Culture and Social Media

In 1952, anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn gathered more than 164 definitions of culture.1
In the following table, which shows only six of them, most emphasize the aspect of a shared mindset. No matter how it is defined and conceptualized, culture exists, and it changes how people think and act based on which society they live in.

“The ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular people or society.”2
“The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”3
“The learned and shared behavior of a community of interacting human beings.” 4
“The shared knowledge and schemes created by a set of people for perceiving, interpreting, expressing, and responding to the social realities around them.” 5
“A way of thinking, feeling, believing. It is the knowledge stored up (in memories of men, in books and objects) for future use—patterns for doing certain things in certain ways, not the doing of them.” 6
“Culture is the collective programming of the human mind that distinguishes the members of one human group from those of another. Culture in this sense is a system of collectively held values.”7
Table 11.1 Definitions of Culture

Culture & Values

In order to understand how culture impacts communication, we first have to understand its relationship with common values, since, according to the iceberg theory of culture,8 beliefs and values drive how people talk to each other.

Values are defined as “conceptions of the desirable that influence the way people select action and evaluate events9 and several different values such as freedom of speech, parent-child relationships, loyalty to authority, perseverance, respect for the elderly, etc., can be reduced to two basic dimensions: rationalist versus traditionalist values and survival versus selfexpressive values.10

A large-scale study conducted in more than thirty countries showed that most nations in the southern hemisphere, particularly in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and South Asia, tend to have strong religious values and are traditionalist.10 Countries in the northern hemisphere and ex-Communist bloc countries usually have a loose view of religion and overall choose rationalism over traditional values.

The split between self-expressive and survival values is seemingly related with a country’s development level, except in Latin America. Industrialized nations place heavier value on freedom of speech, environmental protection, and social equality, while underdeveloped and developing nations give priority to job security and one’s own safety.10 

Culture & Cognition 

Richard Nisbett11 of the University of Michigan conducted several experiments during the early 2000s and provided a comprehensive view of why people from the East and West think differently.

He noticed that Easterners (people from East Asia) and Westerners (people from Europe and North America) have systematic differences in terms of perceptional focus on:

  • saliency versus context,
  • taxonomic categorization versus relational categorization,
  • future stability versus future change,
  • emphasis on logic versus emphasis on intuition,
  • ultimate correctness versus need for the middle way, etc.12

For instance, when subjects from both cultures were asked to remember a picture of a pond to which they had been previously exposed, most Western subjects remembered salient objects such as a big carp and a frog, while Eastern subjects remembered the background as well.

In another experiment that asked respondents to put a cow, grass, and a chicken into two groups, most Eastern subjects chose to group cow and grass together—as cows eat grass—but Western subjects thought cow and chicken should be grouped together as they both are animals 11

Most of Nisbett’s findings11 were based on the premise that Westerners have an independent selfconstrual compared with Easterners’ interdependent selfconstrual. A number of recent studies have tested this argument.

Two researchers13 asked U.S. and Chinese subjects to list their most unforgettable memories. While the majority of U.S. respondents talked about individual achievements and individual emotions they had experienced, Chinese ones mostly cited social events.

Similarly, in a perspective-taking experiment14 where participants are supposed to understand what their partner is looking at without seeing their partner, Chinese students could easily take the view of their partners, while most of the American students failed the task.

A brain-scan study15 further explored the differences between Americans and Asians by asking subjects to think about personal traits and the traits of their mothers. As one may contemplate, the activity in the brain associated with self-perception was increased for American subjects only when thinking about the self. However, for Chinese participants, this area was activated both when thinking about the self and mother, a finding that provides neurological support for culturally driven cognitive differences. 

Richard Nisbett provided some philosophical, socio-psychological, and sociological explanations of East-West differences.11 The principles of linear versus circular logic and refusal of contradiction versus acceptance of contradiction in Western culture, according to Nisbett, changed how these societies started to think differently.

Furthermore, Taoism and Confucianism, which promote interconnectedness and constant change in nature, influenced categorization of the things in our environment and perception of an absolute truth. The Asian belief that nature constantly changes makes it difficult to accept that things and artifacts can have an ultimate shape, as their current state is considered temporary. In the same line, because of the yin and yang philosophy (every truth has an error and every error has a truth in it), Easterners believe that the relationship of the object with its environment is more important than what it is made of.

We tested these assumptions16 in a survey where we asked American and Japanese subjects to write down any single word that occurred to them when looking at pictures of different animals. We then grouped the words’ subjects used according to the WordNet categorization system. As we hypothesized, Eastern subjects listed words that relate to group and relationship, compared to Western subjects whose words had more references to substance and shape. These findings supported Nisbett’s propositions that North Americans are less field-dependent and pay less attention to relationships between objects and environment. 

Culture & Its Dimensions 

Since culture is a very complicated concept that can relate to everything from music to food and art to education, some scholars created a typology to compare cultures to each other. Among these, the two notable authors whose cultural dimensions are well known are Hofstede17 and Hall.18

Both of the authors classified cultures into the groups originally introduced by Kluckhohn based on:

  • human relations,
  • relations between people and nature,
  • perception of time, and
  • perception of self.6

Of course, each culture is unique and these classifications have their own criticisms,19,20 but they constitute a theoretical base for why we should or should not expect difference between any given two countries when it comes to social media usage.

These cultural models cannot explain the individual or sub-group differences that exist in every country, but give good insights on why two nations may differ as a whole.19 In other words, cultural dimensions are useful to measure subconsciously driven and traditionbased behavior, but not useful to test consciously driven behavior that show individual or subgroup variation.21

Some other criticisms for using cultural dimensions to compare countries exist since some countries include minorities and subgroups that have different values,18 GDP or income inequality that may play a larger role,22 gender differences that may exceed the effects of culture,23 the fact that people may change their values after individual experiences24 (e.g., learning a new language), universal human nature and universal values that may be stronger than cultural values,25 and the prevalence of globally connected communication mediums that may have reduced cross-cultural differences.25 

Hall’s High- & Low-Context Typology 

Hall18 argued that cultures can be rated on a continuum called the high and low-context continuum based on the role immediate environment and social roles play in daily conversations and business interactions.

In cultures where context is not so important, people usually prefer expressive, direct, formal, and written statements. On the other hand, in high-context cultures, there is a tendency to value indirect, informal, symbolic, and visually expressive statements.

Hall suggested that Japanese, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans have a high-context culture, whereas Northern Europeans and English-speaking countries have a low-context culture. As he and his coauthor explain: 

Japanese, Arabs, and Mediterranean people, who have extensive information networks among family, friends, colleagues, and clients and who are involved in close personal relationships, are high-context.

As a result, for most normal transactions in daily life they do not require, nor do they expect, much in-depth, background information. Low-context people include Americans, Germans, Swiss, Scandinavians, and other northern Europeans; they compartmentalize their personal relationships, their work, and many aspects of day-to-day life. Consequently, each time they interact with others they need detailed background information. 

Hall, E. T., & Hall, M. R. (1990). Understanding cultural differences. (p. 6)

As can be inferred from Hall’s explanation, there is a relationship between collectivistic group values and high-context communication because context mostly refers to shared background, information, and beliefs.

In high-context cultures information exchange usually takes place between people who are in the same group and who know about each other’s background, hence there is no need for direct and detailed statements. Hall also states that even in low-context cultures, people who have much in common, such as couples, family members, or those who live in small villages, usually use a high-context communication style. 

In high-context communication, most information is not verbalized but communicated by nonverbal cues (silence, facial expressions, body language, etc.).18 Therefore, the listener can be as active as the speaker and is expected to pick up information by reading between the lines. The listener must guess the meaning of the speaker according to the context of the conversation, the social role of the speaker, and social norms.

In low-context communication, most of the job is done by the speaker and he or she has to be as direct and detailed as possible to make sure the listener can clearly understand everything. As a result, people from high-context cultures rely more on verbal cues and feel uncomfortable when there is silence or when people “beat around the bush.”18 

Hall also states that people in high-context societies prefer “indirect” messages that are implicit, ambiguous, understated, and vague compared to low-context societies where directness, clarity, preciseness, or “telling it as it is” are cultural norms.18

An indirect communication style that includes the use of hints, insinuations, and metaphors exists in all cultures, but is particularly common in countries influenced by Confucianism and the notion of face (public image).26

In these societies, it is believed that one loses face when publicly rejected or refused or has said something that can make him or her feel embarrassed.26 That is why people put special emphasis on being extrapolite and not using direct statements in order to avoid causing someone to “lose face.”

Hall18 indicated that people from high-context cultures, which promote group values, collectivism, and harmony rather than personal achievements, tend to put more emphasis on contextual cues and send out implicit messages because sending direct and explicit messages may disturb and damage group harmony. It is not surprising that Japanese people have sixteen different ways27 of saying no without ever directly saying no. 

Written forms of indirect or high-context communication also tend to be emotional and nonlinear.21,28 Since message processing in high-context communication is based on intuitions, facts and direct logic are not valued as much as emotional expressions.21 Simply put, low-context cultures tend to be:

  • linear (a causes b and b causes c),
  • use inductive logic (if it is c we must accept x) and
  • prefer directly getting to the point.

On the other hand, an essay written by someone from a high-context culture may talk about many things before eventually making just a broad statement about the main topic in the conclusions section. In the same vein, printed forms of communication materials or websites from high-context cultures tend to employ more images and illustrations because pictures are better for symbolism and metaphor use compared to the formal nature of text.21 

Supporting these propositions, studies found that Japanese advertisements had less information and more indirect, emotional, and symbolic references compared to those in the United States.29,30 Similarly, it was found that Chinese consumers preferred more transformational ads that emphasize how products enrich people’s lives versus informational ads that are mostly about product descriptions and explanations of product features.

In the same vein, manuals in low-context cultures tend to be loaded with information and direct explanations of how to use the product, while manuals from high-context societies have more images, logos, and company history.32

A content analysis also showed that American websites used more persuasive sales messages and explicit product information compared to Japanese sites.33 Overall, companies tend to be indirect and employ implicit “softselling” messages because consumers in high-context places are uncomfortable with hard-sell strategies that provide a lot of factual information that emphasize the product’s superiority.21 

High/Low Context Communication & Information Communication Technologies 

It is clear that the contextual aspect of communication impacts how new technologies are adopted and used worldwide. For instance, a research team from Samsung concluded that people from high-context cultures would prefer text messaging versus voicemail on mobile phones because it would go against the culture to talk to a machine without someone listening.34

In the same vein, people in low-context countries are more likely to use print media and the Internet and also read more books and choose informational content over entertaining content.21 A study that analyzed posts on online forums found that Indian users, who are members of a high-context culture, posted more emoticons and less private information than those from Germany.35

Regarding emoticons, it is argued that Japanese people prefer kaomoji (example: *-*) over emoticons (example: 🙂 ) because kaomoji emphasize the face and may be considered more expressive than the horizontal type of emoticons.36 

Several studies investigated online communication in the East and West and the results are interesting. A study that compared U.S. and Korean Internet users found that Americans paid more attention to verbal versus pictorial information and used online communities less compared to Koreans.

It also found that websites in high-context cultures use more human elements (personifications), employ more visual elements, and emphasize high-context values, such as close family bonding, than those in low-context cultures.28

When it comes to direct versus indirect written communication, it was observed that websites in Japan utilize symbolic communication more frequently than those in the United States. People from low-context cultures also seem more comfortable with stating their opinions and feelings directly in the online world; a study showed that emails and instant messages of people from low-context cultures included more sentiments and opinions compared to people from high context cultures.39 

High/Low Context Communication & Social Media 

Recently we observed that Japanese students ask fewer questions on Twitter and tweet less frequently about news compared to American students.40 We hypothesize this is mostly because asking questions publicly may be perceived as a threat to harmony in Japan.

Additionally, as Hall18 indicated, people in high-context cultures pay less attention to informational content and prefer to get their news from their friends and family networks rather than media sources. Similarly, we also confirmed that Japanese companies ask fewer questions both on Twitter and Facebook and post fewer tweets.41

A similar study found that Americans used social media more frequently than Singaporeans, who, on the other hand, shared more visual posts instead of textual posts compared to their U.S. counterparts.23 Another recent study that looked at emoticons used on Twitter found that Japanese and Korean tweets include vertical smile emoticons that emphasize eyes versus those horizontal smiles in the Western world.42

Since both Japan and Korea have high-context cultures, apparently people from these cultures put more emphasis on clearly displaying their emotions even in a limited space. The study also mentioned that Asians usually display their smiles with their eyes while Westerners look for a big open mouth in a smile. 

There are also some other examples of how context-based communication impacts social media use. Recently, it was found43 that French Canadians, who may be considered more high-context communicators than English Speaking Canadians, use social media less than their English-speaking neighbors, as one may expect that people from high context prefer face-to-face over computer-mediated communication. However, two recent studies found contradictory evidence for the contextual communication hypothesis.

First, a study that investigated Q&A sites44 concluded that Asians, particularly the Chinese, use online social networks to ask questions to their social network members more often than American and European users, who preferred face-to-face communication.

Second, it was observed that American college students put more emphasis on entertainment than did Korean students,45 even though people from low-context cultures usually prefer information over entertainment. It is possible that the need for social approval and support in Asia mediates the effects of context-based communication. 

Hofstede’s Theory of Cultural Dimensions 

Geert Hofstede,17 a Dutch researcher specialized in organizational culture, sent questionnaires about social life and workplace culture to more than 100,000 respondents from over 40 different countries between 1960 and 1980.

Although these questionnaires were very long and included questions ranging from child-rearing to gender roles, he determined that all cross-cultural value and belief differences could be explained by five simple dimensions. Follow-up studies validated his dimensions, and a Google Scholar search indicates that his theory has now been cited more than 30,000 times.

Different from Hall’s high/low context continuum, Hofstede gives each country an index score (ideally between 0 and 100) on each dimension so that any given two countries can be compared based on these scores (e.g., the United States’ individualism score is 91, whereas Guatemala scores 6 on the same dimension). 

The following are the five dimensions of culture introduced by Hofstede:17

  • Power distance refers to the perception of a power gap between different segments of society, such as the elderly and young people, managers and subordinates, and teachers and students. In societies where there is higher power distance, more inequality among people and a less even distribution of economic wealth would be common.

Hofstede claims that in societies where a small number of people control power, subordinates learn not to question the decisions of the authority and tend to act submissively. In other words, it is not only an unequal distribution of social power but also the acceptance of inequality, such as the caste system. Low power-distance societies, on the other hand, promote equal opportunity for all citizens. The top-scoring countries are Malaysia, Panama, and Guatemala and the lowest-scoring countries are Austria, Israel, and Denmark. 

High Power DistanceLow Power Distance
People who are in power have privilegesPeople have equal rights
Authority is centralizedAuthority is Decentralized
Sudden changes often happen in governmentChanges in governments are infrequent
Corruption is commonCorruption is less common
Teachers control everything in classStudents initiate conversations in class
Many supervisors at workFew supervisors
Large countries with unequal income distributionSmall countries with equal wealth distribution
Table 11.2 The Differences Between High/Low Power-Distance Countries (Source: Hofstede, 2001)
  • The individualism/collectivism continuum represents the degree of individualistic versus collectivist tendencies that exist in each society. Individualistic societies put more value on achieving individual potential and personal freedom.

According to Hofstede, members of individualistic societies usually believe equality is less important than freedom, individual decisions are more practical and effective, privacy is something that should be deeply respected, and confrontations are part of daily life. As the name suggests, individualistic societies tend to emphasize individual autonomy and collectivistic societies stress the importance of group harmony. 

In individualistic societies people form more relationships than collectivistic countries but those relationships usually are considered to be weak, whereas people from collectivistic countries would have fewer but very strong relationships.

The reason for this difference is high social mobility in individualistic countries and also the individualistic notion that everyone should be responsible and take care of themselves first. In collectivistic societies, on the other hand, people tend to think that they should take care of their families and group members.

Studies showed that the more developed a country, the more individualistic it becomes. The top-scoring countries on this dimension are the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom and the bottom-scoring countries are Guatemala, Ecuador, and Panama. 

High IndividualismLow Individualism
High social mobility, large middle classLow social mobility, small middle class
Self-control, self-help, and individual autonomy encouragedPeople get help and support from others
Live in separate housesPeople live together
Less contact with extended family membersFrequent contact with extended family members
Rely on media for informationPeople get information from their social network members
Likely to have insurancePeople rely on their social network members in case of emergency
Students are taught how to learnStudents are taught how to do
Diploma means self-respectDiploma means higher social status
Tend to be wealthyTend to be poorer
Low birth rateHigh birth rate
More divorces and fewer
Less divorces, more children
Table 11.3 The Differences Between High/Low Individualism Countries (Source: Hofstede, 2001)
  • Uncertainty avoidance simply means refraining from ambiguous situations. In uncertainty-avoidant cultures, people cannot perform well in unstructured and unfamiliar conditions, unlike some other cultures where ambiguity is part of daily life.

Members of uncertainty-avoidant countries do not want frequent changes in society and tend to have conservative values. One should note that risk avoidance and uncertainty avoidance are different concepts.

According to Hofstede, in countries where high uncertainty avoidance is common, people tend to express their emotions openly, have negative attitudes toward diversity and foreigners, do not want to involve themselves with politics, and form tight groups and societies. The top-scoring countries are Greece, Portugal, and Guatemala and the lowest-scoring countries are Singapore, Jamaica, and Denmark. 

High Uncertainty AvoidanceLow Uncertainty Avoidance
Conservative, traditionalistLess conservative, open to change
Emotions expressed openlyEmotions are suppressed
Negative attitudes toward immigrantsDiversity is good for society
Only risks in familiar situations takenUnknown risks are taken
Less interest in politicsInterest in politics
Identity cards are very importantIdentity cards are not required everywhere
Less involvement in volunteer activitiesHigh involvement in volunteer activities
Speeding limits are strictSpeeding limits are low
Expert/specialist advice commonly soughtDo-it-yourself mentality is common
Taboos are clearly identifiedTaboos are not an important part of daily life
Unwilling to live abroadWilling to live abroad
Children are taught that people are dangerousChildren are taught that people are benevolent
Extensive legislative systemLegislative system is simpler
Table 11.4 The Differences Between High/Low Uncertainty Avoidance Countries (Source: Hofstede, 2001)
  • Masculinity means higher preference for competition and achievement in society. As the name explains, masculine societies have the culture of males, favoring assertiveness and competition in order to gain materialistic benefits.

In the same vein, feminine cultures value nurturing and caring for others. Masculine cultures also have clear and well-defined gender roles where males usually dominate, whereas in feminine cultures males and females are usually treated equally.

People coming from masculine cultures value work, support the strong and powerful, prefer big organizations over small organizations, and tend to be conservative. The most masculine cultures are Japan, Hungary and Austria and the least masculine societies are Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. 

High MasculinityLow Masculinity
Economic growth is more important than the environmentEnvironment is more important than economic growth
Fewer female parliament membersMore female parliament members
Preference for high salary and more working hoursPreference for lower salary and fewer working hours
Family is always more important than friendsSometimes friends may be as important as family
Boys and girls have different majorsBoys and girls have similar majors
Homosexuality is tabooHomosexuality should be accepted
Performance is more important than everythingSocial adaptation is more important than performance
Material success is more important than quality of life and other people’s needsMaterial success is less important than quality of life and other people’s needs
Tropical climatesCold to moderate
Table 11.5 The Differences between High/Low Masculinity Countries (Source: Hofstede, 2001)
  • Long-term orientation is having a future focus when making decisions. Just like collectivist societies, long-term oriented societies value tolerance for others, harmony, and humility.

According to Hofstede, long-term orientation is similar to having Chinese values, which are highly influenced by Confucianism. In long-term oriented societies, people put special emphasis on perseverance, savings, and frugality, while saving one’s face and relationships with others come first in short-term oriented societies.

For instance, in short-term oriented cultures one may easily argue with one’s manager while knowing that the argument may cost him or her their job. China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are the top-scoring countries and Pakistan, West Africa, and the Philippines score the lowest. 

Cultural Dimensions & Computer-Mediated Communication 

Past studies show that Hofstede’s dimensions can successfully explain whether people adopt new communication channels and, if they do, how they use them.

For instance, there is a clear negative relationship between percentage of households that own a computer and a country’s uncertainty avoidance score.32 Similarly, Internet adoption is positively related with individualism and negatively related with uncertainty avoidance.21

People from individualistic countries are also more likely to shop online compared to those who are from collectivistic, high uncertainty-avoidance, and high power-distance countries.21 Overall, people from collectivistic cultures are likely to be less comfortable exchanging messages online than offline, as recently it was found that Chinese participants talked less in brainstorming sessions that were video-conferenced and talked more in textual idea-exchange sessions compared to American participants.

Some studies found that individualistic and collectivistic people in fact use the Internet in similar frequencies, but for different purposes; for instance, people in Korea are more likely use the Internet to participate in online communities compared to their American counterparts.47

Furthermore, it may be the case that individualistic societies are more active online than offline, as a study comparing U.S. and Chilean activists showed that Chileans had more activities offline to create and maintain a social movement compared to U.S. activists, who were more active online.48

Cultural Dimensions & Online Learning 

It is surprising that cultural dimensions can predict adoption and utilization of online learning tools. A study found that it took people from high power-distance countries more time to learn an e-learning activity compared to those from other countries.49

When researchers analyzed the use of an e-learning platform by international students from eleven different countries, they also found that high uncertainty avoidance is negatively related with memorability, as learners from uncertainty avoiding countries had lower memorability scores.50

Moreover, when Japanese students, who have collectivistic values, and U.S. students, who have individualistic values, had to work together online, there were many misunderstandings as the Japanese students found the Americans unstructured and too quick to make a decision, while the Americans thought the Japanese were unemotional and conservative.51

Cultural Dimensions & Social Media 

People from different cultures seem to use social media differently and Hofstede’s dimensions, particularly individualism, can explain some of the variation.

For instance, people from individualistic cultures are usually more active reacting to unwanted pictures23 in which they are tagged on Facebook. Along the same lines, it was found52 that people from individualistic cultures tend to post more photos, selfpromote more often, and have larger social networks and more friends whom they haven’t met face-to-face. The same study also found that people from individualistic cultures report higher life satisfaction. Additionally, it seems there is a relationship between individualism and social capital.53

While American users tend to form bonding social capital and use the communication functions of social networks, Korean and Chinese users usually use expert search and connection functions to build bridging and bonding social capital.

As mentioned above, people from high uncertainty-avoidance countries were less likely to adopt the Internet and it seems uncertainty avoidance also correlates with the way people use social media.

In interest networks and CoPs (communities of practice), members from high uncertainty avoidance cultures usually look for precise information from authoritative figures, while people from low uncertainty-avoidance cultures pay attention to everyone’s opinions and ideas.54 When it comes to status updates, college students in the United States are more likely to post extreme information55 in addition to obscene or improper content (alcohol use, misbehavior, etc.)56 in social media than do students in Germany, a country that has a relatively high uncertainty-avoidance score.

The way people use social scheduling tools also depends on culture. An analysis of a scheduling platform showed that Germans usually schedule events twenty-eight days in advance compared to Colombians, who schedule events only twelve days prior to the actual activity.57

A number of studies compared and contrasted social media use in China, a collectivistic and long-term oriented society, and the United States, an individualistic and short-term oriented society.

When American, Chinese, and Indian users were compared, it was observed that Americans have the highest concern for privacy,58 reflecting a culture driven by autonomy and independence. What’s more, Chinese users of social networking services (SNS) usually don’t post self-promoting content in social media because they don’t care about being popular online.59 They also don’t spend as much time as Americans on online social networking (28 minutes a day in China vs. 52 minutes a day in the United States).59

Compared to Facebook users, users of Renren (a Chinese SNS platform) are more likely to use a customized or digitally adjusted profile photo.60 This may not result from a need for a polished image but rather avoidance of directly presenting oneself in a way that may not be approved by others.

Cultural Dimensions & Business Communications 

When it comes to business communications, culture may still be an important factor that impact brands’ social media practices worldwide.

We recently compared a one-week activity of the top hundred brands in Japan and the top hundred brands in the United States and detected systematic differences.41 Overall, Japanese brands asked fewer questions, posted less frequently, did not address their fans directly, did not initiate conversations, revealed less info on brand profiles, and did not allow fans to post on their walls.

We suggested that most of these differences occur because of the “high power distance” in Japan that gives more social power to corporations than individuals, who may feel strange when receiving messages about daily topics from big brands. In the same vein, 87% of Norwegian brands responded to questions asked of them on Facebook, while only 45% brands in the United Kingdom did so,61 as Norway is a low power-distance country.

A study that compared social networks in China and the USA found that while brand messages in the United States tended to emphasize individualism and hedonic consumption (personal enjoyment), messages in China emphasized popularity, social status, symbolism, and luxury.62

Culture & Facebook Use 

Since culture impacts everything from what we eat to what we buy, it also affects what we do on Facebook. For instance, in the United States, people usually post about themselves (food, vacations, parties, etc.), whereas in India people post about their ideas, values, and interests (not necessarily about themselves).63 Many Facebook photos flagged in India are related to religion, public figures, and beliefs.

Another cross-cultural communication aspect of Facebook usage is related with unwanted tagging. On Facebook when people want others to delete a photo they usually send a message like “Would you please take it down?”, while in Israel, where people are very direct, this message may say simply, “Take this down.”

On the other hand, in Japan people are reluctant to send any message to ask their friends to take down something that offends them.63 The most interesting cross-cultural communication aspect of Facebook is perhaps related to nonverbal cues such as visual gestures and colors. When the Like button was first developed, it was to be symbolized by only a thumbsup sign. This idea was rejected because in some cultures a thumbs-up is perceived as obscene.64

Since photo sharing is the core function of Facebook, several studies looked at what kind of photos people post. A study that analyzed pictures on Instagram (an app integrated with Facebook) showed that photos from Tokyo tend to have redyellow tones while photos from New York have bluegray tones.65

Interviews with Namibian Facebook users uncovered that they prefer to post pictures focusing on an individual with less emphasis on the background or objects.66 Perhaps driven by privacy concerns, about one-third of Indians do not post pictures of themselves or their friends on Facebook, whereas in the US only a small fraction of people abstain from posting personal photos.67

Similarly, compared to American college students a higher percentage of Middle Eastern college students chose not to show their faces in their profile photos,68 although it is difficult to confirm that these findings are not related to females’ religious concerns in the Middle East or difficulty of access to new technologies in developing countries. 

When assessing the impact of Facebook on social life, we should take into account the varying Facebook penetration rates all around the world: while in Turkey 88% of Internet users have a Facebook account, only 17% of Japanese users are on Facebook.69 The effects of Facebook usage on social life are likely to differ based on the percentage of the population using the service.

It is reported that in the United Kingdom, where almost twothirds of the population is on Facebook, one-third of divorces are related to Facebook use, and 10% of pets have a Facebook profile.71 In the United States, the country with the largest Facebook population, 5% of the children have a Facebook page even before they are born.72 Facebook penetration may influence how it will be used for public or private purposes, as we found that 74% of American states had an official Facebook page but this ratio was only 28% in Japan.73

Culture & Twitter Use 

Just like Facebook usage, Twitter usage is also heavily influenced by culture. It is known that people from collectivistic cultures are more likely to mention someone (@user) in their tweets and there’s a popularity imbalance among Twitter accounts in countries with higher power distance.22

Although these results may be interpreted in several ways, apparently, collectivistic people engage in more public conversations with others, and in hierarchy-based societies (high power distance) people with more social power have an exponentially higher number of followers.

Some other interesting culture-related findings are that the timing of Twitter updates and replies are more predictable in punctual societies with a higher pace of life score,22 Brazilian users post the most positive tweets in the world,74 and (as a result of the country’s collectivistic nature) Indonesia is more densely connected on Twitter than Australia.74 Lastly, we should also remember that subculture also impacts Twitter usage.

Different communities tweet in a different language: teachers use longer words, minorities tend to use words ending with -in instead of -ing, and Bieber fans add extra -e at the end of common words (e.g. pleasee).75

Global Use of Social Media 

About 34% of people in large countries now reportedly have a social media account.76 Although social media is ubiquitous, most of the elderly currently do not use these sites, particularly social networks.

According to a Pew study, in eighteen out of twenty-one countries surveyed, the percentage of the elderly using social networks was less than 20%. On the other hand, in most major economies more than two-thirds of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds have a social media account.76

People usually share things related to movies and music in social media; however, most users in Arabic countries and Turkey share a significant amount of political messages and communityrelated issues.76

When asked what they shared in the past month, most people answer with:

  • pictures (43%), followed by
  • opinions (39%), and
  • status updates (26%).77

Turkish social media users tend to be the most active sharers (93% report sharing something online in the past month), whereas Japan ranks at the bottom, with 70% of Japanese users indicating that they haven’t posted anything in social media within a month.77 On the global scale, it appears that females, young people, and people with higher education and higher income tend to share more online content.77

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions and Social Media Use 

It is difficult to collect large-scale data with the participation of people from various countries but we were able to conduct an online survey among international exchange students in Japan that represented 17 countries. We gave them several scenarios involving Facebook use and asked their reactions during the month of May in 2012.

Similar to a past study,78 we assigned each student his/her cultural dimensions scores according to Hofstede and then correlated those cultural dimensions with the responses we received. There was a total of 103 students but we only included 45 of them in the analysis because some countries were over represented (maximum of 5 persons per country were randomly chosen).

The results have shown that (See Appendix A,B and C), people from collectivistic countries and high-power-distance countries are more likely to share political information on Facebook and pass on content about humanitarian issues. Additionally, people from masculine countries indicated that they felt uncomfortable sharing a picture that shows their romantic partner.

Some other interesting findings were:

  • people from uncertainty avoiding societies are less likely to like baby pictures,
  • people from collectivistic and high-power distance countries have a higher number of Facebook friends and
  • people from individualistic countries feel uncomfortable friending their acquaintances on Facebook. 

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