These are my notes from the session G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide by danah boyd

danah boyd began by pointing out what she means by G/localization. It is the ugliness that ensues when you bring the global and the local together. Today online spaces enable us to cross space and time. We can communicate with faraway peoples with the blink of an eye but in truth most of us do not live our lives in a multicultural environment which can cause problems when we build or participate in online communities. A culture is the artifacts, norms and values of a people. It isn't necessarily limited to nation-states, languages or ethnic groups. a company can have a 'corporate culture' and lots of attendees of ETech would probably identify themselves as being part of the 'geek culture'. In addition people tend to exist in multiple cultural frames simultaneously but don't usually notice until they are extracted from their normal routine (e.g. going on vacation).

There was once an assumption that mass media would lead to cultural homogenization. Although this is true in some respects, it has also led to some subcultures forming that a direct reaction to the mass culture such as the raver and goth subcultures among adolescents. Similar subcultures occur in online forums dating as far back as USENET, where newsgroups like rec.motorcyles were very different from others like In that era, social software tended to come in two distinct flavors. There was homogenous software that handled the communication needs of single groups such as mailing list software and then specialized built to handle the needs of a particular community such as

Craig's List, Flickr and MySpace are examples of a new generation of successful social software. All three services have the following basic characteristics

  • Passionate designers and users: The creators of the services are passionate about the service they've created and use it themselves. All three services were seeded by friends and family of the founder(s) who became the foundation of a strong base of passionate users.

  • Public Personalities: Tom (MySpace), Stewart (Flickr) and Craig (Craig's List) put a human face on the service by directly interacting with users either in support roles or to give updates on the status of the service.

  • Integrated feedback loop: Changes to the sites are driven by customer demand which is often given directly to the people building the products

In anthropology there is a notion of 'embedded observation' where the researcher lives with the society being studied so as to learn from within the community instead of from outside. The designers of all three services seem to live by this principle when it comes to the cultures they've fostered. They things they do well are how they tend to watch, listen and learn directly from users instead of keeping user research as something outside the core design and development process done mainly for marketing purposes as is the case with many services. These services actually focus on 'real users' as opposed to personas or other caricatures of their user base. Another thing the above mentioned services do well is that they tend to nudge the culture instead of trying to control it. The Fakester saga on Friendster is an example of where the designers of a service tried to control the burgeoning culture of the service instead of flowing with it. Great social software services support and engage the community that has grown around their service instead of trying to control them.

It isn't all plain sailing, there are some key problems that face sites such as Craig's List, Flickr and MySpace including

  • Creator burnout: Being passionate about the product you work on often leads to overworking which eventually leads to burning out. Once this happens, it is hard for creators to maintain cultural embeddedness which leads to disconnects between the designers and users of the services.

  • Scaling: As a user base becomes more diverse it is often hard to deal with the increased cultural or even linguistic diversity of a service. An example is Orkut which became very popular amongst Brazilian users but none of the people working on the product understood their language. Secondly, as services become largeer they become harder to police which can eventually have significant consequences. Both Craig's List and MySpace are facing lawsuits because people feel they haven't effectively policed their services.

danah boyd then gave some guidelines for creators of social software that want to design through embeddedness

  1. Passion is everything
  2. Have safegaurds put in place to prevent burnout
  3. Diversify your staff
  4. Do not overdesign
  5. Enable and empower your users. Don't attempt to control them, sometimes they might go in a different direction from what you intended and that's OK.
  6. Integrate the development, design and customer support teams so they all know each other's pain.
  7. Stay engaged with the community
  8. Document the evolution of your community especially what aspects of the culture have driven feature design

The next topic was why people join online communities. The fact is most people like hanging out with people who are like them such as people who live in the same region, are of the same ethnic group or just share the same interests. Most people like to meet "new" people but not "different" people from them. There is also something about seemingly accidental or coincidental meetings that many people like. For example, two people can see each other on the bus every day for years and never talk but once they meet somewhere else they can spark up conversation about their shared identity (i.e. riders of a particular bus route). danah described this concept as the notion of familiar strangers.

danah boyd then showed some examples of the kinda of speech used on services like MySpace which is similar to L33t5p34k. She asserted that the creation of such dialects by teenagers are an attempt to assert their independence and at the same time obfuscate their speech from grown ups. In addition, she challenged the notion that machine translation would be ever be able to bridge languages due to cultural notions embedded in these languages. Simply translating teenage online speech to regular English in a mechanical manner loses some of the meanings of the words that are only understood by members of that community. One example she gave is the word nigger nigga. Depending on the culture of the speakers it could mean an affectionate term between males ("That's my nigga") to one which is intensely negative ("I can't believe Kimberly is a nigger lover"). Machine translation can't figure out the difference. Another real-world example which affects online communities is defining obscenity and pornography. Even the U.S. supreme court has given up on being able to properly define obscenity and pornography by saying it depends on the standards of the community. However when the community becomes anyone in the world with an Internet connection things become tricky. In the United States it's obscene to show women's nipples in public, on the other hand in Brazil you often find bare breasted women in national magazines while in United Arab Emirates a bare belly button is considered obscene. A picture considered tame in one country could be considered raunchy and obscene in others. danah talked about a conversation she wants saw on Flickr where women from the UAE were commenting on some photos of American women in tank tops and hot pants where they expressed sorrow that women in the U.S. need to objectify themselves sexually to be accepted by mainstream society. People like to argue about morality when it comes to building online services but the question is "Who's morality, yours or theirs?" This question becomes important to answer because it can lead to serious ramifications from lawsuits to your website being blocked in various countries.

In conclusion, danah boyd gave the following summary of what to do to design for G/localization

  • Empower users to personalize their experience
  • Enable users to control access to their online expressions of their personality by being able to make things private, public, etc.
  • Let users control opportunities for meeting people like them

I loved this talk. This was the only talk I attended where the Q&A session went on for ten minutes past when the talk was supposed to end and no one seemed ready to leave. danah boyd r0cks.


Comments are closed.