Online Cultural Values of Openness and Privacy

Hi, I’m Ben Turner and this is my introductory post. I’m one of the two junior Yahoo! fellows working with Gaurav this year. I am a second-year Master of Science in Foreign Service candidate studying international development, technology policy, and social business entrepreneurship. I am a former US Army veteran of Iraq and have worked as a web designer and a daytrader as well.

I have a personal web site at and my online activities are streamed through FriendFeed. Please feel free to add me!

Research Topic

My research will focus on the relationship between openness and privacy (and transparency, which I consider to be a product of that interaction). My feeling is that there are different expectations and standards for openness and privacy, depending on which cultural sphere you analyze them in; for example, what the online community finds value in is at odds with what the offline community wants. Online and offline values can also vary across cultures and countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and the US are all sliding into different models with different priorities for social networking, expression of ideas, velocity of online business transactions, and so on.

Formative Experiences

This core conflict between openness and privacy has long affected my personal life.

In around 1995, when I was about 17 and in high school, I put up my own web site in a format similar to blogs, which did not formally exist until much later. Being open about my life online, when there was no precedence for it, brought me disapproval from those close to me (they were often included in my posts), but also gave me professional web design work and close relationships. Openness was directly beneficial to me.

When I deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, I blogged about my experiences and posted photos to Flickr, a photo-sharing site. At the same time, the US military was formalizing new regulations about warblogging; my command found out about my sharing and punished me for it, forcing me also to remove all my Army-related content. Fortunately there was no court martial imposed on me, but others in the military were not so lucky. Warbloggers have since become very hard to find, seven years after military forces entered Afghanistan.

Now the online development community is debating how to think about cloud computing, where we keep our e-mails and personal data and files online instead of privately on our personal computers. While we have reaped benefits from sharing information with others online (Facebook friending, ad hoc disaster reporting, Google Docs document sharing), we are also making ourselves far more vulnerable towards malicious behaviors and government/corporate surveillance and data mining.

Part of my research dovetails with a business project I am working on. The idea I have requires a large degree of openness towards personal data sharing, and privacy concerns are the chief complaint leveled against the success of this project. So it is in my best interest now to figure out where, since it will inevitably require a consensus decision, privacy and openness will figure out how to get along and reinforce each other’s strengths.

As a result of all these experiences, my online presence is vast but is a mélange of privacy settings. My Facebook profile is not even available to my networks, my personal blog is available only to a handful of friends, photos of my closest friends and family are private, and what is available about me through my web site has effectively been sterilized so as not to implicate or offend others.


My research approach will first be to study the parts individually, from the American web community’s perspective on privacy versus openness and then to studies such as the Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions work (discussed already by Gaurav). From there I will see whether those values have shown themselves in which social media tools have been successful in those countries. In conclusion, I hope to find if there is a universal online structure that different countries will eventually come to, or if they will end up looking quite different. I also hope to find the ideal path and see what the likelihood is of different countries arriving at it. Will they want it when they find it?

Do you have suggestions on how to approach this research?


  1. I’m taking an info privacy course this semester with Ned Moran and Matthew Devost — they seem to be really knowledgeable about online privacy/identity so you might want to look them up. And I’ll be sure to let you know of any cool readings/discussions from the class.

  2. @Ben: Openness on the web, in fact, has two inter-related aspects –

    (1) How open is the web going to be (net neutrality/ censorship/ open source software/ government access to data, ubiquitous access) and

    (2) How open are people going to be on the web (microfame, open source life, oversharing, voyeurism, privacy vs. transparency)

    In thinking about privacy, it may be useful to think about how one affects the other.

    Also, I’m sure that we’ll find a lot of research/ insights on privacy/ identity (online or offline) in general. The trick will be to focus on online privacy/ identity issues specific to BRIC countries.

  3. @Ben: I Googled war-blogging and here’s what I found. I’m sure you have seen all of it, but still —

    Warblogs have moved on to cover topics beyond war (esp. politics), and blogs written by military officers are called “milblogs”.

    Milblogging is an index of almost 2100 military blogs in 39 countries and maintains a list of the 100 most popular milblogs.

    Milblogs is another group of military bloggers.

    – The MilBlog Conference is a conference for military bloggers.

    – Joi Ito, the CEO of Creative Commons, was actively tracking war-blogging sometime back.

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