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The Digital Romance Economy



Love. Sex. Romance – are and always have been key in the adoption and use of new media technologies. Pornography and dating sites are the most frequented internet sites across the globe. Romance breeds new economies in the West– we find ourselves in the age of tinder, grindr, hinge, hitch, and okCupid. However, when it comes to the global South, the story has a different twist. While romance also serves as a prime driver for internet adoption here, few can afford to browse for a partner across sites for sustained periods. After all, the majority of the population in the global South are low-income, many living below 2$ a day and with limited access to the internet.

With Facebook’s new initiative that provides free internet service to those in the developing world, it has become the one-stop-shop for romantic activity in these emerging markets. Facebook istinder to the world’s poor. Most young men in poor communities such as in the Middle East have never spoken to a girl outside their family. Online chatting can be the only avenue of being in touch with the opposite sex. The girls in such patriarchal societies resist open communities online as they seek anonymity, atomization and autonomy that otherwise is hard to come by in these sexually segregated societies.

Facebook carves new spaces for pleasure as well as new vulnerabilities. “Concerns about online deception are as old as the internet itself,” argues Toma and Hancock. The disembodied nature of online communication increases the opportunities for deception. False self-representation is a well-documented, common and global social practice as both women and men invest tremendous effort to position themselves as desirable in this highly competitive romance economy. Much of this can be harmless. However, deception when done systematically to scam people of their life savings, can be tremendously destructive.

In recent years, Koon and Yoong [pdf] have identified a new cyber-crime known as Internet Romance Scams (IRSs) in Malaysia where the scammers prime intent is to prey on the lonely and desperate and defraud them of large sums of money. The Royal Malaysian Police (RMP) reports that in 2012 alone, 846 IRSs cases have been recorded with a total loss of RM32.09 million and there may be more that have gone unreported.

In my own ongoing research (with Rangaswamy & Scheiber) on Facebook usage by youth in the slums of India and favelas of Brazil, romance frauds are a common malady. Fake girl profiles are set up to lure the ones keen on companionship. The game here is to promise love in exchange for recharging a mobile. The ‘fake girl’ friends a young man and chats with him. Some send photos and say that they are single and desperate for love. Then, as Raj, a young Indian man puts it, “I ask if we can meet? They say ‘can you help me with something’ and finally they ask for a recharge.” This has compelled a quick and steep learning curve among these men on detecting fake from authentic profiles on Facebook. Sanjiv, another young man in the slum, shares his deception detection strategy, “if you send ‘how are you’ to fake accounts, their reply will be ‘hot’ almost all the time. We can tell they are fake directly.”

Another area of vulnerability is revenge porn, the non-consensual sharing of sexual content posted and distributed online of the person featured, with the purpose of shaming. While this practice is pervasive worldwide, it far more frequently results in more deadly consequences, particularly in patriarchal societies in the global South. A common practice is to ‘slut shame’ the victim. For instance, Muttalik of the conservative right-wing religious party in India suggested that the young women have themselves to blame as they have been “corrupted by technologies” – their inappropriate use of their cell phones have made them “sluts.” In contrast, from our fieldwork in Brazil’s favelas where there is far less gender segregation, sexuality is more open and permissive. Even then, these issues pervade. While acknowledging self-blame, Elena from a favela in Rio, states clearly that it’s a matter of rights. “I made the video with my boyfriend, we broke up and he posted it.  Even though I’m wrong, I’m gonna go after my rights, because my image is there. Everybody has the right, so here nobody is a saint.”

While the West have had privacy laws in place since the 1970s, the emerging markets are only now seriously grappling with this as affordable mobile technologies have brought much of their citizenry onto the digital sphere within the last five years. Today, even the poor are digitally connected. And as with many laws, the personal becomes political as it’s more graspable to the lay public. Sex is perhaps the most visceral area that triggers moral panic and expedites regulation of the internet. A case in point is Brazil. Public anxieties about child pornography became pivotal for pushing legal initiatives to control Internet traffic in 2009. Media events such as the suicide of 17-year-old Julia Rebecca after a video of her having sex with other minors was posted online pushed the revenge porn bill into motion. In 2014, Brazil formulated a more sophisticated version of the Civil Framework for the Internet called ‘Marco Civil,’ which affects Internet users’ privacy and freedom of expression.

Not surprisingly, internet regulation in the global South strongly ties to regulation policies of Facebook. Since Facebook serves as The Internet to the majority of the world’s marginalized demographic through its, it will continue to take center stage. Given the collapse of diversity here, Facebook is at once both a public sphere of protest and state propaganda; their administrators are activists as well as instruments of authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, the global South is not unified on notions on sexuality, moral codes of conduct and perspectives on gender rights and yet, they continue to be addressed repeatedly as a monolithic whole. While it is helpful to go beyond the West to critically examine internet norms, it is also worth reconfiguring our understandings of the BRICS nations as they relate to politics of sexuality and how it manifests in digital cultures that propel new internet laws for a more inclusive public.


About the Author

This article was written by Payal Arora of LSE Impact Blog, a hub for researchers, administrative staff, librarians, students, think-tanks, government, and anyone else interested in maximising the impact of academic work in the social sciences and other disciplines. Paypal is Associate Professor in the Department of Media & Communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam and is Founder and Executive Director of Catalyst Lab. see more.


Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist



(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn:

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures



Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
Download free copies of his books here:

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