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ETech - G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide

Notes from G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide, a talk given by Danah Boyd at ETech 06. Danah's site is here.

This talk was incredibly dense with lots of interesting tidbits about smart ways to build communities online.

Glocalization: The ugliness that ensues when you shove the global and local together

What it means to think about culture

Some characteristics of culture
  • It is comprised of values, norms, and artifacts
  • It's not just about language or nation-states. Things can bond certain groups together... culture can exist far beyond nation state boundaries or even languages (think religion)
  • It's embedded in objects & technology. People identify with clothing, lanugage, etc of a culture (geek shirts, ajax language, etc).
  • There are Insider / outsider markings. Org charts, acronyms, etc, of new company. Initially there's frustration at how weird stuff is but people become assimilated eventually.
When you go on vacation you start thinking about the strangeness of the new culture, and think about your culture. Anthropologsts are told to "make the familiar culture strange".

Understand that there are numerous cultures affecting you at all times... how you see the world and design technology is affected by your culture.

There are two types of tech cultures. Mailing lits, usenet, irc, etc (based on medium), and "social" (ed: content) cultures: The Well, etc.

Craigslist, Flickr, MySpace

Craigslist Started as a list of friends, and stayed connected to Craig down deep as it grew. His title is customer service representative. He's deeply invested in understanding what users are doing.

Stewart & Caterina greeted you personally, helped you meet new folks when you logged on the first time. They believe in the community, and are sad when something goes wrong.

MySpace. Tom is your first friend. He posts msgs with an apologetic tone, because he's deeply involved in the site. He tracks everything people are saying and feed it back into design.

Three things they all have in common

  1. Grew organically
  2. Public personalities that show the culture and flavor of the site
  3. Designers and users are passionate about the site and what they're doing

You can feel the quirkiness, and the quirkiness is what makes it feel home.

Customer Service is not segregated, it physically sits with product designers & developers and talks to them. They all understand the importance of talking ot users and moving that into design.

They don't design around unmovable roadmaps. If something's broken, they fix it and adjust the roadmap accordingly.

Flickr, MySpace, and Craigslist all design their systems through "embedded observation" (similar to social scientists):

  • designing while living in the system
  • watch, listen, learn
  • flexible design based on users
  • support and engage culture
  • nudge the culture, don't control it

Embedded Design

HCI is not equipped to predict how users will react. User research is often funnelled into marketing instead of design processes, and is often boiled into personas which are stripped of culture. Customer support reps often serve as glorified therapists, they go through crises as users go through their problems. You can't segment users, and can't test community practices by running scenarios in labs. You have to watch the culture evolve by living in it.

Challenges for working using "embedded design":

  • Designer sanity. Passion means overworking, and most of the ppl who run these sites go a little insane. How do you balance work with life?
  • It's hard to maintain cultural embeddedness. People get tired of living in the culture, and move on.
  • Scaling. Cultural diversity means you eventually have to herd cats as subcultures evolve and do counter-productive things. Also, linguistic diversity happens, like the Brazilian invasion of Orkut, but nobody at Orkut spoke Portugese!

Designing through embeddedness

  • passion is everything
  • protect from burn-out
  • diversify your staff
  • enable and empower, don't control. Community designers get to frame the community, not design it. People who don't have same values as you will do things you never intended.
  • do not overdesign. Design so things can be repurposed, you need to be able to update the software on a regular basis.
  • integrate designers and customer support. Seat cs and product next to each other, socialize them, get ppl having conversations
  • stay engaged with the community
  • document cultural evolution. No design decision documentation makes it hard for these communities to be passed on to new designers.

Create opportunities for accidental interactions. Concept of "familiar strangers"... Stanley Milgram experiment: people would ride the bus every day for years and not talk to each other, but if they ran into each other on the other side of town they'd talk about the bus, but on the other side of the world they'd become best friends. People want to have conversations with people who share an uncommon event; they're not willing to engage with anyone, only want to talk to people with whom they have something in common.

Machine Translation

You can't translate youth language; it loses culture, and the group loses ownership of the language.

Culturally specific phrases from MySpace

  • "Little negro": translated from Portugese, friendly term, name of chocolate eaten by little kids.
  • "hey wass up my nigga watchu been up to": reclaimed by black urban culture, friendly
  • "You got shit nigga, it's the A-Z-N u better recognize": perjorative, used in asian gang communities

Speaking in Dude
"Dude! Dude... Dude. Dude!! etc." It stands in for a lot of meaning in certain cultural groups.

Machine translation destroys meaning because it strips culture from the phrases, and even worse, would take on the cultural norms of the software developers.

Cultural Symbols

Obscenity is cultural ("I know it when i see it"). It means that it is impossible to define hardcore pornography, because it's the definition is subjective. Example:
  • UAE = belly buttons problematic
  • Brazil = nipples ok
  • USA = nipples not ok

Funny thing is that the USA sees these cultures as oppressed. Boyd recalls a Flickr conversation between UAE women who felt sad for women who bought into being objectified and wore skimpy bikinis. It was one of best expressions of feminism Boyd has seen online.

Technologists say that it's possible to use technology to find porn... but how is that done? How is that defined?

Economic norms
Whose definition of morality are you working with? Whose definition of morality do you work with? How do you balance it with what you believe?

Designing for glocalization

Empower users to:
  • personalize and culture-ize. Control access of their expressions. Manage chaos.
  • be cultural spokespeople. Make sure there's direct access to give you feedback. It's a big problem if you stop your communities from doing what they think is appropriate (Friendster!)
  • let users manage private, public, and opportunities for synchronicity


Q: My site has a lot of asian users, but my designers aren't asian. What to do? A: If your community builds up groups that you don't understand or are under-represented on your staff, go find people who can help you understand them...diversify your community organizers, they need to be able to communicate w/ users that you have.

Q: Please talk about people having assumptions about what the communities they are building should be.
A: When that happens it's because people really want community to be one thing, but users really want it to be something else... craig, stewart, caterina, tom, they know what's happening, they're not surprised by what goes on in culture, but are surprised by external reactions to the cultures.

Q: What are some positive and negative incentive systems and unintended consequences of building these systems?
A: It's really easy to figure out who's not popular in a community so people filter it out. She asks girls if they get friend requests from strange men, they answer "oh sure, I just delete them!"

Q: How can you keep reactions to a system from being a game?
A: Let users have a balance within your system (i.e. ppl who put up porn want to find other porn, so create a safe place for them to do it). Why did ppl become fakesters? They did it because they were angry because they thought they were being controlled. Tells a Flickr story about Heather reaching out and talking to a guy who was putting up offensive stuff. She said "do you know why this is wrong", which started a really good conversation because it let the poster know that Heather really did exist and really did care.

Q: How are teens viewing mortality online when ppl are dead?
A: The virtual representation holds on to people and people continue to write to them "dead bob", not "bob died and i'm said". It's a way to maintain these memories, it's a way to memorialize people. It's culturally different, the way it happens in Korea is fundamentally different from how it happens on MySpace. More talking to each other about dead person rather than talking directly to person.

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Hi, I'm Kareem Mayan. I co-founded eduFire, an online video tutoring company.

I've done time at ESPN and FIM.

I advise WorldBlu, helping them build democratic companies.

I moderated a council for Creative Good.

And, I helped bring Barcamp, a technology un-conference, to LA, which is where I live. I am now living and working in cool cities around the world.

More about me.

Opinions stated here are mine alone.

Contact: blog -at- reemer


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