I’ve posted my research paper for this academic year’s Yahoo!/ISD research at Scribd: http://www.scribd.com/doc/15026749/BRIC-Openness-and-Privacy-YahooGeorgetown-ISD-research
In the near future, most of the world’s internet users are going to come from five countries: the US, Brazil, Russia, India, and China (or USABRIC). Each country has a profoundly unique culture and government-institutional memory that will shape how its citizens interact online through social networking sites (SNSs). But hard culture has been caught up in a swirling vortex of attitudes and customs online, where sharing more data about oneself and getting more connections and friends provides social capital benefits that can exceed the benefits from a country’s cultural norms and its appetite for being more open about itself or more closed about itself. Thus, a desire for standardization in the form of a global social networking system is strong — as shown by Facebook’s rapid growth worldwide. As this standardization becomes more normal, though, hard cultures will emerge again and shape the way that SNSs look and feel and perform so that peoples’ online data truly reflects their identities. But it will be through a model — one which I propose — of transparency in which users have greater control over their own data yet they still share it willingly, according to their cultural comfort levels.
And the conclusion:
Through the openness versus closedness model, I would theorize that there should be significant differences exhibited through online behavior among the BRIC countries and the US. The way that Brazilians use the social web should be far different than how Russia uses the social web, based on the model and large culture differences, not to mention because of the degree of online connectivity within each country.
Yet cultural differences have not been amplified or even replicated very strongly onto the online space. Facebook dominates most English-speaking countries and has just surpassed Myspace as the most trafficked SNS in the US. Facebook is making rapid gains in France and India and other nations integrated into the online community. In countries where Facebook is not doing as well, at least one of the top competitors, such as in China or Russia, are blatant Facebook clones, with slightly weaker privacy controls.
Facebook dominates online SNSs and looks to gain even more market share relative to its peers as it becomes the online standard for pure social networking. That the demand for standardization of a social networking platform overrides desire for cultural mapping says that the degree of customizability and control given to users on SNSs has not yet reached a point where users can represent themselves accurately. That is, users do not have the controls or features of granularity to map their identities online in ways that would match their typical cultural and community identities.
Such a conclusion hints that the online space in terms of technical standards is already adequate, and what is now needed is development in cultural identity tools to help people customize, create, tailor, and socially groom themselves online, the way they would offline. What is missing is an identity layer for the Internet’s stack design.
Open standards to allow data portability, such as OpenID (which allows one login across multiple sites through a trust and verification system) and OAuth (requests your permission to transmit data from one site to another), will inevitably increase the ease of which users can share their information across sites without re-typing it all in. People will become less “locked in” to using one site, and they can immediately get started across multiple sites. Says John Clippinger:
“The ability to build and leverage trust among members of a group builds social capital and significantly reduces transaction costs. For example, an organization with low-trust membership might have to invoke explicit legalistic methods where the intentions of the parties cannot be reliably inferred or depended upon. But because high-trust social networks are mutually interdependent, with all the parties having a common stake and a shared theory of mind, they require low coordination and low enforcement costs.”
In essence, a trust network is being created in the online community, consistent with the externalities of transparency within the openness versus closedness model.
Eventually, once data can pass freely from one site to another with the owner’s permission, there will be a “jailbreak” of people leaving locked-in sites. It is at this point, I would argue, that SNSs will truly begin to exhibit cultural differences, appealing to different demographics and races and national identities of people. It is at this point that finding a common standard for your entire social graph, through a Facebook, will become less of a priority, and being able to accurately exhibit yourself through niche SNSs will become the priority. Guarantee and facility of one’s own data will enable self-expression.