Archive for December, 2008


Dec 22 2008

On Negative Identity

by at 2:21 pm

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.

No responses yet | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Ben Turner,Culture,Privacy,Theory

Dec 18 2008

Rediff CEO Ajit Balakrishnan at Internet Governance Forum: Local Languages Will Not Drive the Next Billion nternet Users

by at 11:10 pm

At the Internet Governance Forum at Hyderabad, during a panel on Reaching the Next Billion, Rediff CEO Ajit Balakrishnan made some interesting comments (via Nikhil Pahwa) —

If the world is looking to increase Internet users by a billion, India has to contribute at least 250 million… India’s user base right now is roughly 40 million. So it’s a mega challenge to take it from where we are now at 40 million to get to 250 million.

We have had e-mail operating in 11 languages, but virtually 99% of users prefer to use it in English. In India, there is a set of issues, because practically all of the 300 million young people who aspire to something in this country aspire to learn English. English is an aspirational language. Consequently, there is very little interest in accessing the Internet in any other language than that.

In Indian languages… we have a large number of them, 16 to 17 major ones. So the market for any of these things is highly fragmented. The single biggest one, Hindi, is probably no more than 30% of the population… But let us not assume that users want Indian languages. There is no evidence so far the last ten years in the business.

If the goal is to add another billion users to the world, this is not going to help you too much. It will probably add another 20 million or 15 million.

Fundamentally, the Internet is not about content. When we sit around in meetings like this, we think that most people read weighty tomes published by the U.N. and others. In fact what they do, mostly young people are on the Internet and what they do is they send messages, brief messages to each other, or post messages on social networking sites or download music or enjoy pictures or video clips. None of this is really particularly language related. Most of the navigational levels have to be in languages. So virtually 90% of the content is text free if you look deeply enough.

And one final thing, if you haven’t heard about it, the PC era just ended in the last year and the future of access is mobile. But it’s again not going to be text-based mobile. That’s another message I want to bring to you from the trenches of the Internet world.

People are frantically working to master the voice-to-text conversion piece… (but) the big thing (in) the next five years… (will be) a breakthrough on a voice-based Internet where you can speak into it and hear things back.

Voice-based Internet is where the future lies. And if national entities have to be pushed to do anything, it’s to make sure you make the voice-to-text recognition system accurate. At the moment in India we are not getting results more than 70% accuracy. If you can use the brains and get it to 95%, I think that is fantastic. That will solve all our problems.

These comments are quite controversial and have attracted several interesting reactions —

It is wrong to assume Indian languages are not a wanted commodity just because a particular language product (in this case, the language support on Rediffmail) hasn’t done well. In my opinion the time has not arrived for the usage of Indian language in email. has been publishing language content since April 2000. (Our) users wanted to ‘read’ our content and very few wanted to write in the language. Most of our feedback mails were in English (pre-2006). These days most of the comments on our site and feedback emails are in the language.

Everyone talks about UGC (user generated content). Many feel just because UGC in language is not as big as English (as of now) they have inferred language is not wanted on the net. Wrong. Language blogs are popular these days and it is the best example of UGC. (BG Mahesh, CEO of OneIndia)

I think that the average urban user would be keen on using English (he’s either comfortable with it, or aspires to be). Even with increased penetration into rural areas, the mindset that ‘English is the path to advancement’, which I have seen around me a lot, might make English a preferred language, more than the regularly spoken one. Also, unlike print, and television, which are more passive media (read/ remote click), the net is a more active medium, because it requires some navigation for the user to make full use of it. (links/downloads etc) I think its fair to assume that the width and depth of content available in English will always be more than that of other languages. Does that mean that there is no market for language? There is a market, but I doubt that it will ever explode or be the driver for growth or be the major beneficiary of the internet’s rural penetration (when that happens). I have a feeling that the catch 22 situation will last – not enough users to warrant content and not enough content to warrant usage. (Manu Prasad)

What worries me is that if people who wield a great deal of influence over Internet usage practices in India, such as Balakrishnan, don’t persevere and try to push local language emailing with the huge new crop of users India adds annually, then the presence of Indian writing technologies on the Net will dwindle before they are given a real chance to take off. (Usree Bhattacharya)

I have always believed that language is going to be one of the three dimensions of differentiation for Indian social networking sites — language (English vs. vernacular), mode of access (Internet vs. mobile) and social dynamics (global vs. Indian) —

According to NRS 2006, the readership of English language newspaper is only 26 mn, less than 10% of the overall readership of newspapers in India. Given that English is the predominant language on Internet in India, is it any surprise that English language newspaper readership in India and Internet usage in India are in the same ballpark? Also, if you flip the numbers, vernacular language newspaper readership in India is ten times higher than English language readership in India. It’s probably reasonable to project that, if vernacular language Internet was to become popular in India, Internet usage in India will potentially increase tenfold.

I also believe that language and access will also be the key drivers for internet growth in India, in general. There is widespread consensus in India on the mobile part, but not on the language part, but I think that will change in the next five years.

One response so far | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Access,Gaurav Mishra,India,Language | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Dec 18 2008

James Grimmelman Writes About Facebook Privacy Controls

by at 4:59 pm

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.

One response so far | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows

Dec 12 2008

Exponential Times

by at 12:49 pm

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.

One response so far | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Ben Turner,BRIC,Culture,Social Change,Theory

Dec 07 2008

Identities and Censorship

by at 5:10 pm


One excellent point brought up during our breakfast presentation in the CCT lounge (their journal, Gnovis, posted a write-up of it by Margarita Rayzberg) was that one coping mechanism for lack of privacy controls on an SNS or within an intrusive state is to create fake profiles and characters and pseudonyms in order to operate online.

(Outside our discussion, I want to quickly add, why Asians are more comfortable with avatars, pseudonyms, and anime in representing themselves online?)

Anyway, in my privacy controls post, I showed just how extensive Facebook’s privacy controls are.  This allows people to feel more secure about putting more information into Facebook’s databases because, whether they use those controls or not, they feel as though they can control their own data.

But Brazil uses Orkut, which has fairly weak controls relative to the rest of the spectrum of SNSs (Myspace excluded).  I am not sure if Brazilians fear government intrusiveness into their day-to-days, since I haven’t done the research yet, so if they are using fake profiles quite often, then it might be because they are uncomfortable sharing info that those in their peer group or real life may view.  We see this phenomenon here in the US with Myspace users.  Younger users are encouraged to create fake profiles to hide from their parents, unauthenticated classmates, and other outside, threatening players in their lives.

I would argue that pseudonymity has an unappreciated role online.  Anonymity has been with us since the start, back to “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog”.  Certainly much has been made about verified identity online, to facilitate trade and commerce — it wasn’t long ago that people refused to shop online for fear of fraud, an irrational fear as it turned out.

Pseudonymity has been discussed at length as well, as most outsiders see it as escapism from reality and compensating for missing traits in real-world personality.  But it also allows, at the identity layer level, for a blend of authentication and anonymity to make up for the lack of identity tools to properly set the level of privacy you’re comfortable with online.  You may want to be anonymous to all those who know you in real life, but you want to be known online within a certain community.  So you take a handle or nickname and create a reputation around it.


The Yahoo!/ISD fellowship was originally created with the help of Michael Samway, Yahoo!’s VP and general counsel of human rights efforts and a former Georgetown MSFS alumnus, in response to a case of censorship by the Chinese government with the collaboration of Yahoo!.

The NYTimes this weekend published a long article called “Google’s Gatekeepers”, which describes a case involving Google’s YouTube property and Turkey’s blocking YouTube because of videos from Greece that defamed the founder of modern Turkey, which is a crime there.  This spurred a look into how Google decides which videos get taken down and why.

What should companies do about issues such as this?  Should they concede to governments’ wishes in order to stay in the market, particularly one as delectable as China’s?  If they decide to stick to principles of free speech and user protection, they risk being banned, while their competitors could decide to concede and gain the lost market share.

For now, multiple stakeholders have formed the Global Network Initiative in order to collaborate and work together to ensure freedom of speech and privacy; it remains to be seen who will cooperate with the group and who will break apart, and whether they can exert enough leverage on governments to back off from censorship.

The Little Guy

What I am primarily concerned with in my research is how all this affects the little guy.  You, me, those in BRIC countries.  How do different countries’ users approach social media usage, knowing the risks they take both socially and from their governments?  From some discussions I’ve had (but with nothing concrete to back it up), it seems as though Chinese users have a good sense of where the line is when saying something potentially risky in the government’s eyes.  It’s hard to draw such a line when it comes to what one can say within his social network, though, since there are many more actors and attitudes and roles of relationships with that person.  In other words, what you would say if you knew your mom was listening and what you would say if your best friend or boss were listening would be markedly different.  At least you know in China fairly reasonably what you should and shouldn’t say in order to get the government censors concerned.

With that in mind, I think my privacy model holds well, although I’ve learned from our CCT chat and various other discussions to modify some of the language and words used, since each word has very specific meanings and inferences.

Your True Identity

The last thing I want to talk about here is with regards to hiding your true identity, as in your real life identity.  In my “What’s Shaping the Internet” class (also in the CCT department), one of my colleagues did a presentation on Chinese censorship.  One thing I started thinking deeply about through the pre-class reading was that foreign companies use tunneling and encrypted networks to pass through the Chinese firewall (or “Golden Shield”) in order to phone home to their offices.  Both technically (encrypted tunneling is hard to defeat or wiretap) and commercially (if foreign companies have no privacy, then they would object and would pull business out for fear of losing trade secrets or more), encrypted networks and VPNs within China seem untouchable.

This ability can’t necessarily be said for regular Chinese citizens, who must find a secure connection to use in order to start tunneling securely.  But it brings up the interesting question:  how much tunneling do Chinese citizens engage in?

And would it really help them as far as SNSs go if they could tunnel out?  SNSs are huge in China and by statistics we’ve discussed earlier, Chinese use social media far more than Americans do.

But at some point, can you really escape who you are?  If you could post about yourself on computers based in a country that protects free speech, you’re still at some level talking about metadata that links back to your identity back home.  If you were to scrub all your information of your real name or pseudonym, it would not take much work to find out where you live, what you do, and who you know.  It would then not be much of a stretch to find you.  Your personal data is horribly non-anonymous whether you’re Publius or Joe Klein.

So we’re led back to the beginning of this post, resorting to using pseudonyms to create completely fictional characters that anonymize our real life personas.

3 responses so far | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Ben Turner,Brazil,Censorship,China,Privacy,Social Media

Dec 02 2008


by at 11:50 pm

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.

No responses yet | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Ben Turner,BRIC,Context,Culture,Privacy,Social Media

Dec 02 2008

Real Time Citizen Journalism in Mumbai Terrorist Attacks

by at 2:36 pm

Mumbai was under seize for more than 60 hours in a coordinated terror attack executed by only ten terrorists.

Even as I continue to track instances of citizen journalism in the Mumbai terror attacks, I’m trying to make sense of what happened in a work-in-progress case study and a Flickr set of screenshot on the role of social media in the Mumbai terror attack.

For more, see my interviews on the role of citizen journalism in the terror attack with Los Angeles Times, CBS News, DNA, LiveMint, Associated Press, and Star Telegram (I’ll update the links to my CNN and BBC interviews when they are put online).

Finally, the role of the online community in India has not ended with the Mumbai terror attack. We need to come together to shape a moderate, nuanced online discussion on the 11/26 Mumbai terror attack to bring back calm and peace to Mumbai and ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes others have made after such tragedies.

One response so far | Categories: 2008-09 Fellows,Gaurav Mishra,India,Social Media | Tags: , , , , , , ,