called WeChat, a platform with similar features to Facebook that is nevertheless unique. During learning sessions, I assigned students into WeChat discussion groups and posed numerous questions to which they responded via voice messages. I then listened and provided guidance and corrective feedback. Over time, the platform expanded as I recruited more teachers in response to its growing popularity. In order to cater to individual students’ needs while teaching on a large scale, I formed WeChat groups labeled Logic, Grammar, Fluency, and Pronunciation. Each student was given an online assessment test that revealed his or her strengths and weaknesses. The advisor I hired then created a customized schedule for every student, directing each to different classes (groups) every day. For example, a student who needed to work on grammar would be assigned to grammar sessions more often than other students. Once his or her grammar improved, then the student would level up and proceed to upper-level courses such as Logic or Fluency. In this case, although a single class accommodated dozens of students, each enrollee constantly shifted between courses and followed a personalized agenda. The means of operation was analogous to that of a college, but the dean was an 18-year-old who had never even been to college, had nearly no capital funds, but was equipped instead with her thoughts and a handful of technological devices.
Technology has shattered myriad pragmatic barriers, much like it did for me. The unfettered ambitions of a young, inexperienced woman offering individualized instruction to the public was realized through various technological appliances. Viewed from this standpoint, new media has the political power to engender rebellion against authority. In doing so, new media writing brings attention to the messages being told, the true meanings of which are negotiated through one’s spirit rather than one’s vision. Though technology certainly has countless downsides, the freedom it offers, manifested in various ways as mentioned above, benefits the helpers and the helped in an enduring, sweeping fashion.