Reimagining the Internet as a mosaic of regional cultures

Angela Xiao Wu, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Harsh Taneja, University of Missouri-Columbia

Most online maps of the Internet are architectural plans, engineering blueprints, anatomical drawings or statistical graphics. For example, the Internet has been represented as millions of devices connected to each other by 300 “[c]ables lying on the seafloor” with its center in a huge hotel in Manhattan.

The Internet can also be viewed as a network of hyperlinks between world languages used to produce online content or represented through Wikipedia as a map of human knowledge.

Yet we learn from historians of cartography that maps reflect the preexisting interests, desires and preconceptions of the society from which they emerge. The same goes with how the vast virtual territory is mapped.

Consistent with the rhetoric emphasizing technical connectivity led by US-based transnational corporations, the prevalent maps of the Internet privilege technical features – such as hyperlinks, content of Web pages, Internet infrastructures and service providers. In these maps, the Web tends to center on the West with the rest of the world at its “peripheries.” These, together with other representations of the global digital divide, highlight the dominance of the West.

Such views limit the public’s ability to envision the Internet as a globally inhabited cyberspace.

We mapped usage of the Internet, as distinct from its technical features. Viewed this way, the Internet is much less West-centric, and rapidly diversifying as the world’s populations engage with it in their own ways.

Mapping global Internet usage

Actual traffic patterns on the Internet differ from its technical architecture. Reimagining the Internet according to global usage, our research reveals a fairly decentralized Web with significant participation from the global South. Our mapping makes visible, on an unprecedented scale, aspects of Internet use that remain “largely invisible” when “viewed from the perspective of network centers.”

We analyzed traffic to the world’s most popular 1,000 websites – which consistently account for 99 percent of global Web traffic – during the month of September in 2009, 2011 and 2013, respectively. These data come from comScore, a world leader in Web audience measurement.

For each of the possible pairs of those 1,000 websites – more than half a million pairs in total – we looked at the traffic shared by its two constituent websites. For example, for the pair comprising The New York Times and Google USA, we looked at how many people visited both sites.

We viewed website pairs as connected if they had traffic overlaps greater than would be expected by random chance, as with the Times-Google pair above, or the pair comprising the Times of India and Google India. Examined in this way, pairs of websites serving users from different cultural backgrounds – such as the Times of India and Yahoo Japan – tend not to be connected.

The Internet as Global Usage: 2009 (left), 2011, 2013 (right).
The dots are websites and the lines represent the existence of significant traffic overlap between them. These show that global Web usage clusters itself into many communities of websites based on shared traffic. What the member websites of these clusters have in common with each other allows us to identify them as expressions of online regional cultures (see legend).

Analyzing online regional cultures

Mapping sites based on how much traffic they share with each other revealed interconnected clusters or communities of shared Web use. These corresponded well with major geo-linguistic regions, and we called them “online regional cultures.“ In addition, there are a few online cultures that span geographic regions; they tend to include either user-generated or adult content.

To conduct our analysis, we borrow the anthropological concept of ethnology, a scholarly tradition that characterizes relationships between cultures based on common traits in beliefs, emotions or practices. To examine these regional cultures comparatively and historically, we calculated how distinctly a regional cultural community stands out on the Web, and the strength of its online activities.

In general, we find that geographical regions where people speak languages not widely spoken elsewhere (such as Japan and Korea) are the most distinct online cultures; regions with geographically dispersed languages (such as Spanish or Russian) or those of multilingual geographies (such as India) less so.

Our study suggests that the Web, when mapped based on its usage, does not have its core in the West, but is a mosaic of online regional cultures that associate with physical places.

In such maps, the Internet is becoming more decentralized, or to be more precise, de-Westernizing, as more users from disparate cultures are taking over its topography by bringing in their own cultural identities. Between 2009 and 2013 the Web witnessed a gradual process of “de-Americanization”; the cluster corresponding to the U.S. has separated from the “global” websites such as Twitter and Instagram – primarily user-generated websites, which are neither centered in North America nor on the English language.

In this process, the American sites have taken their own “corner” of the Web, just like other online regional cultures. Simultaneously, non-Western online cultures have strengthened, especially those linked to Brazil, Russia, China and India. Unsurprisingly, in these places, local Internet industries are thriving and domestic content is flourishing.

Compared to the prevalent technological Internet maps, our user-centric maps from 2009 to 2013 challenge, rather than reinforce, the existing concept of an Internet anchored by Western knowledge, norms and activities. They encourage the (Anglophone, especially) general public to confront the narrow online world with which it is familiar. Further, the trend captured by our maps may encourage Westerners to refresh their own preconceptions by exploring the vastly heterogeneous cyberspace.

These user-centric maps also inform policymakers about how better to empower the global South. Technical connectivity alone is not enough. For online regional cultures around the globe to strengthen, users must be able to build and shape the content they find appealing. For this to happen, local governments need to introduce civic, economic and social opportunities with new technologies. Left to a market dominated by West-based transnational corporations, the global South may not achieve healthy domestic Internet landscapes and online cultures.

The Conversation

Angela Xiao Wu, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Harsh Taneja, Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Here’s how not to capture India in a day

Ridley Scott is asking Indians to capture What they did on October 10 to create a reel of “India in a Day”. Scroll talks about it here . The article shows two Youtube videos. The first one is a concept explication. The second one (scroll down a bit) is “what exactly do they want!”.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/ed0HwXuRfGk“>

Will he able to?

I say this project will yield a very skewed slice of the country . The “urban, left liberal, yuppie anglophone” India. I say this because: See the videos explaining the concept and the example video where the implementing director (some American Desi) is asking people in his very American accent on what he wants them to do.

Watch here:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/EhXqMrqw0BU“>

I am all for people satisfying their creative pursuits. However, I would have appreciated some localization of this effort. Some attempt to make the request a better cultural fit with a wider cross-section of India.

The current video wont appeal to large masses of Indians with bilingual English proficiency. Because they train in English, not in “American”, and at least an American Desi should understand that, if not Ridley Scott.

Let’s wait to see what this turns out into.

Responding to Arvind Kejriwal: News Broadcasters Contradict Themselves

Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party has a knack for hitting the headlines. Usually it is because media love to provide airtime and space to someone who can call others names and Arvind dosen’t mince his words, except when his cough takes over. And true to his style, his recent tirade was against the media themselves .This put the media in a fix.

Although a small “evolved” section of the media , saw nothing extraordinary or alarming in the allegations, the “rank and file” of the media took exception and has decided to react more strongly. In a statement, The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) has issued a warning to the Aam Aadmi Party to exercise restraint.  Here’s an excerpt from an article reporting on this:

NBA reminded Kejriwal and his associates that the electronic media is independent and discharging its responsibilities in a fair, transparent and balanced manner and asked the AAP not to hurl “unsubstantiated and unverified charges” on the electronic media

Curiously the statement goes on to say,

NBA requests the convenor of AAP to “immediately refrain” from making such preposterous allegations failing which NBA members would be forced to reconsider coverage of the activities of  the AAP (underline added).

The suggestion here implies that the decision to cover activities of a political party is based on the party’s favorable view of the news media in the first place. Doesn’t the media contradict itself, it’ s own core principles here? The News Broadcaster Association in other words has justified its own criticism.

Paradise Lost and Regained: The Common Man Only Lost

In a recent incident of Saturday, May 4, 2013, a woman street hawker outside the restaurant was beaten by a ‘bouncer’ employed at the  popular Paradise Biryani. A few customers got outraged and one brave woman, wrote a blog that went viral. Meanwhile, some called the city police. Hyderabad newspapers couldn’t ignore a story that had already caught the fancy of their English speaking reader base, so they reported the incident. The  ‘bouncer’ is being reported arrested. Many may think that’s a happy ending. I beg to differ.

First, consider the two eventual victims in the story. The flower hawker woman. Poor and Female. Thrashed. Scared away from her only livelihood? Need I say more. The ‘bouncer’ Prakash Yadav. Male, Lower middle class.Probably lives away from his family and works as a security man to make ends meet for many. Most likely will loose his job.

Now, consider who is really responsible. One, the Paradise management and two, many of its customers. Why did the bouncer behave in the way he did? Probably because it is the diktat of the restaurant management to keep the area around “clean”. Clean of irritants who the well heeled customers of Paradise potentially would find a nuisance. Such instructions to ward off such “troublemakers” (as this woman). are unarguably motivated by the need to provide a delightful customer experience.  An incident such as this dents their image for sure. But perhaps the news of the bouncer’s arrest, that too reported in newspapers within hours of the incident, is perhaps the best PR redemption exercise.

Of course the bouncer should be punished for inappropriate behavior. But what about the manager who instructed the bouncer to behave in this way? What about the owner who asked the manager to tell the bouncer to behave this way? What about the customers who probably scoff at the  sight of beggars and street hawkers outside the restaurant?

Another bunch of “people like them”  have been further sidelined. As for “people like us”, the blogger, the newspapers and Paradise Restaurant management and the customers, we have all reaped our share of gains.

In sum, the blog and the  resulting action is job well begun, but only half done!

I request share this one widely, so that people also appreciate the harder implications of such stories

Fake social media profiles: My own experience with Facebook

Just read this blog in the economist, stating how many social media fans/ followers etc are actually fake machine generated accounts. The Blog mentions that Mitt Romney gained 17% followers in a day and interestingly, a friend tweeted about Mitt Romney losing 11 followers per minute.


Arguably this machine generation of fake profiles, is of some benefit to the organization ( say Romney), but I bet also helps build up the numbers of social media service.
A few weeks ago Facebook prompted me to friend one Harsh Taneja. It was indeed a fake profile of myself. The picture and the “about me” description among other details were scraped from this blog. Interestingly this clone of mine and I also had 7 or 8 mutual friends already. Curious I decided to send a friend request to myself and magically it was accepted in some hours. I reported the profile and I think in a day it was taken down ( as I am unable to find it on searching).

Made me think, it is indeed to easy to create fairly real looking machine generated profiles, given the amount of self descriptions we leave on the web, that can be viewed publicly or semi-privately. And it is quite easy for these profiles to circulate unchecked, as people can entirely miss seeing them, forget to report. In some other cases, they may be of people not on the service altogether ( say people who use blogger but not twitter, and their About Me pages on blogger provide fodder to generate these fake twitter profiles.) Scary!

Finally, I decided to use this service to check my own twitter followers and found that 5% of the followers were fake and another 13% inactive. Perhaps explains why tweeting some random but generic word such as Forex, or Television instantly adds a few followers.

Do event outcomes affect how we rate their coverage? CNN IBN and US Elections 2012

Media feeds on elections. Counting and results declaration is when news becomes a “mass audience” genre, and the US Election results night more globally so is such a mass audience event. As I write, Obama has just been declared victorious. Apart from watching the coverage on BBC, I have been following the conversation in India on the topic on Twitter.

Rajdeep Sardesai, (Editor of CNN IBN , an important national cable news network in India) just tweeted that he was thankful to people for liking their coverage , on the basis of unsolicited instant feedback he received on twitter. Sounds very good!

BUT I couldn’t help ‘speculating’ if this enthusiastic support of the coverage had something to do with the outcome ( Obama’s Victory). Let me explain. Although a small fraction of Indians are really interested in US Elections,  many of them talk about it on twitter and also watch English language news. On average, they support Obama (they are young, globally mobile, have US connections mostly in North East and West Coast). So perhaps a Romney victory would not make them jump with joy. Then they (Obama supporters) may have liked the coverage a little less. Or at least not expressed unsolicited admiration.

I am not taking any credit away from Rajdeep or IBN. I am merely fishing for people’s thoughts on a hypothesis:An outcome of an event favorable to us makes us think more favorably of news media’s coverage of that event. So by corollary – On average, Americans who watched the 2012 elections night unfold on CNN (more liberal)  may rate CNN’s coverage more favorably than FOX News’ viewers (more conservative) would rate its coverage . Thoughts, comments?

Facebook ads impact is just more ‘measurable’ than TV ads, not necessarily ‘effective’

They have been talking for a while about the death of the 30 second commercial. And social media were not the first technologies that inspired such claims.Yet, the size of Facebook with its tightly connected ‘anatomy’ has made these claims more vociferous. (The average degree of separation between any two people on Facebook is just 3.8, means that just in four steps a message can actually travel from anyone to anyone else, on average).

A recent post exemplifying this refrain, claims that Facebook promotion ( paid ads + all other kinds of messages) deliver 70 times more impressions ( eyeballs that see the ad) for the same cost than an ad on prime time television in the UK ( on coronation street) and 180 times more impressions than the same campaigns in the US . They argue that a well run Facebook campaign can generate 4 to 5 billion impressions versus the TV campaign that reaches a 100 million for the same duration. The claim is problematic due to the way impressions are counted for the two media.

The Facebook number is reached by counting the people touched directly (who friend or like the brand pages), their friends (who see it in their feeds, comments or messages) and friends of friends of those directly touched. In other words upto 3 levels removed from the campaign. For TV they simply count the number of eyeballs that saw the commercial ( the way marketers have computed ad effectiveness for TV ads for decades). There seems an implied an assumption that prime time television advertising only reaches those who see it directly. However just as Facebook page activity, television advertising too inspires conversations and recommendations through word of mouth that can make it reach a significant multiple of that 100 million, especially over the course of the year. In fact, the worth of one such conversation or recommendation (including on Facebook) ‘may’ be worth a few hundred Facebook impressions, a miniscule number of which may actually count themselves. However, obtaining any similar accurate measurement for the extended impact of TV advertising is next to impossible. However, his does not mean that there is no extended impact.

On first degree impressions, TV campaigns clearly achieve much more than the biggest Facebook pages( even Coca-Cola has just 53 million likes). Next, it may be worth pondering why these extended 4 to 5 billion impressions may not really count for a lot. Consider that for each person who likes a brand page, that activity appears on some laundry list of notifications of 16% of their 190 friends (Currently 16% of FB users are able to see such posts, and the average number of friends on FB is 190). A miniscule number of these impressions are likely to be welcomed or even consumed. Those receiving them may be just users who haven’t optimized their news feeds enough to avoid such notifications. Finally the post claims that Facebook itself did not have any data on the third level of sharing (to friends of friends of directly touched). This will be presumably much lower than the 16% on level 1. Think of chance that a friend of your friend is interested in the activity by their friend ( who is not a mutual friend) with a campaign or brand page. Since these data were not available, they used some triangulation to estimate some multipliers, and do not mention either the multipliers (no of people reached further by each person) or the attenuation (what % of people’s friends will receive such a message).

Of course other points worth considering are 1) why people like brand pages on Facebook (to get discounts!) and 2) how did they learn about these brands (surely not exclusively through FB campaigns or noticing friends who liked FB campaigns, but perhaps through prime time advertising and conversations with friends and family). These concerns make the value of these impressions questionable, even if their sheer volume is estimated properly. Of course the same can be argued for TV advertising that people do not want to see, but end up watching.

In sum, the key point here is that just because Facebook due to the traces users leave, allows one to measure how a campaign circulates beyond the first degree impressions and TV does not, one cannot conclude that Facebook campaigns are that much more cost effective than prime time TV.