Shenzhen Maker Naomi Wu on Twitter Wars, Chinese Tech, and Her Growing Profile

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3:00 AM HKT, Fri April 13, 2018 9 mins read

Naomi Wu is arguably the highest-profile evangelist of Chinese maker culture in the world, with over 57,000 followers on Twitter and more than 280,000 YouTube subscribers. She’s also a battle-hardened veteran of several internet wars.

Among the most prominent so far was a campaign launched against her last year by Dale Dougherty, founder of the international maker community’s most prominent magazine and industry gathering. Dougherty accused Wu of fabricating her identity, and many, many internet trolls leaped in to support his claims, tacking on plenty of unrelated comments about Wu’s personal appearance and gender. Wu was backed up by prominent supporters, including American engineer Andrew “Bunnie” Huang, and Dougherty ultimately apologized. By way of partial reconciliation, Wu was featured on the February/March 2018 cover of Dougherty’s Make: Magazine, the first mainland Chinese person to receive this honor.

Perhaps in part due to this episode — and the conversations about racial and gender representation in tech that spun out from it — Wu attracted the attention of VICE magazine, and was the subject of a lengthy feature in its April 2018 issue. After the article came out, Wu accused VICE of violating a written agreement relating to certain details she did not want put on the record. She tells RADII:

Then the writer started asking questions about what we had specifically agreed was off limits, making it clear they intended to include that regardless of their commitments. The logic at VICE was pretty simple: So what? It’s good for a few clicks, it’s not like the email would be something I could legally enforce from China even if I had the resources. They had the advantage of power, money, location, and knew I had no recourse.

(VICE‘s official response is here.)

I was interested to learn Wu’s side of the story, so we talked about that, but more about Shenzhen’s maker scene, her role as an evangelist thereof, what incorrect or incomplete knowledge she feels many Westerners hold about Chinese tech and society, and which resources they can consult to remedy that:

RADII: I first read about you a few years ago, when your internet fame was largely based on Reddit. Since then you’ve gained a huge following on other channels, most notably YouTube and Twitter. What are the major events, articles, etc that led you grow your follower base?

Naomi Wu: Most of my vlogging is about different DIY builds, it’s really been a steady flow of just one project after another that slowly raised my profile online. It’s what I tell young women in tech who contact me — be prolific. It’s hard to argue with sheer output. I’m not a proper engineer, and my skills are still basic, but I have good stamina and can work long hours. So I try to do that. Just having a new project every month or two — along, of course, with the flamboyant presentation — meant when journalists were looking for something on a slow news day, there I was.

The largest boost did not actually come from any traditional media outlet but a local YouTuber: Winston Sterzel, aka SerpentZA. He featured me on his channel, treated me and the subject of local Chinese women in tech very fairly, and that got me over the 100k subscriber mark on YouTube. Since there are so few YouTubers here, his advice and traffic was really instrumental in my success.

Your latest round of coverage includes a profile in VICE, which you feel was disrespectful of your privacy. What is your side of the story here? How did they approach you for the article, how was the interview conducted, what was your understanding of the agreement, and how did they violate it in your eyes?

It’s not really a respect issue. At this point, I have one of, if not the largest English language Twitter and YouTube followings of any PRC citizen in Southern China. I’m quite outspoken on a number of issues that it’s rare to see Chinese people outspoken about in Western media. I’ve been given a lot of leeway, because overall the viewpoint of a Shenzhen local who loves her city and has little interest in emigrating is one that’s good for China. I talk about the good and bad stuff that I encounter that effects me personally but since, like most of my friends, I don’t know much or care much about politics, I have no reason to talk about that. But the idea that I can have this high a Western social media profile with no limitations at all is absurd.

I have a good life here, I have a little workshop I love more than anything and I can build all day in it. I think I do a good job as a Shenzhen and China tech evangelist, I show China has it’s eccentric creative types just like anyplace else and I’m proud of that. But as the old song goes, “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind.”

With so much going so well, why be stupid and cross lines that don’t need crossing? Why disrespect the latitude I’ve been given by taking advantage of it? I work within reasonable lines, and previously all of the foreign journalists I have met with understood and respected that.

When VICE Magazine contacted me, I asked and they agreed in writing to keep specific areas off limits. Personal areas that I have been given to understand would make my high profile on Western social media unacceptable. These are questions that no male DIY or tech enthusiast ever interviewed by VICE Magazine has been asked about, so not something that should have been a problem for them. If it was a problem, they could have simply said. “I’m sorry we can’t work with that,” and either refused or negotiated. Instead, they agreed to the terms via email.

The VICE writer visited Shenzhen, I showed them and their photographer around for three days. Electronics markets, factories, tech education classes. Despite dozens of detailed technical videos on YouTube, because of my appearance people sometimes doubt that I can do what I say I can — there are always rumors online of elaborate conspiracies. So I invited them up to my apartment so they could film me working as I normally do, which they did.

Of course, I knew they would not want a fluff piece, and I would not want to give them one, so part of the trip was introducing them to other, more qualified but lower-profile women in tech here. The final part was one I had a good time with, I worked on the assembly line next to a local factory girl doing soldering work. Without all my makeup we could have passed for sisters. I have classmates on the line at Foxconn, so it’s not at all farfetched.

I wanted them to have that perspective, see just how basic and clumsy my skills were compared to thousands of other Chinese women working every day making our phones and computers — everything we use, with little appreciation and a fraction of the attention I get. I felt that was important and I’m happy that the story I gave them was about Shenzhen, not just me. Or at least so I thought.

The writer returned to New York, and the follow-up questions started to take on a more gossipy, tabloid tone — real catty stuff, like whether the other women in tech and I get along, and how do I really make my money. I wasn’t thrilled about it, but went along and answered as professionally as I could because it’s not a source’s job to dictate how the journalist writes the story. If they wanted to say I’m a terrible person, fair enough. If that’s their honest take, that’s their job. I’d only gotten an agreement on the scope of the story — the rest was out of my hands.

Then the writer started asking questions about what we had specifically agreed was off limits, making it clear they intended to include that regardless of their commitments. The logic at VICE was pretty simple: So what? It’s good for a few clicks, it’s not like the email would be something I could legally enforce from China even if I had the resources. They had the advantage of power, money, location, and knew I had no recourse.

I emailed them many times explaining the specific risk presented. They — not understanding or not wanting to understand the situation in China — felt that an overall positive tone would mean the story was OK. Things don’t work that way, this was outside my designated lines. They were unwilling to either discuss the problem or verify the problem with a third party. It’s not like I was demanding they take my word for it — there are hundreds of media professionals who know China who could have told them what they were doing was both unethical and a terrible precedent for journalists who rely on the trust of Chinese sources. They did it anyway.

What aspects of life in mainland China do you think many in the West are unaware of, either in tech or in culture generally?

I do a lot of volunteer work with Open Source (software and hardware that is free to use under certain conditions that must be honored). I created the first Open Source Hardware Association certified project in China, so I’m in a good position to do this. I try to get local companies to abide by the licensing terms when they use something from an Open Source project. I’ve had some success at it, which is one of the things I’m most proud of.

There’s a frustrating perception in the West of malice in different parts of Chinese tech — that the bosses are always being deliberately evil. In Open Source, sure some are just jerks, and are like, “Haha thanks for the free IP,” but overwhelmingly there’s a tremendous amount of ignorance here about what Open Source means, what the advantages are, and why the rules benefit everyone. But there’s also a willingness to learn.

I’ve been up all night in conversations with CEOs asking one good question after another — people who have every reason to laugh and tell me, “Why would I give you that?” and block me. Yes it’s slow, yes there are still a lot of dishonest people, but there is also a growing number of Chinese who want to engage in technical collaboration with the West and see playing by the rules, provided they are enforced equally for everyone, as a way to do this.

What specific challenges do you face in promoting your work via social media channels like Twitter and YouTube?

I get a lot of abuse, threats, name-calling, that sort of thing. People try to start rumors and use multiple log-ins (sockpuppets) to agree with themselves. It gets tiring. There are Instagram models doing nothing but sitting on private jets looking pretty, posting affirmations, and they deal with a fraction of this. I work all day in the shop, burn and cut myself, take a break to sit down at the computer, and have to read that. Loads of people online put up with worse though, I’m sure.

I’m lucky that I have a lot of supporters. The women in tech community got behind me early, realized that I was polite, respectful, and engaged, and would not do anything that hurt our goals. I have a few Tech Aunties, as I call them, aka Gray Pigtails: more educated women I can consult if I think something I’m doing might be a little off the mark. I’ve been very lucky to have their support, and I hope their confidence in me is justified.

If I have Tech Aunties, I guess I’m Tech Jiĕjie [姐姐, “older sister”] to a few younger tech women. I don’t think I’m in a position to offer much advice, the West is quite different and there are many women with doctorates in these things, but I try to get local factories to donate 3D printers to them and help raise funds for them to travel to tech events. I wish I was better at it, or could do more — they get a lot of encouragement and praise, but often just need tools and supplies. Chinese companies can get good publicity doing this, so I will keep trying.

Would you recommend any resources — books, articles, websites, etc — to give the curious outsider a better idea of what life is like in Shenzhen or China today?

Sure. Shenzhen Superstars – How China’s smartest city is challenging Silicon Valley by Johan Nylander. He interviewed me once, very professional, very knowledgeable about Shenzhen. And The Hardware Hacker: Adventures in Making and Breaking Hardware by Andrew Bunnie Huang. If you want to know about hardware, manufacturing, or China tech in general, it’s absolutely required reading. He knows Shenzhen tech better than anyone I’ve ever met, local or otherwise.

In your work you’ve created a strong international reputation for yourself and brought increased attention to the Shenzhen maker scene. What are some of the more positive outcomes that have come out of your rise to social media recognition?

I get recognized a lot. Which I handle with absolutely no grace at all. My friends are all, “Be cool, act like it’s normal,” and even if it happens five times in a row at [electronics manufacturing hub] Huaqiangbei I’m still like, “HOLY SHIT YOU KNOW WHO I AM? LET’S GET A SELFIE!”

I was on the cover of Make: Magazine, a Western DIY publication — the first Mainland Chinese to ever make the cover. I gave two copies to my dad, got the usual Chinese dad vague grunt of quasi-approval — but one’s under glass, and mum says the other one is always with him and he shows it to everyone he meets.

I’m locally raised and educated — I had no reason to think I’d ever do more than win the local factory talent contest. I got very, very lucky, and I think the right thing to do is appreciate and enjoy that luck a little. As I’m able, I try to share that good fortune with other more qualified people who didn’t get that lucky. That’s an obligation I always have to keep in mind.

Follow Naomi Wu on Twitter and YouTube. Her Patreon account was placed under review following the VICE article mentioned above, but hopefully it will be live again soon here.

Cover photo: Naomi Wu at the 2017 Bangkok Mini Maker Faire

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