Social networking sites have taken firm root in cultures across the world. Here in the United States, many social lives are ruled by Facebook; the site has also grabbed the bulk of market share in Europe, Indonesia, and India. In China, the dominant sites Renren and Kaixin001 fight for the loyalty of China's 450 million Internet users. But how these sites are used, and how people feel about them, can vary dramatically by country.
To start to get an understanding of these cultural variations, a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab collected opinions about privacy on social networking sites from users in the United States, China, and India. The resulting paper, which the team will present at the International Conference on Trust and Trustworthy Computing in June, breaks new ground. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the first empirical study that investigates users' attitudes about SNS privacy across countries," the researchers write.
After analyzing around 900 survey results from the three countries (about 300 from each), the researchers found a distinct pattern: U.S. users tend to have the most privacy concerns regarding social networking sites, followed by Chinese users, and then Indian users. The chart below shows users' comfort levels with sharing various parts of their social networking identity with the entire Internet.
Yang Wang, who conducted the study along with Carnegie Mellon's Lorrie Cranor and Gregory Norcie, tells IEEE Spectrum that the researchers found the same pattern when they asked for users' opinions on the companies running the social networking sites. U.S. users of Facebook were more concerned about how much information Facebook had about them and how the company might share or use that data, Chinese users of Renren and Kaixin001 came next in their level of concern, and Indian users of Facebook were the least worried. The pattern repeated once again when the researchers asked users how much they trusted these social networking sites--Americans had the least trust for Facebook.
And yet, for all this consistency, there were a few surprises. When the researchers asked users how much control they wanted over the visibility of their information on social networking sites (so that personal info could be seen by friends and family, say, but not by co-workers), they found that Chinese users were the most eager to restrict their information, followed by Indian users, with American users last.
"One plausible explanation for this," says Wang, "is that people in the U.S. may be more concerned about privacy in regard to companies than in their interpersonal relationships." In other words, American users may trust their networks--but not the company managing the networks. It's also possible, Wang says, that American users post less sensitive information, and therefore aren't too worried about who sees it.
Another point that jumped out at the researchers involved the use of fake names on social networking sites. Wang, who was born and raised in China and who came to the United States in 2002 for his PhD, keeps accounts on both Facebook and Kaixin001, and had noticed that some friends on the Chinese site use pseudonyms. So the researchers included survey questions asking whether users employed fake names, and if they worried about impersonation. The results showed that pseudonyms and impersonation concerns are most common in China, followed by the United States and then India.
These results can probably be explained, Wang says, by the Chinese government's strict monitoring and control of the chatter on social networking sites, which makes it dangerous to air certain sentiments online. A pseudonym can feel like a protective barrier--but it can also be off-putting for others. "In the Chinese Internet, identity issues and trust issues are huge," he says. "A lot of people use anonymous or pseudonymous identities online, and that definitely makes it harder to establish trust."
The research group is busily expanding its project. Already, a French version of the survey has been deployed in France, an Arabic version is ready for action in Saudi Arabia, and a Hungarian version is in development.
And if you're hungering for more insights into how we modern humans are learning to live our lives on social networks, keep an eye out for the June issue of IEEE Spectrum. This special issue on social networks and the Web includes several meaty discussions of privacy, as well as a feature article about China's latest social networking phenomenon, the microblogging service Sina Weibo.
Senior Editor Eliza Strickland joined IEEE Spectrum in March 2011 and was initially assigned the Asia beat. She got down to business several days later when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster began. Strickland shared a Neal Award for news coverage of that catastrophe and wrote the definitive account of the accident's first 24 hours. She next moved to the biomedical engineering beat and managed Spectrum's 2015 special report, “Hacking the Human OS." That report spawned the Human OS blog about emerging technologies that are enabling a more precise and personalized kind of medicine. The blog reports on wearable sensors, big-data analytics, and neural implants that may turn us all into cyborgs. Over the years, Strickland watched as artificial intelligence (AI) technology made inroads into the biomedical space, reporting on crossovers between AI and neuroscience research and IBM Watson's ill-fated efforts in AI health care. These days she oversees Spectrum's coverage of all things AI. Strickland has reported on science and technology for nearly 20 years, writing for such publications as Discover,Nautilus, Sierra, Foreign Policy, and Wired. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.