Monday, October 29, 2007

Social network sites around the world

In reading Danah Boyd’s piece “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites,” I was struck by her brief exploration (on page 5) of different countries’ popular social networking sites.

“MySpace was a popular destination for high school students throughout the United States… Social network sites like Orkut and Hi5, which were initially popular among adults in Brazil and India, began attracting the attention of younger audiences in those counties… Sites like Tagworld, Bebo, Piczo, Faceparty, and Mixi all launched with youth in mind and took off in places like the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan… In China, an instant messaging service called QQ added social network site features, as did the popular Korean community site Cyworld; both are popular across all age groups in China and South Korea.”

These sites aim partly to connect people who are geographically apart, and consequently they are continually noted for their democratization and globalism, for helping create border-less imagined communities. All things considered, then, it’s surprising that these sites – theoretically nearly unlimited in scope – are in practice quite locally defined.

The obvious explanation is that of language differences – of course monolingual English and Chinese teenagers can’t communicate textually via MySpace – but Boyd recognizes this: “Cyworld has completely separate domains that segregate the Koreans from the Chinese. On Orkut, they share the site but the Indians and Brazilians barely interact with one another.” These divisions along language lines are understandable, or at least explainable.

But why don’t English-speaking teenagers from America, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, and other countries take advantage of their common language and the Internet’s globality to connect on social network sites? Even in comparing Cyworld with more familiar sites like MySpace and Facebook, we’ve seen that different countries’ sites offer different services and emphasize different network elements. Is this simply a result of a given site catching on locally and spreading via offline friendship networks that are necessarily more geographically limited? Or could it be that these sites are tailored to teenage desires and interests that vary by nation? In other words, does a nation’s predominant social network site accurately reflect its users’ values, illuminating basic differences of identity formation from nation to nation?

(Boyd writes that “Orkut began as a side project by a Google employee,” and I’d be curious to know whether that employee was American, Indian, Brazilian, or of a different nationality.)

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