Facebook wants global guidelines but has local standards

A recent addition to Facebook’s standards in Spain highlights a larger issue for the company: how to have consistent guidelines around the world while remaining respectful or relevant in local contexts.

For Facebook and other platforms like it, incidents such as the bullfighting kerfuffle betray a larger, existential difficulty: How can you possibly impose a single moral framework on a vast and varying patchwork of global communities?

If you ask Facebook this question, the social-media behemoth will deny doing any such thing. Facebook says its community standards are inert, universal, agnostic to place and time. The site doesn’t advance any worldview, it claims, besides the non-controversial opinion that people should “connect” online…

Facebook has modified its standards several times in response to pressure from advocacy groups – although the site has deliberately obscured those edits, and the process by which Facebook determines its guidelines remains stubbornly obtuse. On top of that, at least some of the low-level contract workers who enforce Facebook’s rules are embedded in the region – or at least the time zone – whose content they moderate. The social network staffs its moderation team in 24 languages, 24 hours a day…

And yet, observers remain deeply skeptical of Facebook’s claims that it is somehow value-neutral or globally inclusive, or that its guiding principles are solely “respect” and “safety.” There’s no doubt, said Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, New England, that the company advances a specific moral framework – one that is less of the world than of the United States, and less of the United States than of Silicon Valley.

I like the shift in this discussion from free speech issues (mentioned later in the article) to issues of a particular moral framework that corporations have and promote. Some might argue that simply by being a corporation there is a very clear framework: Facebook needs to make money. How exactly can the company claim to be truly about connection when there is an overriding concern? On the other hand, various companies across industries have had to wrestle with this issue: when a company expands into additional culture, how do they balance the existing moral framework with new frameworks? Customers are at stake but so are basic concerns of dealing with people on their own terms and respecting other approaches to the world.

But, with a global capitalistic system where Facebook play a prominent role (in terms of rapid growth, connecting people, and market value), can it truly be “neutral”? Like many other behemoth companies (think McDonald’s or Walmart), it will certainly encounter its share of dissenters in the years to come.

Just how do Americans do on an “ignorance test” about world development?

Hans Rosling, a guru of development data and TED star, has for decades asked people around the world what they know about international development. The results are not good:

In the 1990s, a professor at a medical university in Stockholm decided to test his students’ knowledge about the progress of global development. He was staggered to discover the class, some of the brightest people in Sweden, scored fewer than two out of five on average…

That academic was Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institutet and a medical doctor who had carried out decades of research in Africa, discovering the complexities of the continent (and a new disease) along the way…

Rosling has been on a mission to inform since the realization that his students — and his fellow professors — were somewhat woefully informed about the state of the world. Today CNN publishes Rosling’s latest survey of the United States which shows Americans, like most of the world, are far behind the reality in their understanding of world development but ahead of some — for example, Swedes…

In 2005, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation, which aims to “promote a fact-based world view.” The following year, Rosling spoke at a conference run by TED — the non profit organization “devoted to ideas worth spreading.”…

Rosling realized the concept of “developed” and “developing” countries was hindering understanding of the emerging world, giving an impression of remaining homogeneity of a so-called “developing world”.

Nothing that an introduction to sociology course couldn’t help.

While Rosling wants to focus on facts (and there are some improving figures in the global fight against some major problems), I wonder if it isn’t also about getting people in the developed world to pay attention to the bigger picture. To be honest, many Americans, residents of Sweden, and people in other first-world countries don’t always have to know or consider what is going on in the rest of the world. For example, American media discussion of foreign countries is often pretty woeful and often presents a very American perspective. It is a luxury of being in a wealthier nation as your life is in decent shape (in global comparison).

Remembering Henry Ford’s failed suburban utopia in Brazil

Read about Fordlandia, Henry Ford’s town built from scratch in Brazil:

The community was spurred by a problem caused by the incredible success of Ford’s empire. By the early 1900s, America was gobbling up more than 70 percent of the world’s rubber, most of it going to Detroit. These were the days when rubber still came from plants—meaning that most of it had to be shipped from Southeast Asia. Ford, a dude who was pretty into efficiency, was hesitant to keep buying his company’s supply from Asia, where British rubber plantations were churning out most of the global supply. So he set out to establish his own rubber farm. In a fit of creativity, he named it Fordlandia.

In 1928, Ford sent an envoy of supplies and Ford workers to a 6,000-square-mile plot of land on the Amazon. The charter’s mission was to embed American suburbia in the heart of the rainforest. Within a relatively short period of time, they’d set up homes, running water, electricity—plus all kinds of other extras (like swimming pools) that played to Ford’s belief that leisure was an essential part of the economy.

Local workers were expected to adopt a suburban Michigan lifestyle, too—along with a healthy dose of Ford’s own morals, which meant that both booze and ladies were outlawed within the town. According to a terrific podcast from How Things Work, the transplant town even hosted mandatory square dancing. Hamburgers and other American fare featured in the cafeteria…

But it turned out that rubber plants were being cultivated in Southeast Asia instead for a very good reason: There were no natural floral predators there, as there were in Brazil. Production was sluggish, and the Michigan managers had zero botany know-how.

Three things are notable: Ford’s attempt to control production from start to finish, his interest in having a company town, and his idea that he could simply import an American suburb to Brazil. This could be interpreted as a quixotic effort but it also seems to have darker undertones of American imperialism.

The need to study language AND culture

A literature professor argues that in order to truly learn and use a language, you must also learn about the culture in which the language is used:

I have been asked several times at my university in Oman to do a brief “cultural introduction” to native speakers of English from North America and Europe who have come to improve their Arabic. I start by mentioning that there is a large difference between learning how to speak a language and learning how to navigate a culture. Then I segue into a discussion of how to dress appropriately. My watchwords are: no knees or elbows on display in public. Usually, at this point, several of the listeners look angry, disbelieving and/or bored, especially the men wearing tight, casual T-shirts and women in spaghetti-strap underwear shirts…

My attempts to make Westerners understand that they will need to make adjustments to fit into Omani society have not gone well. The most common response is, “But I am me. They will just have to accept me as I am.” The problem with the “I need to be me” response is that most Westerners do not realize that the consequences of “being me” are not the same as in the West. Omanis rarely use direct confrontation and will simply avoid a person who they feel is violating cultural norms.

The trick is to find a balance between integration and self-integrity while learning not just the language but also how to use it in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, most Gulf Arabs use an indirect communication style. They will rarely make a negative comment in public and never convey negative information that they do not want to share. For example, if there is a specific need to convey a warning or bad news, Omanis will often recruit an intermediary to deliver it. That is why I, a non-Omani, have been asked to give the “dress and act politely” lecture to Western students…

The other answer I get when Westerners refuse to, say, comb their hair, smile when greeting an Omani, or stand up to shake hands, is that “I don’t need to talk to people—I just need the language.” As a literature professor, I find this bewildering. Imagine a person who visited Britain having read all major political-theory textbooks but never having seen Monty Python, read Wordsworth, tasted tea, or been to a soccer game. Could that person cope with references to the “Beeb,” “Oxbridge,” “Beckham,” “twee,” or “pillock”? Words such as “slamming,” “in the dumps,” “bummed,” or “shambolic” don’t show up in vocabulary lists. So much of daily language is slang and metaphors that if a person is not speaking often with native speakers, she or he will never be able to carry on a normal conversation in that country. The last response I often get from Arabic language learners, is “I don’t plan to live in this country, so I don’t need to fit in here.” While it is true that the people who say this may never live in Oman, if they have careers that involve familiarity with the Arabic language, literature, politics, or business, they will probably meet some Omanis down the line. Imagine the icebreaker or dealmaker comments that a person will have at hand if she or he can greet an Omani with a local expression or a local joke.

There is much more to language than just the words, grammar, and inflections: language is a window into much larger cultural frameworks that are full of complicated symbols, values, and meanings.

It sounds like the language learners described above want to learn the language but don’t want the language to affect them too much. In other words, they want the skill of being able to speak another language (and can be perceived as being really marketable) but they want to keep the language at arm’s length. To some degree, this sounds like modern day ethnocentrism: “I want to learn your language to be able to talk to you but I don’t want to have to learn about what makes you tick because that wouldn’t be worth my time.” Of course, it could very well be worth one’s time for business or political or social purposes as the examples at the end of the last quoted paragraph above illustrate.

But, it sounds like a larger issue here is explaining to students why one should learn a new language: is it about checking off a box on a list of high school or college requirements? Is it about being able to put this on a resume? Is it about becoming “smarter” or more “cosmopolitan”? Is it about learning how to authentically interact with cultures different from your own? This last reason fits with calls for students to learn cross-cultural skills as they will go on to navigate a world where more frequently cultures interact and sometimes clash.