Video Debate: Is Facebook American Imperialism?

That very bombastic question (is Facebook American Imperialism) was posed to me at the Social Media Club France Club which took place near LeWeb a few weeks ago. I was joined by my friend Paul Papadimitriou (Twitter), and we were hosted by Fabrice Epelboin (Twitter) who writes for Read Write Web.

In this discussion we discuss social media from a global perspective (not just an American one) and we discuss and debate why many of the popular social networking sites are coming from United States, and adoption across the globe (see my collection of stats)


SMC Lounge – 2011 trends IV
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Questions for discussion, join in comments

  • Why are so many social networking sites coming from the United States?
  • How does this impact culture? Do the default Facebook features reflect an American culture yet not reflect other cultures?
  • As every culture has different views on privacy, free speech, how can a global tool meet the many needs of others?
  • Is Facebook a form of American Imperialism?
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  • I do not think so facebook is imperialism. We can always decide what we do and what we don't.
    Internet is young, and the applications too. In that way, the use of internet will still change a lot together with the insights.

  • It is certain that certain american values were and still are present in the psyche of the social network. The view over what is privacy is certainly the most visible one.

    I know many universities in the world where they were no “facebooks” and no alumni organization, but it's an irrelevant argument that I'm given these days: that particularity of Facebook is gone.

    My main point is that people love these values. People love Facebook. And no matter where you are (and I've lived in Japan, the Philippines, Switzerland, Greece, etc.), the “imperialism” vocabulary actually shows the following:

    – loss of control (it's not made at home, hence less controllable)
    – no possibility of pride (it is not a national champion we can boast about)

    France has been very vocal about the US for a long long time. The French movie industry defended itself. Radio were mandated to play 40% of French music to alleviate the massive incoming of US music. Interestingly, the first resulted in more French action-driven movies (see: pretty much all the Luc Besson productions), the second in creating the second biggest hip-hop market in the world (after the US).

    The tastes were indeed similar to the US, but done with a French twist (and in French). Imperialism or not? 😉

    Same with the MacDonald's example I'm taking in the video: France has this hugely successful franchise, all the while the debate about bad food habits (“malbouffe”) is centered on US-imported junk food (with, then again, other great successes from local fast food chains).

    Facebook has 20m+ users in France (#5 worldwide) with a 31%+ market penetration. It is now the biggest social network in the country, ahead of SkyRock, the blogging network. Facebook is in French.

    I'm not sure every single one of these 20m users sees it as an imperialistic tool. I think that Facebook, nowadays, has its platform pretty well figured out so that local cultures can actually express themselves in their own language with their own tastes. Applications built upon the platform palliate missing elements. Exactly what happens in France.

    It is certain that privacy is the element that's been seen quite differently from one side of the pond to the other, but I'd argue that government regulation is what accentuates the debate. I'm not that sure that users see privacy that differently in the US and in Europe at least. Only that european governments might be more sensitive about regulating a private enterprise reach over people's daily lives (hence also the Google Street View debates).

    And never forget that the US has the first of class syndrome: that kid sitting in front of the class who seems to ace lots of the exam. You wanna be like him, but still hate him and love to bash him occasionally.

    Although I've focused on France, it is not -and by far- the only country with such questioning about social networking and its place in society. It's just an interesting case for it can be very frank in its approach allowing a funner analysis.

    Vive la France!

  • Facebook is a great example of American innovation. Any imperial effect is simply a side-effect. Other inventions from the USA have had profound impacts on other cultures — Facebook is just the latest…hopefully not the last. US innovations in mass media — from FM radio to television to cell phones — have had the effect of making the world more interconnected. Yes, American culture has unfortunately displaced indigenous cultures — but one must wonder if such displacement is a consequence of the human imperative to innovate.

    A unique aspect of American culture is that it evolves “out of many into one” where immigration and diversity have far mare dramatic impacts on the US society than in other cultures. It is easy to understand why Americans are so obsessed with social networking — we are a curious, inclusive culture that with very materialistic, individualistic values. We continually compare ourselves to our peers. For example, it is common for an American to ask “How are you?” as a greeting and we often ask “What do you do for work?” as a conversation starter — both would be considered intrusive or rude in Germany or France where privacy and socio-economic sensitivities are more prevalent.

    Each culture's views on privacy, free speech and social interactions have a profound impact on the adoption rate of a technology — social networking being no exception. The cultural differences between Europe and the US are minor compared to the differences between Japan and Europe or Arabs and Latin Americans. Privacy is possibly the most interesting attribute where societal values and norms will have the greatest divergence.

    It would be foolish to try to predict specific changes in cultures or the adoption of specific technologies. If it were easy, we would see far more success among entrepreneurial social networking start-ups. However, it is safe to say that technology will impact cultures and that it will have impacts that are not completely unlike that of an imperial overlord. However, technology has been a very beneficent master — we live in a far more peaceful, prosperous world than we did 100 years ago.

  • Billy

    Silly question about Imperialism. The hosts sound foolish as Jeremiah mentions site after site that comes from other countries (“Well, yeah, but… Well, yeah, but….”). Then they talk about name tags, then say, “Ooops, we have them too.” Funny.

  • Thanks for sharing the video. Not sure I am on the same page concerning American Imperialism, but interesting nevertheless.

  • Agreed

    I'm pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg didn't want to take over the planet, likely it was just his dorm hall.

  • This is a potent and interesting debate idea – the impact of American culture via social media – whether to call it imperialism or something else. However, I don't think you really got into much of a debate about it in this video. The question wasn't even posed until late in the video. Most of the video was about social media trends, which was interesting but nothing to do with this topic. Maybe it can be revisited again. I also can't share this video with friends because it has several identical and annoying State Farm commercials throughout the video. A more diverse and targeted set of commercials would have worked better.

  • Such an interesting conversation!

    Recently, I wrote a post about how important it is to show your face, use your name, all that kind of stuff. A new reader in my community commented and said, “No way am I going to use my real name! I don’t want the government hearing what I have to say! That must be an American free speech thing.”

    I was kind of taken aback by it in a way, but this offers a really nice backdrop of information I didn’t have at the time.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • There is an old joke that heaven is French cooking and British planning, and hell is the opposite: British cooking and French planning. (Insert rimshot.)

    Right now it only appears that so many social networking sites come from the United States because since the beginning of the Internet, English was the lingua franca, the dominant language of trade. Now that the rate of growth of English-speaking users is declining relative to other groups, we are just starting to take notice of international sites, many of which haven’t been highlighted on Techcrunch but have been tweeted mightily in their native language. (If only Twitter did real-time translation!!) I recently saw a French site that let homemakers broadcast information about what they were cooking, so their neighbors could come by and partake. Such a site would probably find little traction in the UK, eh?

    Now, as far as imperialism goes, if you believe in the American legal system of property ownership and privacy, then you’re not going to see what the imperialism kerfuffle is all about. But if you disagree with it — and rightly or wrongly, more are looking to the Singaporean model as being ascendant over the American one — well then, you’re going to see Facebook, Google, et al. as yet another example of American hegemony.

    ICANN handed over the keys to the international community almost two years ago, which I view as the defining moment. Cherished American notions of privacy are starting to run into the buzzsaw of sovereignty, where a foreign government will demand that an Internet company be willing to surrender information on individual users in exchange for the right to do business in that country.

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