Sep 05 2008

Will We Ever See the Emergence of a Diverse, Culturally Differentiated Social Web?

At the Intercultural Communications & Technology blog, where I cross-posted my analysis of social media usage in BRIC countries using Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions1, Margarita Rayzberg and Matthew Marco have joined the conversation with some astute observations on whether a diverse, culturally differentiated social web is possible.

I love astute comments, even when I don’t agree with them, perhaps especially when I don’t agree with them.

Margarita points out the difficulties in the emergence of a diverse, culturally relevant social web —

Many of the countries which differ significantly in their value structures are better imitators than innovators, at least in the areas of high technology. Hence, the copies of Facebook all over the world which are identical to the American version, rather than culturally unique equivalents. Also, there is the power of networks, both personal and business, where standardization is a major advantage. I wonder how we can empower other cultures to create applications that reflect their values. At the same time, I wonder if it isn’t the potential freedom from those values that draws (people from these cultures) towards American (culture) in the first place.

— whereas Matthew believes that such mutations will emerge organically —

People’s in-groups and social networks are still largely based on tangible relationships, and as long as that paradigm persists, the social web will reflect that — blocs of self-selecting groups occupying independent networks, each relatively impervious to the values of another.

First, without bringing in national cultures, let’s look at diversity in social networking dynamics. If you look at three of the most mainstream social networking platforms — Facebook, MySpace, LindedIn — you already begin to see the differences. MySpace and LinkedIn are clearly focused on entertainment/ self-expression and business/ networking respectively while Facebook is more inclusive of social motivations at both extremes. This gradation is evident not only in content, but also in the default settings and options available for customization and openness/ privacy. LinkedIn has really high privacy settings and rather limited customization options, MySpace is at the other extreme, and Facebook sits somewhere in between. If you add do-it-yourself social networks like Ning and services like SecondLife, Twitter and Friendfeed to the mix, you start to see diversity of an altogether different order. So, diversity in social networking dynamics is not an unusual thing in itself.

Second, the American value system is indeed a predominant force in the world today, in terms of both culture and technology, but these things change, often in the blink of an eye. For a cautionary tale, recall that Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo all believed that their causes were destined for success. It’s useful to remember that Japan and South Korea are at least a generation ahead of US in terms of mobile web usage and China has almost twice the number of blogs as US. It’s also useful to remember that American cultural values are also subject to change and I would like to highlight two trends here. The first trend is the Millennials’ yearning for community2 that has neatly coincided with the rising ubiquity of social media. The second trend is the rise of a post-materialist subculture in America3 that is rejecting the idea of using consumption as the primary means to construct an identity4.

Third, I’m painfully aware of the fact that most social networking sites in India (and other BRIC countries) are carbon copies of Facebook, LinkedIn and Myspace. However, I find great inspiration in the success of the Indian matrimonial websites (BharatMatrimony, JeevanSaathi and Shaadi) who tweaked the idea of dating sites to build a business around the uniquely Indian cultural dynamics of “arranged marriages”. I also see hope in startups like Babajobs (a professional social network for household help) and Sumitr (a private network for family members and close friends) that are experimenting with uniquely Indian social dynamics. I’m sure there are other examples from other BRIC countries that I’m not aware of.

As you can see, I’m biased to believe that the emerging BRIC economies are too vibrant and their cultural differences from Western countries are too significant for a BRIC model of the social web to not emerge. I believe that it’s a question of “when” and not “if” and I’m hoping to play a small part myself in bringing that “when” closer to reality.


1 Geert Hofstede Cultural Dimensions.
2 Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation by Neil Howe and William Strauss.
3 Wikipedia entry on post-materialism
4 Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich by Duane Elgin

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

One Response to “Will We Ever See the Emergence of a Diverse, Culturally Differentiated Social Web?”

  1. Ben Turner on 09 Sep 2008 at 12:48 am

    I see two directional paths coming together in some weird way from all this:

    1) I don’t think it’s important to think about which sites will succeed in which countries. It might not come down to which site is localized the best — in some circumstances it might be as random as which small group of early adopters or niche group achieved network effects on one site first. Also, more importantly, the web is moving towards a mesh of open APIs and data sharing where what’s more important is forming your online presence (a la FriendFeed) and not choosing which site to invest in at the expense of any other. That is, we’ll be putting sites together as pieces that represent us. It will be that unique cocktail mix of sites that may show the dimensions defined by Geert Hofstede.

    2) As more people come online from different social strata, defining by nation-states may become less stark; subcultures, ethnic groups, language groups, etc. will cluster more efficiently. Right now, it’s a very small subset of people who benefit from being online and networking with each other, as the data suggests from polls that Gaurav has posted (e.g. on whether people are bored with online social networking).

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