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.

Hiatus

Apologies for the interruption in posting regularly.  It’s the end of the semester and I can’t speak for Gaurav and Pav but I’ve had a lot of on-going semester-long projects.  The Mumbai attacks hit close to home for Gaurav and Pav and I kept up with Gaurav’s tweets and posts during the Thanksgiving break while watching TV coverage and reading the spotty journalism online.  Certainly there was a communitas and online awareness during the Mumbai hostage situations that’s unique to our times.

In mid-November, Gaurav gave a presentation during a Georgetown CCT (Communications, Culture, and Technology) breakfast chat. The CCT program, by the way, has a really cool blog called gnovis which covers interdisciplinary issues such as culture, technology, media, politics, and the arts. Add it to your RSS feed!

I assisted in covering a few slides for the presentation.  Our topic was how cultural context affects social media usage in the BRIC countries and in the US.

Gaurav posted the excellent slideshow he presented, so you can check it out:

This presentation was very useful for us because the CCT students are not only already well-versed in the subject we covered, but also pointed out areas we completely overlooked, studies we used that have blind spots, and presented an argument that we should look more carefully at how the different BRIC countries and the US view issues like privacy, openness, and sharing.

So these issues I will be researching for my future posts, particularly how the word “privacy” does not translate well into other languages and is fairly confusing even in English.

I also plan to study the individual countries to see if I can isolate characteristics applicable to my studies on privacy and openness vs. closedness.

It should also be mentioned that discussion within the web developer community regarding identity, sharing data across sites, and privacy vs. advertising is extremely hot right now, so I will try to post more summaries of good stories I see out there on that front.

Happy belated Thanksgiving, and here’s hoping you have a happy holiday season, wherever you are.

Social Networking Sites’ Privacy Settings

In order to get a better sense of how different social networking sites (SNS) in the US and BRIC countries approach their users’ privacy, I took screenshots from Facebook, Myspace, Orkut, and Vkontakte.  A very kind master’s student from China, Lydia Zhang, was kind enough to take screenshots of Xiaonei, China’s top SNS, and then translate them into English for our benefit!  Much love to Lydia!! (Lydia is working on a paper on SNSs as well; please, if you are a US student, fill out her survey and e-mail it along to her.  Thanks!)

Myspace is primarily a US thing, while Facebook is popular in the US but also in many other countries around the world (earlier, Gaurav posted about Oxyweb’s map of SNSs around the world).

Orkut is primarily associated with India and Brazil while Vkontakte is associated with Russia.  China’s primary SNS, Xiaonei, competes with Kaixin, but according to Lydia:

“Kaixin (means fun and happiness in Chinese) is a fast-growing SNS in China. Its success mainly relies on its spam-spreading e-mail invitation strategies among SNS users.  Some Chinese internet observers said Kaixin attracts people mainly from companies.  Those white-collar workers spend most of their boring working time on Kaixin to play games developed by third-parties with their colleagues, even their bosses.  This is what they think, leads to Kaixin’s surprisingly high user involvement.  Because users of Xiaonei are mostly college students, who don’t have convenient access (as those white-collar workers in companies) to internet because of economic factors. Generally speaking, Kaixin is basically a clone of Xiaonei but is featured by its spam-spreading and  some popular third-party applications, for example, some most successful games directly copied from FB and some games developed by Chinese third-party. These games of Chinese characteristic could be a possible topic for cross-cultural studies on group involvement of Chinese and foreign SNS. This requires more observations and I will keep tracking those information. Interesting enough is that Xiaonei now realised Kaixin’s threatening expanding and launched recently a new SNS aming at competing with Kaixin in games and other entertaining functions.”

A few notes:  1) Screenshots were taken on Nov. 1, 2008.  2) The screenshots are somewhat huge so I’m just using thumbnails for this post.  I’ve linked to the full-size versions instead.

Privacy settings menu screenshots:

Facebook

Facebook by far has the most extensive and precise (and as danah boyd says, confusing) security settings.  Not only can you blacklist individual users so that they can’t access you at all, you can also configure virtually any different category of information about yourself (education, work, bio, friends) by more categories than the other major SNSs:  friends, friends of friends, your primary network, all your networks, anyone, only some networks, and no one at all.  For your schools, you can also specify by undergrads, grads, alumns, faculty, and staff.

Facebook has so many privacy settings that it breaks them down into four primary categories:  profile, search, news feed and wall, and applications.  Primarily, you can limit your biographical information, who can see your different photo albums, and whether your info gets posted on your wall or not.  You can block whether search engines will index your profile or not, as well.

Another unique feature to Facebook is to see how your profile would look to a specific friend in your network, as an added security measure for those who are nervous about specific people.

At this point I must say that it would be difficult to quantify the number of settings per SNS to see which allowed for the most privacy.  Certainly Facebook offers a level of granularity unparalleled by any other SNS.  It doesn’t, however, let you open up your profile to everyone. The best way to measure degrees of privacy on other SNSs perhaps is to see what the other SNSs lack compared to Facebook.

Myspace

Myspace is currently the biggest SNS in the US but it’s highly doubtful that that will continue to be the case for much longer.  Myspace is undergoing a strategy revamp but is also not very useful compared to Facebook except in specific circumstances.  I was also amazed to see that it offers very little in the way of privacy control.

Myspace offers an individual blacklist, but otherwise has only 5 discrete settings under privacy to customize.  It lets you hide your age, online status, and birthday; it also allows you to blanket-protect your photos (with no granularity), and control who can view your profile by age.  Given that Myspace has the younger online demographic, compared with Facebook, this is completely unacceptable.  Not only does it not do a good job of protecting adults’ privacy, but it does very little to protect minors’ identities.  Outside literature I’ve read has suggested that minors have compensated by creating fake profiles known only among their circles of friends.

Orkut

Orkut, owned by Google, is used a lot in India and Brazil but not so much in the US.  It also has a surprisingly weak array of privacy control options, all fitting on one screen, just like Myspace’s.

Orkut protects against photo tagging (people uploading photos and tagging that you are in them), update statuses, Google indexing (since it’s integrated with Google search), and anonymous friend requests.  It lets you protect certain features (scraps, photos, testimonials, feeds) by three levels of settings:  friends, friends of friends, and anyone.  There is no “no one” setting or anything more granular.

Brazilians and Indians don’t seem to mind.

Vkontakte

Vkontakte is the most popular SNS in Russia, and along with China’s Xiaonei, is a blatant complete Facebook rip-off both in color scheme and layout.  Facebook has sued Vkontakte because of this.  The site DOES provide English support, which is useful for branching out from Russia.

One thing that’s interesting is that upon login, you have to check a box to NOT have Vkontakte save your login settings automatically.

Vkontakte has a blacklist feature.

Vkontakte lets you show your info to only friends, friends of friends, no one, and all users.  Mostly the controls, instead of controlling which of your info gets out, like on other SNSs, controls who can send info TO you, like invites, graffiti, and messages.  You can control who can view your photos or view your profile.  If you select “no one” for who can view your page, it actually says, “No one, delete my page”.  Harsh!

Xiaonei

Xiaonei leaves opting in as the default setting for many of its privacy controls.  For instance, unless you change your settings, anyone can see your entire profile at first, even if they don’t log in.

Xiaonei, as I learned from Lydia’s very helpful translations, probably has the second-best privacy controls to Facebook out of all the sites here.  Interestingly, it lets you share to all, or to just yourself, along with other degrees of privacy.  it lets you set privacy across several different categories of your personal information.  I counted more than 10 different categories.

I saw that Xiaonei offers IM on its profile page; IM in China is one of the biggest sources of traffic among Chinese users.  It also lets you see recent visitors, something you have on Orkut but not on other sites.

Conclusion

Both Myspace and Orkut contain separate settings to protect against spam.  This doesn’t exist on Facebook, Xiaonei (to my knowledge), and Vkontakte.  That they even have problems with spam says something about the data integrity within Myspace and Orkut.

I guess my closing question is, why does Facebook get so much more flak than other services for having lax privacy, when the other competitors’ sites are far worse?  Certainly Myspace had its days in the news for exposing minors to predators and abuse, but now Facebook is the target.  Is it also because Facebook not only might expose users to public and private abuse, but also to abuse by marketers, governments, employers, and corporations?  Is it telling that Xiaonei and Facebook, from China and the US, have similar degrees of privacy controls?

Hypotheses About Privacy Attitudes

We have found a lot of conflicting data in our research, as Gaurav expressed in his last post on Flickr privacy settings worldwide.  Brazil and India seem to favor Orkut, despite differing Geert-Hofstede attitudes towards uncertainty avoidance.  Universal McCann found that Americans seem to have fewer contacts and socialize far less online than the BRIC countries, which is odd given that online social networks had a head-start in the US.

In my research model, I am seeing how transparency is the positive compromise between closedness and openness.  Geert-Hofstede and Hall’s high- and low- contexts don’t seem to explain different countries’ behaviors satisfactorily.  I think my model, which breaks down openness and closedness into different aspects of peoples’ lives, like personal, financial, political, health, etc., helps to explain the contrasts far better, or at least leads me down a more productive line of research.

There is little data to go off since this study is new.  I’m not sure we have the time or money to conduct our own surveys or research.  But I’d like to hypothesize a bit on what I think is going on regarding social networking in the US and BRIC countries.

Facebook

For starters, Facebook is taking over the planet (see the SNS map Gaurav posted earlier).  In just three months of statistics, Facebook has overtaken the incumbent SNS in 12 different countries.  The only other SNS to take over a country is hi5, a self-titled “international social networking company with a local flavor”.  Interestingly, Gaurav pointed out to me that it is a San Francisco-based company, but it was started by Indians who moved to SF just to be part of the cluster.  According to the Oxyweb SNS map, Myspace is still the leader in the US over Facebook, which says something about how young Facebook is.

Furthermore, the two top SNSs in Russia and China are virtual identical clones of Facebook in most aspects.  This says something about the pervasiveness of Facebookism.  Imitation is flattery.

So if I were to look ahead into the future, I would have to see Facebook dominating the rest.  No other SNS offers as many privacy controls, and while Gaurav insightfully points out that Brazilians and Indians may prefer fewer settings because they are so social, what is most important to me is that Facebook is already thinking the most deeply about what the future will mean for personal data control, privacy, and security.

Facebook is also creating the most sophisticated application platform out there, even if it hasn’t monetized as quickly as iTunes’s application store or Google’s upcoming Android stores.  It has barely even begun to open up its data through Facebook Connect, yet it’s already sucking up tons of data from other sites through its import features.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, speak about social networking, you get the feeling that very few people understand as well as he does where this is all going.  Public outcries towards Beacon were a surprise to him, because in his mind, it makes more sense if your friends or at least people you trust recommend individual products or brands to you instead of behavioral marketing guesses at what you might like.

I think Facebook will take over because it’s building all the pieces for the future SNS world.  While open data control platforms will allow us to jailbreak and move from one SNS to the other easily, what we will begin to value is whichever SNS offers us the best features.  No one competes with Facebook in that regard, already.

Privacy Attitudes

So if I am to wonder why Americans are more “private” than the BRIC countries, I hypothesize that it’s because Americans desire personal privacy most, and are not as suspicious of political privacy.  That is, even after eavesdropping scandals, most Americans generally believe that they can voice their opinions about the government.  However, what Americans seem most deathly afraid of is privacy from employers, peers, and co-workers.  This has manifested itself in Facebook’s privacy controls, and a continual onslaught of outcries relating to personal privacy.  I would guess that Americans fear a loss of reputation within their professional community more than in their national community.  Americans talk a lot of potential employers reading their social networking profiles.

I am thinking there might be two key spheres that affect decision-making then:  privacy from government and privacy from society (personal privacy).  In my model, health, sexual, and financial privacy would be subsets of personal privacy.  Political privacy would stand on its own.  Are there subsets of political privacy?

Contrast the US obsession with personal privacy with Chinese internet users.  I would assume that not only are Chinese internet users more biased towards well-educated, fairly well-off people than the US online population is, but they also fear actions from their governments more, based on the government actively monitoring what they might post online.  This would not change the fact that Chinese are highly social, are very well-connected, and indeed are even far more comfortable meeting strangers online than Americans, whose friend networks are primarily comprised of people they know in person.

And contrast it with Russians, who not only may fear repression by their government for speaking out, but are also less social than Brazil and India.

India could be seen as both highly social and also not afraid of government action.  And Brazil would be highly social (Gaurav calls Indians and Brazilians “hyper-social”), but Brazilians seem somewhat afraid of government action (see their recent wiretapping scandals).

Personal and Political Privacy

Hypothesis Model: Personal and Political Privacy

If these generalizations (and I realize they are highly generalized!) hold, then that would put Brazil and China in the same quadrant, but obviously at different degrees.

Moving Forward

This model seems to present a lot fewer contradictions for me, but I do not want this to seem like blatant stereotypes.  The model still leaves a lot of questions.

To what degree are Brazilians afraid of their government?  They have had a lot of eavesdropping scandals, but to what degree does the individual care?

Why are Russians seen as being less personally open?

Is there any hard data on any of this?

Edward Hall’s Context Prism

In search of more prisms that I can examine BRIC countries through (Gaurav blogged about Geert Hofstede, which gave us some interesting data points), I came across Edward Hall’s high- and low- context analysis.

Other sites already cover Hall’s theory pretty well, but basically he differentiated cultures based on an idea that some had high-context communication and others had low-context communication.

Scandinavians, for example, have low-context communications.  You can walk into any conversation with them and their dialogue will contain very direct messages that are self-encapsulated and contain most of the information you would need to make sense of it.

There are codified norms within the society that make the conversation rules-based and less personal.  It comes off as very direct and to the point. Read More »