Culture’s impact on social media adoption

Commerce and censorship in in cross-cultural social media.

By Lydia Laurenson
April 29, 2014

Culture has a huge impact on social media adoption and usage. In Measuring Culture, I talked about specific cultural traits and attitudes, and I described how those things are being measured on social media. For this article, I’ll outline broader patterns in cross-cultural social media, specifically regarding commerce and censorship.

Commerce finds a way

Commerce always finds a way. Whether restricted by red tape or blocked by citizens’ mutual distrust, money flows around obstacles. Most examples don’t have much cultural data-crunching associated with them yet, but there are intriguing gestures in that direction. For instance, a recent survey from the European Commission reported that 62% of European Internet users say they use non-native language sites to communicate with friends online, but only 18% would use a non-native language site to buy something.

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A different study, this one from 2010, found a strong link between cultural attitudes and beliefs about e-commerce — but although the study used measurements of traits like collectivism, it gathered a batch of traits into a single score instead of examining them separately (full PDF; Van Slyke et al). So that study didn’t say much about specific cultural traits. Its main conclusion was that cultural differences are, indeed, correlated with different beliefs about e-commerce.

Technological challenges

Digital media platforms can rise and fall based on whether they function in the right context. Sometimes, a social media platform will be used for commerce simply because it’s the most easily available network. Vinnie Lauria, a founding partner at Golden Gate Ventures who invests in many Southeast Asian startups, told me that he’s heard tales of low-income Instagram users who lack personal computers and credit cards. E-commerce websites aren’t great for those people, yet many of them have mobile phones. So some of them upload photos to Instagram and tag them #forsale. At one point in 2013, Instagram itself fielded anger from animal rights activists because sacrificial animals were being sold over the platform in the Middle East.

Bureaucratic challenges

Egyptian journalist Ethar El-Katatney told me that she’s seen many Egyptians use Facebook groups to run small businesses. “40% of the Egyptian economy is underground, so Egypt doesn’t have as many huge brands that need huge marketing,” she noted. It’s also hard to start an official business — “there’s so much bureaucracy in Egypt, so much red tape,” El-Katatney remarked. Thus, there may be more underground markets on Egypt’s Facebook than big brand marketing.

Bernardo Arrospide, a startup CEO whose parents were both diplomats, regaled me with another Facebook tale from his current home in Brazil. Brazil, he said, is generally a low-trust environment. Many Brazilians are wary of the usual e-commerce platforms, because they don’t trust that goods will be mailed or delivered safely. Yet many products are expensive there, because of high import tariffs. And Brazilians famously do plenty of social networking. As a result, Arrospide said that he often sees Brazilians buying and selling international goods with their trusted friends on Facebook.

“People post a Facebook status that they’re going to Miami or something, and they announce that they’re taking orders,” said Arrospide. “Or they just buy 15 iPads in the USA, and then sell them over Facebook back in Brazil.”

Interestingly, the 2010 Van Slyke study did not find a link between cultural attitudes and e-commerce trust. However, I did come upon proceedings from a 2012 conference where researchers speculated about ways that trust might affect e-commerce (abstract; Isherwood et al). They suggested that there may be different dimensions for trust that apply among collectivist, rural Africans as opposed to individualist Westerners. For instance, they proposed that an e-commerce system targeted at collectivists should use information about their social positions in their home communities.

When social deliberately goes commercial

Many ambitious social platforms seek to turn their audiences towards e-commerce on purpose. One beautiful example of a culturally specific campaign comes from China, where red envelopes full of cash are a traditional gift for the Lunar new year. In early 2014, the Chinese messaging platform WeChat created a game that allowed users to send virtual red envelopes full of money. Five million users went for it, so now WeChat has 5 million users with shiny new bank account info attached. WeChat already had limited monetary functions — but in March, it added a very flexible framework for in-app payments to brands and retailers. Stay tuned!


The other big factor in cross-cultural social media usage is different governments’ approach to censorship and propaganda. As noted by the management consulting firm McKinsey (and by several people I spoke to), there’s data showing that widespread censorship can lead people to rely more on personal recommendations that come from friends and family — and from social media influencers.

However, Mashable recently reported that when Weibo (a.k.a. “Chinese Twitter”) filed its IPO, it cited Chinese censorship specifically as a risk factor. Weibo lost lots of users in 2013, which sparked debate about whether the loss could be pinned on censorship or not. The Telegraph (UK) had a huge impact on the discussion by hiring data analysts to plot Weibo usage against the government’s censorship activities. The resultant charts show an extremely clear correlation between censorship enforcement and loss of users, especially once the government started arresting people.

Over the last few years, researchers at Harvard have developed a method for grabbing millions of Chinese social media posts before they could be censored, then analyzing the ones that get taken down. In early 2013, they published an interesting conclusion: Their data indicates that the Chinese government is not concerned about punishing anti-government sentiment in itself, but cares more about the potential for collective action (full PDF, King et al). However, that research was published in May, and the Weibo-related arrests happened after that, so things may have changed.

Future directions for analysis

These are some of the most basic patterns in how the social media landscape changes from culture to culture. I’d love to see future research dig into these patterns using characteristics that I discussed in my first article: For instance, how do communication styles correlate with commercial usage? What about individualism and collectivism? As social media goes increasingly global, these questions will prove important for everyone from journalists to marketers to user researchers and platform developers.

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