In 2010, Hanna Krasnova (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Natasha Veltri (University of Tampa) published a very interesting paper, comparing online privacy concern between US and German users of Facebook (link). They found that users in their US sample showed more privacy concern on Facebook than users in their German sample. In part, the authors put this difference down to German and US differences on Hofstede’s individualism vs. collectivism dimension (US = individualism, Germany = collectivism). That is, they hypothesized that

Considering that beliefs about an individual’s right to keep his or her privacy constitute an important part of social norms in countries with high IDV values (e.g.US), people in these countries are also expected to have higher privacy concerns (p. 3).

When I read this, I was surprised. Sure, the logic works on paper. But not if you’ve interacted with Japanese people online for any length of time. Online (and offline), the Japanese are the most privacy conscious peoples I have lived with. From handle-names to photos of pets as profile pics, I challenge anyone to provide me with another nation so seemingly obsessed with personal privacy online. (If you know of another country which fits this bill, please do get in touch!)

Since many say Japan is a ‘collectivistic’ country, if the logic above was to be true, then we would expect exactly the opposite of what the authors found. Interestingly, in a similar study by Krasnova and her colleagues, they indeed found that the tendency was opposite to what they originally predicted (and demonstrated) in the first paper; Moroccan Facebook users (collectivistic) were much more concerned about their privacy, and expected more damage from privacy breaches than did US Facebook users (individualistic).Of course, Krasnova and her colleagues take into consideration other dimensions of culture such as Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance and Masculinity, which also, theoretically, have some logical effect.

The problem, is that the theoretical pinning of concepts to observed behavior can end up being just that; theoretical. Think of it this way: Is there a way of empirically linking individualism (or collectivism) to privacy concern, and how much of the variance in such a relationship does individualism vs. collectivism explain? When seen in this light, it becomes apparent that unless there is data measuring any given sample’s degree of individualism or collectivism, it is impossible to establish any empirical link.

A concept which I think may explain differing levels of privacy concern between populations – a concept which is also readily deploy-able in surveys as a scale – is relational mobility, which refers to the extent to which there are opportunities to form or sever interpersonal relationships in any given society or social environment (see Yuki et al., 2007). Relational mobility, among other things, dictates that in an environment high in relational mobility (such as US society on a national level) individuals employ proactive strategies to maintain relationships. One of those strongest strategies is self-disclosure, employed as a social commitment device; tell an interaction partner something juicy (deep thoughts or secrets) about oneself, and they’re more likely to like you (Schug, 2010). There is a risk to this, however. Opening up and sharing your true thoughts in any context opens you up to being not liked by some people. Birds of a feather flock together, they say, and if your plumage doesn’t appeal, you’re out. This is a bigger deal when relational mobility is low (such as Japan, on a national level); if you’re rejected, you’ve got much fewer options to make new friends. So, better to just keep the status quo, adjusting your plumage to the flock you’re currently a part of.

And this is where privacy online comes in. It would be much more in a Japanese Facebook user’s favor to keep private on Facebook than, say, US users. Why? Because accidental disclosures to the wrong people are much more costly, relationally. On the other hand, in high relational mobility environments, Facebook users risk less cost to relational damage (because hey, there’re plenty more birds out there willing to flock together), so privacy is not such a large concern. One way to mitigate accidental disclosures is to 1) only add a very select bunch of people to your Facebook network, 2) employ the lowest common denominator approach (Hogan, 2010), or 3) make extensive use of privacy controls (which actually, may only give a false sense of privacy, since you don’t have any control over what friends might do with the information you provide them).

Strategy 1 is common on mixi, the most popular social-graph based Japanese SNS. Mixi users typically only add a very select few contacts to their my-miku (list of contacts). Even then, however, strategy 2 seems to be widely employed; the lowest common denominator approach is simply limiting one’s disclosures online to the most inoffensive banal content, bound to be all but inert to all users in one’s network. And this behavior has often been observed in mixi users’ behavior (Takahashi, 2010). What about on Facebook? I don’t know. That’s one of my research questions. (What ever is happening, however, there surely will be changes – Thomson & Ito, in press).

But back to relational mobility, and the reason I brought up Krasnova and Veltri’s studies at all. Laying to one side the interesting results from the US-Morocco study, I would postulate that actually, the differences Krasnova and Veltri found between Germany and the US are due to differences in relational mobility. Their paper does not specifically say so, but the sample from Germany was probably taken from university students in Berlin (Krasnova is a junior faculty member there). The US sample, from university students in Tampa (Veltri is an Assistant Professor there). Students from all over Germany would conceivably converge upon Berlin to study. This would create a very high relational mobility environment, regardless of what the national-level relational mobility levels are like in Germany (no data exists at a national level yet). Tampa, on the other hand, comparatively speaking, is not a place to which students from all over the US would scramble to be. University student networks in Tampa, therefore, would, conceivably, be rather low relational mobility. And this would quite neatly explain why so-called ‘individualistic’ ‘US’ Facebook users scored higher on privacy concern than ‘collectivistic’ ‘German’ Facebook users.

If we were to extend this hypothesis to the US-Morocco study by Veltri, Krasnova and El Garah (and assume that US samples were from Tampa University, and Morocco samples from Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane – the town from which their Moroccan research counterpart is from), we might say that again, results have been impacted by differences in relational mobility. Ifrane in Morocco has a population of 13,000 (looks like a lovely place – Tampa has a population of 335,000 people (also a lovely place). Berlin is a massive metropolis of 3.5 million people. That is to say, studies in Japan have shown differences in urban vs. rural levels of relational mobility, so could this be why Berlin (national capital metropolis) vs. Tampa (large city), Tampa (large city) vs. Ifrane (town) differences in privacy concern exist?

Like my own study on Japanese users’ self-disclosure, network size, and levels of commitment on Mixi and Facebook, cross-cultural studies to date (including Krasnova, Veltri and El Garah’s) have not empirically linked cultural or socio-ecological constructs to observed behavior. Unless mediation and/or moderation model-based investigations are carried out, we’re all just making nicely informed guesses as to the cultural mechanisms behind privacy behaviors and concerns online.

That, by the way, is my research focus for this year. Seeing if relational mobility can be empirically linked to users’ privacy concerns on Facebook. We’ll see how things pan out 🙂 At the very least, it would be good to ascertain whether size of the city from which a sample comes from (whether it is high or low relational mobility) affects the degree to which we can generalize results to the wider national population of a country.

EDIT (28th March): Veltri tells me (by email) that in fact, approximately 50% of students at the University of Tampa are from out of state. Fair weather, beaches, palm trees. She’s right. Tampa is a place many want to be. Something I also left out of the picture is that Al Akhawayn University, as Veltri points out, is indeed situated in Ifrane, a small town in the middle of nowhere, but students attend the university from all over Morocco. This must have some upward effect on relational mobility within the university environment. At this point, however, I am wondering whether density of clusters of nodes (people) within a social environment affect the degree of relational mobility. That is, if you’re part of an institution where everyone more or less knows everyone else (or, at least, will highly likely bump into most other people at some point while walking around), this would make changing interaction partners more difficult than if one could leave one’s current interaction partner(s) and essentially disappear into the crowd, rarely to be seen again. Think of Burgoon’s (1982) concept of social privacy (as described by Trepte and Reinecke, 2011); the “ability to  withdraw from social intercourse.” Al Akhawayn University has around 1,700 students, University of Tampa 6,500, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin almost 28,000 students. Withdrawal from social interaction at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin is going to be much easier and less awkward than at Al Akhawayn University.

If we were to wax lyrical:

If you’re a green-feathered bird who has, until now, been dying your feathers red to fit in with the red birds, but decide you want to flock with the green-feathered birds instead, you’re going to be less likely to be seen by the old red-bird flock in your green feathers if you’re in a lake covered with tens of thousands of birds of all manner of plumage. Not so if you’re splashing about in a mountain tarn where there’s green birds, blue birds, and red birds, but no one else. When birds of a feather can see clearly who’s flocking together, that’s got to make it hard to switch broods.

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September 4th, 2015

4th Sept 2015 – Presentation at the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand

September 1st, 2015

September 2015 – Visiting Scholar at the Center for Applied Cross Cultural Research at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

May 25th, 2015

1st July 2015 – New article about relational mobility and Internet privacy concern

March 25th, 2015

2015/03/25 – Accepted to the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Program

March 25th, 2015

2015/03/24 – Short piece in the Japan Society of Social Psychology Newsletter

March 7th, 2015

2015/03/06 – Presentation at Victoria University of Wellington School of Psychology’s Colloquium Talk Series

February 14th, 2015

2015/02/14 – WebLab Meeting Presentation (Tokyo Keizai University)

March 18th, 2014

In-mind Post of the Month

February 15th, 2014

In-Mind Post

February 5th, 2014

A summary of Yamagishi’s pen choice study