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.

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.

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 »

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 http://benturner.com/ 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. Read More »