BRIC Privacy, Transparency, Openness, and Closedness

I’ve posted my research paper for this academic year’s Yahoo!/ISD research at Scribd:

The introduction:

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.

Facebook Privacy Stats Discussion

My friend Kevin Donovan sent me a link (thanks Kevin) to this post (by Fred Stutzman) criticizing a NYTimes article (by Randall Stross) about how Facebook is affecting privacy boundaries for different age groups.

Personally I think the post is a bit too harsh on the NYTimes article (along with Michael Zimmer‘s), but provides excellent data points in his criticism.

Stutzman quotes some excellent data (see his post for references):

Stross simply has this one wrong.  Instead of misguided intuition, let’s look at the numbers.  In the Summer/Fall of 2008, Jacob Kramer-Duffield and I ran a survey of undergraduate Facebook users.  We employed a list-based simple random sample, with 494 respondents.  When asked the question Have you changed the default Facebook privacy settings to give yourself enhanced privacy in Facebook?, 72.47% responded “Yes.” To the question Based on your Facebook privacy settings choices, who do you allow to see your Facebook profile?, 50% answered “Only my Facebook friends.” (1)

It’s good to see that Facebook users are beginning to learn how to use the many settings Facebook gives them to control their privacy, such that the percentages have changed dramatically.  It had been weird to see so many Facebook users unresponsive to the privacy tools given to them.

I also liked Stutzman’s final comments:

First, Facebook defaults have changed over the years, so a default now may have been a modification in the past.  Second, Facebook’s audience is increasingly international, so we must remember that norms will vary significantly across nations and cultures.  Third, privacy is not in Facebook’s business interests.  Less privacy = more content, so it may not be in Facebook’s interest to craft a privacy statistic that reflects current norms.

But Stutzman concludes with this:

Young people didn’t simply decide to give up privacy.  Rather, the studies show that social network sites, in their early iterations, created a very meaningful sense of close community.  Young people disclosed not because attitudes about privacy instantly and simultaneously changed, but because they felt very comfortable with their audience.

Hmm.  It seems as though Randall Stross was just saying that older people do not take as freely to sharing their lives publicly as younger people would.  Is that horribly wrong to say?  While there is more resistance among older people, sure, many will eventually adapt (I’ve been getting my dad to share more online).

But generational memory and identity are hard to break; try as we might, there will be many of the older generations who will just never change, and will never want to share online.  They grew up in a different world, and it sticks with them.  I’m not saying Stutzman is wrong — I would just like to see him add generational memory to the study of old vs. young people.  I’d argue that kids these days are being wired to accept a future flesh/digital hybrid world…one where a radical transparency and accountability system exists and there is little privacy except for the most intimate parts of our lives.

Building Online Communities

[Before I begin, I just wanted to link to this O’Reilly Radar post that shows how Facebook continues to blow away its competition, with 175 million users worldwide.  Another conflicting post from another source has a different number of total users, at 222 million.  Facebook is posting great growth numbers abroad and in the US — I say all this because I believe Facebook is taking over the planet in social networking shortly before the personal data jailbreak is to occur.]

Somewhere between researching my final orals exam topic of “individualized identity and reputation for international development” (for my MSFS degree) and studying how to design both a competitive and collaborative ecosystem for my start-up, I came across some very cool pages at Yahoo!.

Yahoo!’s developer network has available some tips and examples of how to build competition, reputation, rankings, leaderboards, and other social interaction devices into a web site.

Check some of them out:

YDN (Yahoo! Developer Network) has grouped these and many other categories loosely under “Reputation” in one of its menu hierarchies.

These pages have some interesting linkages.  From one post it links to:

“The famed #1 book reviewer on (who does claim to be a speed-reader) posts, on average, 7 book reviews a day. So not only does Harriet have time for reading all these books, she can also whip off reviews of them pretty quickly, too.”

Another example:

“Avoid even slightly offensive names for levels (e.g., Music Hotshot! or Photo Flyguy!)

  • These may be learnable with appropriate supporting material, but remember that reputations are also a form of self-expression and odds are good that a sizable portion of your community won’t want to be identified with frivolous, insulting or just goofy-sounding labels.
  • Ambiguous level names like these tested very poorly with some of our users.”

What’s interesting to me about all this is that it provides some basic examples of when to use certain systems and when not to.  Sometimes you may not want people to be competitive, because it may detract from their desires to collaborate.  What I read between the lines is that different cultures will adopt different preferences for how their self-designed systems will create and generate the maximum value and benefit for them.  Such a system might not be of maximum utility to another culture, however.

This implies that systems may need to be designed that are flexible to different peoples’ values.  It also implies that certain web sites may work where they were previously thought not to, just by providing an alternate version specific to that culture or tribe.  The easiest example of this to visualize would be language-localized versions of web sites.  Facebook adding Arabic and Hebrew versions recently will bring in many more Arab- and Hebrew- speakers through this alone.  But other cultural dimensions beyond language have yet to be addressed.

Not too long ago, I attended the Future of Web Apps conference in Miami.  It amazed me to see just how involved companies like Yahoo! and Facebook are getting into building online communities.  I also picked up some cool Yahoo! schwag including a foldable map that shows all of Yahoo!’s APIs and services.  Pretty impressive.  What’s even better, these companies are being extremely open about all of this.  The social networking community looked nothing like this when we first began our research not too long ago in August!  Pretty awesome!

Studying Russia

[To round out my research, I need to study the BRIC countries — however I realize I do not have the time to give them much more than a cursory look in all their dimensions:  demographics, political economy, sociography, history, culture, religion, etc.  So I thought if I were to look at them through the lens of how it might affect the expression of their cultures/countries online, that might be sufficient.

Now, please, I am not a regional expert by any means, so if I overgeneralize or say something blatantly wrong, please correct me in the comments but don’t take what I write personally — I’m only going off what I could find online, mainly through Wikipedia.  Here’s Russia’s Wikipedia page, for example.]


Government: Parag Khanna argues in “The Second World” that Gazprom, Russia’s oil corporation, controls Russia and the government, with Vladimir Putin running a revivalist, nationalist agenda.  It is, as Khanna says, a petrocracy, one that is acutely sensitive to oil prices.  Russia is not politically free, but it is economically free — if you’re rich, you’re living well.  The rest of the country has languished.  Journalists who have attempted to investigate the government have been intimidated or murdered.

International Affairs: Russia continues to be a formidable security presence, exerting its influence on former Soviet satellites and in throttling Europe’s exposure to natural gas and oil.  However, it seems reliant on Europe for investment, and is being trumped by China on its eastern borders.  Russia’s military has not benefited from oil/gas profits — thus its ability to exert leverage has become even more concentrated in its ability to control natural resources.  It can be argued that Russia now looks with embarrassment as China as a successful Communist model.

Demographics: According to Khanna, 2/3 of the Russian population lives near the poverty line.  Russia has an aging population that is emigrating from the country if possible.  It is still well-educated.  HIV/AIDS and other health problems have surfaced as health care systems languished.  Russia is in danger of losing its eastern provinces (providing most of its land mass) to China, whose economic success and cultural roots prove far more inviting.  3/4 of Russia’s economy is concentrated in Moscow.

Religion: Russian Orthodox 63%, agnostic 12%, atheist 13%, 6% Muslim.

Telecom: Russia has very low penetration, at 14%.  According to comScore, the Russian internet market grew 25% in 2007, making it one of the fastest-growing (and largest) markets in the world.

Social Media Usage:

In Russia, there are two major social networking sites (SNSs):  Odnoklassniki and vkontakte.  Odnoklassniki is primarily for students to find each other, while Vkontakte is a blatant Facebook rip-off.  Both have the same percentage reach of the overall internet market.  The difference is that Vkontakte users spend 689 average minutes on the site per month, whereas Odnoklassniki users only spend 120 average minutes on their site. (comScore)  This means that although both have similar statistics, Vkontakte usage is richer, and, in the long-run, will grow faster.

One blog post says,

“What’s more, some users try to demonstrate to their friends that they no longer use Odnoklassniki and have moved to Vkontakte by displaying a graphical image as their avatar or one of the photos reading “moved to Vkontakte” to avoid the automatic filters for the text messages – but such photos are quickly deleted by moderators of the network anyway.

“I have to admit this looks like a creative way to avoid migration of your users to your competitor but at the same time I have a feeling it should be frowned on at the very least. For example, I have seen Odnoklassniki buying ad space on Facebook to display to the Russian users and a Facebook advertising team representative told me that their ToS for the advertising program did not prevent competitors from paying to reach the users of the social network.”

Noticeable is that Facebook has almost no exposure in Russia, although it only added language localization in June of 2008.


Odnoklassniki seems on the surface to not be appealing in a broader sense than networking among students.  Facebook started off this way, however, but expanded for wider social networking.  Vkontakte is exploiting the success of Facebook, but in an inferior manner — fewer controls and features.

Furthermore, I disagree with the blog post that suggests the only option for Facebook is to buy its clone Vkontakte to take the users and grab much of the Russian market.  I would predict that if Russia’s integration into the larger internet community grows, Facebook will quickly syphon users away from Vkontakte.

Studying Brazil

[To round out my research, I need to study the BRIC countries — however I realize I do not have the time to give them much more than a cursory look in all their dimensions:  demographics, political economy, sociography, history, culture, religion, etc.  So I thought if I were to look at them through the lens of how it might affect the expression of their cultures/countries online, that might be sufficient.

Now, please, I am not a regional expert by any means, so if I overgeneralize or say something blatantly wrong, please correct me in the comments but don’t take what I write personally — I’m only going off what I could find online, mainly using Wikipedia (read Brazil’s page).]


Government: A former Portuguese colony, the country fell to numerous military coups up until the 60’s, when it formalized a constitution.  Successful subsequent elections and peaceful transitions of power have consolidated democracy.

International Affairs: Brazil is the clear regional power in South and Central America, with the 5th largest population in the world and a large economy.  Dubya, according to Parag Khanna’s “The Second World”, said of Brazil, “Wow!  Brazil is big!”  And a former diplomat said, “Our self-perception involves nothing less than being the organizing principle of the contintent — not displacing the United States, as Venezuela would like, but alongside it.”

Demographics: Quite a young population with only 6.4% older than 65 years of age.  Made up of many different immigrant groups, but they have intermarried and intermixed such that racial issues are not nearly as significant as large divides in socio-economic and class status, with mega-slums next to wealthy neighborhoods, with little middle class in between to mitigate the two.  Portuguese is spoken universally.  The population is densely gathered on the coast of Brazil, with the interior sparsely populated.  Population is further concentrated into the two cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.  There are significant problems with quality of literacy and with mortality rates for infants and mothers.

Religion: Roman Catholic 74%, Protestant 15.4%, 7.4% agnostic. (according to the Brazilian IBGE agency census)  Largest Roman Catholic population in the world.

Telecom: Brazil is the third largest market for mobile telephony behind China and the US. Broadband deployment is less than desirable and demand is there for high-broadband use such as video.  How do Brazilians primarily access the internet?  Do they use their cell phones more than their computers for socializing?  A Brazilian friend of mine says no; internet cafes are ubiquitous and there are even promotions at gas stations for internet usage.  But mobile data is still prohibitively expensive.


Brazil has been in the news for its spying scandals on white-collar crimes. Said an article in the Wall Street Journal, “For some, Brazil’s wiretapping mania is a holdover from the country’s 20-year dictatorship, when secret police kept tabs on political enemies. The government spies were nicknamed arapongas — after birds known for their metallic, alarming cries. Military rule ended in 1984, but not Brazil’s culture of spying.”

It’s not clear that the people fear government surveillance — they may even support it in the name of fighting economic corruption — but the wealthy have taken measures to avoid detection and recording by the government.

For the purposes of my model, I am not sure whether to classify Brazil as afraid of its government or not.

Social Media Usage:

In our Y!/ISD research, we’ve found that the BRIC countries and the US seem to have two social networking sites (SNSs) that are competing against each other.  This is not the case in Brazil; Brazilians overwhelmingly use Orkut (owned by Google) as their SNS, although they use ancillary sites for non-networking tasks like photo storage.

According to comScore, Brazilians spent more time online than any other country in Latin America in September, 2008, at 26.8 hours in the month, a bit higher than the worldwide average.  They love to use social media, more than any other country in the world.  They have the largest online population, more than doubling the #2 country, Mexico.  Also according to comScore, Brazilians spent an average of 496 minutes on Orkut in September, 2008!


I would consider, outside of a massive disparity between the rich and poor, that Brazil is fairly homogenous.  Could this account for the online expression of being overwhelmingly in favor of only using Orkut for social networking?  With such a large population, one would think there would be room for competitors, but there are not.  This is unlike the other BRIC countries and the US, which have fierce SNS battles underlying a global move towards Facebook (which has barely caught on in Brazil).

Brazil seems to be an exception to the rule.

Some Effects of Cultural Context

Over on my reputation research blog, I wrote a long piece, mainly to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Outliers”.  I felt the post was also relevant for this blog because Gladwell talks about how cultural history affects modern-day events, design, and culture.

For instance, Gladwell writes that some Asian civilizations, being primarily rice-growers, approach problems the same way they grow rice.  Rice must be nurtured extensively, carefully grown, and constantly improved.  Wheat and corn growers, on the other hand, are not necessarily required to plant seeds perfectly spaced apart, to build perfect soil or mud/clay for the crop, or to spend lots of time maintaining the crops.  What Gladwell says is that rice-growing civilizations have been measured to spend more time thinking about a problem before giving up than wheat- or corn- growing civilizations.  They have more patience and determination to be good at things like math.

He also talks about how, until training accounted for the problem, Korean Air had a massive problem with communication among its pilots and first mates.  This led to a spate of crashes, and black box recordings showed that a cultural context where one does not question authority, and does not speak directly, instead using hints or suggestions, is not good for an industry where if the crew doesn’t make direct, well-communicated decisions, its plane will end up smashing into the ground.

So check out my post, and read Gladwell’s book.  It’s fascinating.  The premise is sort of what I’m hoping to get out of my research into how international values shape social networking sites within the context of privacy and identity.

On Negative Identity

Over on my reputation research blog, I wrote a post that applies to our Yahoo! work too.

It’s on the concept of “negative identity”:  perhaps social identity formation consists of an element of defining yourself by what you are not.  That is, you don’t always actively define your identity in terms of all the things you like to do, but instead, by who you are not and by what you don’t like.

Most social networking sites tend to allow users to define themselves only by what they are:  that is, what are your favorite hobbies, music, movies, etc.?  Who are your friends?  But you don’t really use social groups on social networking sites to keep other groups out, do you?

Anyway, check my post out.

James Grimmelman Writes About Facebook Privacy Controls

I came across an interesting paper by James Grimmelman, entitled “Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy”.  He writes thoughtfully on the subject, balancing negatives with positives:

The negatives (and I quote):

  • Leaving matters up to “the market” doesn’t produce an optimal outcome; users’ social and cognitive misunderstandings of the privacy risks of Facebook won’t disappear any time soon.
  • “Better” privacy policies are irrelevant; users don’t pay attention to them when making decisions about their behavior on Facebook.
  • “Better” technical controls make matters worse; they cram subtle and complicated human judgments into ill-fitting digital boxes.
  • Treating Facebook as a commercial data collector misconstrues the problem; users are voluntarily, even enthusiastically asking it to share their personal information widely.
  • Trying to restrict access to Facebook is a Sisyphean task; it has passionate, engaged users who will fight back hard against restrictions.
  • Giving users “ownership” over the information they enter on Facebook is the worst idea of all; it empowers them to run roughshod over others’ privacy.

The positives (I quote again):

  • Not everything posted on Facebook is public. Users shouldn’t automatically lose their rights of privacy in information solely because it’s been put on Facebook somewhere.
  • Users’ good names are valuable. There’s a commercial reputational interest in one’s Facebook persona, and using that persona for marketing purposes without consent should be actionable.
  • Opt-outs need to be meaningful. People who don’t sign up for Facebook, or who sign up but then decide to quit, deserve to have their choice not to participate respected.
  • Unpredictable changes are dangerous. Changes that pull the rug out from under users’ expectations about privacy should be considered unfair trade practices.
  • Strip-mining social networks is bad for the social environment. Bribing users to use a social network site—for example, by giving them rewards when more of their friends sign up—creates unhealthy chain-letter dynamics that subvert people’ relationships with each other.
  • Education needs to reach the right audiences. Targeted efforts to explain a few key facts about social network site privacy in culturally appropriate ways could help head off some of the more common privacy goofs users make.

I recently wrote a post on Facebook’s privacy controls versus other SNSs.  Grimmelman reaches similar conclusions as I did (but words them more eloquently and thoroughly):

“Facebook’s experience provides strong evidence of the limited usefulness of technical controls. One of Facebook’s two “core principles” is that users “should have control over [their] personal information,” and it implements this principle by offering users a staggeringly comprehensive set of privacy options presented in a clean, attractive interface. Chris Kelly, its Chief Privacy Officer, called its controls “extensive and precise” in testimony to Congress, and emphasized that Facebook’s goal was “to give users effective control over their information” through its “privacy architecture.” He’s not blowing smoke; Facebook has the most comprehensive privacy-management interface I’ve ever seen. Facebook users have greater technical control over the visibility of their personal information than do users of any of its major competitors.

“Not that it matters. Surveys show that many users either don’t care about or don’t understand how Facebook’s software-based privacy settings work. One study by the UK Office of Communications found that almost half of social network site users left their privacy settings on the default. Another study, by a security vendor, found that a similar fraction of Facebook users were willing to add a plastic frog as a contact, thereby leaking personal information to it. A study of college students found that between 20% and 30% didn’t know how Facebook’s privacy controls worked, how to change them, or even whether they themselves ever had.”

Grimmelman rightly identifies the forces involved:  SNSs trying to reach critical mass, individuals trying to just share with friends, policymakers who can’t and probably shouldn’t do much, privacy advocates who see a hopeless task, and everyone else in between.  Grimmelman condenses it down to identity, relationships, and community.

Perhaps a solution is a personal information management system, open-sourced but encrypted in its stored info, requiring everything to be opt-in to grant access to other sites?  Grimmelman writes that individual education has shown to be useless on the issue of privacy.  Target the communities, he says.

Perhaps privacy groups should be given more leverage to push SNSs not to abuse users’ privacy, since users are so indifferent to their own privacy until it hurts them?

At any rate, Grimmelman covers all the key issues, so I’ll be sure to refer back to his paper repeatedly in the future.  What’s clear is that Facebook is the major player right now, and it’s butting into a lot of peoples’ private spaces.

Exponential Times

Watch this video on how technology is affecting our world (thanks to Itzbeth for the link!):

Not that readers of this blog are unaware of this, but we live in exponential times where technology is pulling us kicking and screaming into a future that our cultural institutions are not equipped to deal with yet.

Be fast, be flexible, be adaptable.  The stats on labor (many of today’s top jobs did not exist a decade ago, and the number of jobs in one’s career is skyrocketing compared to past generations) are impressive within the context of a collapse in an American auto industry that guaranteed pensions to its retirees.

Also the massive growth within the BRIC countries will add new layers of complexity, ingenuity, and vectors for innovation that we can’t imagine right now. Perhaps through social networking sites will be the only way that we will be able to organize and visualize the enormous changes in ways that we can process. Old traditions and institutions will be tested, but we will have to rely on an underlying value system that those old institutions previously provided to keep some sort of semblance of stability and order.

That’s a lot of what this blog and our research is about.