Social Networks: A Reflection of Cultural Differences?

Article  by  Nikos SMYRNAIOS  •  Published 21.03.2011  •  Updated 31.03.2011
Image reprenant les noms des différents réseaux sociaux
In recent years, social networks have become one of the main reasons people use the Internet. But what is the true definition of a social network - and do we all use them the same way, regardess of our cultural differences?


In his exploration of the history of the social web, Trebor Scholz[+] NoteTrebor Scholz is an author, media activist and teacher. For more information, visit [1] remarks that the fundamental elements of what we call “social networks” today came from the Internet’s long emergence process, which began in the late 1960s. Although most authors agree that the first website that displayed all the characteristics of a social network site (SNS) was the site, which was launched in the U.S. in 1997. What began as a relatively confidential service aimed at avant-garde American Internet users became, in the space of thirteen years, one of the main uses for the modern Internet. This was primarily due to the success of Facebook.

Far from being limited to the States and Europe, social networks have progressively conquered hundreds of millions of Internet users all over the world. This essay will try to give a panorama of social networks across the globe, illustrating the principal trends that currently characterise this sector.

The definition and characteristics of a social network

As the term “social network” can mean many things, there are a large amount of Internet services that can potentially be placed in this category. Nevertheless, there are a number of formal characteristics that allow us to define the notion. Danah Boyd and Nicole Ellison (2007) consider a social network to be any Internet service that allows its users to:
  1. create public or semi-public profiles on the site;
  2. link these profiles with lists of other connected users;
  3. browse these contact lists, as well as their contacts and those of others as well.
The nature of these links and what you are able to do with them within a system varies from one social network to another.
According to this definition, social networks combine at least three main functions: as a support of a virtual identity, as a vehicle for sociality based on shared characteristics or interests, and as a networked media for interpersonal and/or intergroup communication.
The first function mentioned allows the expression of what Dominique Cardon calls the “process of self-simulation” (2008), that is to say “the tension between those traits that characterise a person within their real life (daily, professional, social) and those that create a projection or a simulation of oneself, virtual in the original meaning of the word, which allows them to express a potential version of themselves”. The second function signifies that any uses being developed for social networks are pre-determined by the pre-existing socio-cultural characteristics of those who use them. For example, as Danah Boyd illustrated (2007), the choice that young people make between Facebook and MySpace is largely influenced by their ethnicity and class.
These first two general functions of social networks (support of a digital identity and a vehicle for sociality based on common interests) reinforce an important “community” factor and explain the proliferation of specialist websites that focus on a thematic, cultural or linguistic aspect. On the other hand, they don’t explain the worldwide success of services such as Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.
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The club effect

One of the fundamental reasons of this success resides in the third function mentioned above: that of a networked media for communication. It’s because of this that the main social networks benefit from the club effect: “a club effect is a positive externality of media consumption that is brought about when each consumer within a particular market takes advantage of, not only their own media consumption, but also that of others. There is a certain externality in the sense that the satisfaction of the individual doesn’t depend solely on his own decision to join a network, but also on the external factor that is the decision of others to do the same. This externality is positive because individual satisfaction grows along with the number of people who join” (Curien, 2000: 19).
A social network is above all a network and, due to this, it benefits from both direct and indirect club effects. In the first instance, positive externality is born out of the obvious advantages for users of all being connected to the same system. In other words, the more members there are on Facebook, the more its usefulness increases for each individual member as they will be able to find a larger number of contacts and “Facebook friends”. With regards to indirect club effects, positive externality results in a large variety of services being available on a network which is, in turn, proportional to its number of users. In practical terms, the popularity of Facebook means that it attracts the main application developers, such as Zynga, Mindjolt or RockYou, onto its platform and the large variety of applications that these developers make available (games, widgets etc.) in turn increases the interest value of Facebook for its existing members, whilst also attracting new ones.
Club effects, both direct and indirect, generate as such a phenomenon of virtuous circles, often described as the principal of “winner-takes-all” by information economists (Shapiro and Varian, 2000). The social network market therefore appears to be subject to an oligopolistic trend, of which Facebook is in fact the main beneficiary at the moment. However, as we will come to see, the idea that Facebook has absolute world domination in this sector is not entirely correct.
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Facebook: dominating the generalist network market

As of now, the battle of the main generalist networks seems to have been won by Facebook to the detriment of its American challengers. Initially concentrating on the English-speaking world (America, Canada, Australia and the UK), Facebook has progressively forged its way onto the world market. In July 2010, the company created by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 announced that it had more than 500 million active users worldwide. Even if these exact figures might be contested somewhat, its immense popularity is confirmed by many independent studies. For example, according to Nielsen, over 50% of social network users are on Facebook. This makes Facebook by far the most popular network across the main Internet markets, with the exception of Russia, Japan and China.

The most popular social networks around the world

Source :, june 2010

Facebook not only has the largest number of users but its users also consult their online profiles the most often (more than 19 times per person each month on average, as recorded in  February 2010) and its users also spend more time on its site than users of other social networks (5hrs 50’ per person each month). Facebook’s expansion has hardly been affected at all by the numerous anti-Facebook campaigns that were launched in reaction to its policy of exploiting personal data. This growing popularity has had a spectacular effect on the company’s takings, which, according to non-official sources, will practically double in 2010, going from 800 million to 1.4 billion dollars. If these predictions come true, Facebook will become one of the rare generalist networks to reach break-even point.
In contrast, Facebook’s competitors, with the notable exception of Twitter, are dropping one by one . MySpace, bought by News Corp for 580 million dollars in 2005 was, at the time, the leading figure of the social network market but, in 2010, despite several changes in management and strategy, the company announced an annual loss of 575 million dollars. With a decreasing user rate, currently between 15 and 20 percent, MySpace is now more or less on a par with Twitter. However, to the contrary, Twitter is in the process of rapidly growing. Bebo, whose users are mainly within English-speaking countries, was resold in June 2010 to an investment funds company, Criterion Capital Partners, for 10 million dollars (AOL bought it in 2008 for 850 million dollars). Hi5, after successive restructuring attempts, is now trying its luck at online games in order to hold its positions in Latin America and Europe (notably Portugal and Romania).
Facebook has succeeded not only in overtaking its pure-playercompetitors but also in holding its own on the social network market against such web giants as Google, Yahoo! and Microsoft. In August 2010, Google announced that its engineers were stopping development of Google Wave, one of its two social network applications. The other application, Orkut, has only managed to equal Facebook in the emerging markets of such countries as Brazil and India. Despite its leader status in the world of instant messaging (MSN Messenger) and email (Hotmail), Microsoft has never succeeded in bringing together its Live users to create a valid social network. Finally, Yahoo!’s strategy consists of integrating the maximum amount of Facebook functions into its new social Platform, Pulse, acknowledging the latter’s domination in this sector.
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European social networks

Despite the pressure from Facebook, certain social networks  that may be deemed “national”, aren’t faring too badly. These networks give a service that is essentially nationally-based or aimed at a certain linguistic sphere and have been created outside of the United States. One such example that falls into this category is the website Tuenti, created in 2006 and dubbed the “Spanish Facebook” by the press. Tuenti’s strategy differs from those of the larger social networks in several ways: subscription to the site is not freely available but instead requires an invitation from an existing member; the site’s advertising is less obtrusive and better targeted to its audience; its development is mainly concentrated within Spain, where the vast majority of its eight million users are. In August 2010, the Spanish telecommunications company Telefonica bought out 85% of Tuenti’s capital for 70 million Euros with the objective of developing the service in Latin America.

Mappemonde montrant les différents sociaux par pays
Source :, june 2010

Another example of a rather successful European social network is Hyves. Founded in 2004 in the Netherlands, the large proportion of its ten million members are also based within the country, and Hyves is far more successful there than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter in terms of user numbers and frequency of visits. Startphone Ltd, based in Amsterdam, is the company that publishes Hyves and is controlled by its founding members. In France and French-speaking Switzerland and Belgium, it is Skyrock, controlled by a sister-company of AXA, with its blog platform, that is the most serious competition for the American giants on the social network scene. Thanks to a strategic change in 2007, Skyrock now advertises itself as a social network with functions comparable to those of Facebook, aimed mainly at the teenage community. However, with only six million individual users a month in France – a figure given by Médiamétrie – Skyrock has nowhere near the same success as Facebook (with 23.5 million individual users) or even its competitor in the blog sector of the market Overblog (with 10 million individual users).
In German-speaking Europe, the largest generalist social network after Facebook and MySpace is StudiVZ. Founded in Berlin in 2005, StudiVZ claims to have over fifteen million members, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Initially aimed at students, the site has many similarities to Facebook. It is owned by the publishing group Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck (Die Zeit, Handelsblatt, Nature, Scientific American), which is based in Stuttgart. In central and Eastern Europe, there are many local social networks that compete with the American ones and even overtake them in user numbers. This is certainly the case for V Kontakte, a Facebook clone based in Russia that claims to have over 80 million members, mainly in Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan. V Kontakte was founded in 2006 by the Mirilashvil family from Saint Petersburg. The father, Mikhail Mirilashvili, who is also the owner of, amongst other things, casinos and petrol and pharmaceutical companies, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for kidnapping and attempted murder in 2003.
In 2008, control of V Kontakte was handed over to Digital Sky Technology (), a Russian investment funds company specialising in new technologies and controlled by one of the largest fortunes in the country, Alisher Usmanov. Digital Sky Technology progressively became an incontestable player on the social network market when it also gained control of the second largest local network in Russia, Odnoklassniki, as well as the leading social networks on the Polish (Nasza-Klasa) and Lithuanian markets (One), each claiming to have several million users. The group also holds stakes in Facebook and Zynga. Other European social networks that equal or overtake Facebook in their respective countries are Draguiem in Latvia, which has more than two million users, Iwiw in Hungary and Lidé in the Czech Republic.
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Asian social networks

Asia constitutes a major economic problem for generalist social networks. The continent’s most important markets remain dominated by local players, as transnational players on the web scene are forced not only to deal with long-standing cultural particularities, but are also often obliged to negotiate with the local authorities in order to establish themselves in the country. China has 200 million social network users, and so represents a very significant portion of the market. Facebook and Twitter have been banned there since 2009, but even before this ban, Facebook had real difficulties establishing itself due to the success of the four main Chinese networks in that sector. Ozone is, according to an independent study, the most popular social network in China with more than 350 million members, mostly teenagers. It’s owned by the Chinese group Tencent and is affiliated with the most widely used instant messaging service in China, QQ, from which it gains a large number of users.

Source : SoulBeat, april 2010
Renren is the second most popular social network in China, claiming to have more than 100 million users in the country. Founded as a straightforward copy of Facebook in 2005 under the name Xiaonei, Renren began concentrating more on on-line gaming, which is very popular in China, as it developed. The service is owned by the Oak Pacific Interactive group, which is partly controlled by the Japanese telecommunications giant Softbank. Two other highly popular social networks in China are Kaixin001 and, which more or less correspond to relatively distinct social groups. According to analyst Kaiser Kuo, whilst the former site is mostly used by the urban elite of the big metropolitan centres who work for multinational companies in sectors considered to be prestigious (new technology, advertising, communications), the latter mainly brings together people who work in middle-management within the second-tier cities and towns in rural areas. Other significant networks are Wretch, which is the most popular social network in Taiwan, and Weibo, the most successful local Twitter clone. All of these networks are regularly controlled by the authorities and are actively censored by their owners.
Japan is one of the countries with the highest percentage of social network users amongst its Internet users. For a long time, the Japanese market was dominated by local services, notably Mixi, GREE and Mobage Town, each claiming more than 20 million users. Mixi and GREE, both founded in 2004, have more users than their Western competitors in Japan, mostly due to their concentration on mobile usage, which has been particularly developed in Japan. Mobage Town sees itself essentially as an online gaming platform. However, it is worth noting that Twitter’s recent, and very rapid, rise in popularity means that it is now used almost as much as Mixi. According to Nielsen, Twitter’s penetration rate in Japan (equalling 16% of Internet users), where it has been advertising since 2008, is superior to the success it has achieved in the States (10% penetration rate). A similar situation can be seen in South Korea where the domination of local services such as Cyworld (which claims to have more than 18 million users) is being threatened by Twitter’s rise in popularity.
The only large Asian country that the American social networks have managed to conquer, partly due to linguistic reasons, is India. Despite the fact that a myriad of local networks exist (Bharat Student, BigAdda, Fropper), the most popular social network is Orkut, whose penetration rate equals over 10% of Internet users. Orkut is followed by Facebook, whose popularity is still steadily growing in India. The latter also dominates the Middle East and Arab-speaking African countries despite the existence of several local services such as As7ab Maktoob, which was bought by Yahoo in 2009. The only notable exception within that region is Iran. After Orkut and MySpace, which were very popular in the country, were banned, local services such as Cloob emerged. These networks voluntarily enforced self-censorship in order to satisfy the demands of the local government system. During the uprising of 2009, Twitter saw its success rise dramatically amongst governmental opponents thanks to its speed and its capacity to get around the censorship.
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The complex uses of social networks

This panorama of the global social network market very much alters the media-instigated image of Facebook as omnipresent, even if it is without doubt the most successful network in the world. However, the sociological and cultural particularities of the public as consumers decisively influence their choice of social network. The different uses of these networks develop out of these particularities and are therefore also varied.
In order to further demonstrate these behavioural differences, it is interesting to compare social network use within a community of several countries. In Asian countries such as Japan, China and Korea, the main service offered by social networks is online gaming, which is merely complemented by certain aspects of sociality, whilst in India it’s the matrimonial aspect of social networks that ensures their success, especially amongst diaspora Indians (Pal, 2010). When looking at the average number of contacts a social network user has, it is interesting to see that in Brazil, users tend to have a vast friend network, with an average of 360 contacts, whereas in France it’s a much more modest 95 contacts. Finally, even the amount of time spent connected to online social networks is extremely varied within any given geographical region. For example, in Europe, connection time varies considerably from country to country with the average time at around six and a half hours a month in Italy, which is almost three hours more than in Germany.
It’s also necessary to add to these particularities the huge diversity in reasons that different publics have for using social networks. Professional networks such as LinkedIn and Viadeo are very successful within an intellectual professional market. Similarly, a whole host of websites which exist entirely on content generated by its users (YouTube, Dailymotion, Flickr, SoundCloud, etc.) and on online games (Gaia Online, Club Penguin, Second Life) have intrinsic functions similar to social networks whilst also attracting millions of users. The social network scene is therefore characterised by complex combinations of use which creates a market for a wide variety of services dependant on contexts, activities and moments. The club effect, as influential as it may be, does not, however, mean that Facebook is safe from a possible change in fashion, mood or a widespread disaffection.
This is clear from results of a recent study done with a sample of American teenagers, considered to be precursors of this segment of the market. The study shows that a change in attitude towards Facebook (with some people leaving Facebook altogether and others simply using it much less) has already been noted amongst a fifth of those questioned. The main reasons given to explain this were a lack of interest in the service, the attraction of other sites and the overload of information on the site. Similarly, the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) published in July 2010 showed that Facebook, despite its high penetration rate, isn’t actually liked by its users. Its satisfaction rate placed it amongst the top 5% of least-appreciated American companies, far ahead of Google and Wikipedia. Using a service that you don’t like just because the people you like are using it too is obviously a winning argument. That is, of course, whilst those people are still using said service, at any rate…

Translated from the French by Leah Williams.
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Tableau récapitulatif des principaux réseaux sociaux dans le monde

Pure players (US)
Groups (US)
Local networks
Specialist networks
Myspace (News Corp)
Orkut (Google)
Google Buzz
Yahoo Pulse
Windows Live
Skyblog (France)
Badoo (Italie)
Tuenti (Espagne)
V Kontakte (Russie)
Odnoklassniki (Russie)
As7ab Maktoob (Moyen Orient)
Hyves (Pays Bas)
StudiVZ (Allemagne)
Cyworld (Corée du Sud)
Iwiw (Hongrie)
Nasza-Klasa (Pologne)
Lidé (République Tchèque)
Mixi (Japon)
One (Lettonie et Lituanie)
Qzone, Renren,, Kaixin001 (Chine)
Wretch (Taiwan) (Vietnam)
YouTube (Google), DailyMotion,
Soundcloud, (CBS),, Pandora,
Flickr (Yahoo), Fotolog,, Copainsdavant,
LinkedIn, Viadeo, Ziki, Plaxo, Jigsaw, Livejournal, Yelp, Habbo, Flixster, FourSquare
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Danah m. BOYD (2007), « Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace », Apophenia Blog Essay, 24 juin.

Danah m.
BOYD, Nicole B. ELLISON, (2007), « Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship », Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (1), article 11.
Dominique CARDON, (2008), « Le design de la visibilité : un essai de typologie du web 2.0 »,, 2 février.
Nicolas CURIEN, (2000), Économie des réseaux, Paris, La Découverte.
Jiban K. PAL, (2010), « Social networks enabling matrimonial information services in India », International Journal of Library and Information Science Vol. 2 (4), p. 54-64, May.
Trebor SCHOLZ, (2007), « The Social Web:Web 2.0 What Went Wrong ? »,

Carl SHAPIRO, Hal VARIAN, (2000), Économie de l'information. Guide stratégique de l'économie de réseau, Bruxelles, De Boeck Université.
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