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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 – Vidya Vellala, Founder and CEO of Faasthelp



(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.)

Vidya Vellala is the Founder and CEO of Faasthelp, a 24/7 (round the clock) customer support on any business application through Artificial intelligence powered products. It analyzes what the customer is asking using natural language processing, machine learning and processes that to give the accurate responses to the customers instantly. Vidya is an Entrepreneur with a passion for innovation and latest technologies, having 17 years of Technology Experience. She won the India’s Best Startup CTO by Dell EMC.

What makes you do what you do?
I believe technology can solve any problem. Innovations in technology can improve the quality of life and the quality of work people does.
I am grown with a mindset which says self-sympathy is the enemy of self and hard work consistently without expecting a result will open bigger pathways. What I am doing is the combination of all.
Being an entrepreneur is an eternal learning which I love and I enjoy playing with technology and challenges that is the reason why I am doing what I am doing today.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Updating myself with the latest technologies is a must. Having said that, that alone is not sufficient. Always thinking positively, fighting against the fears, perseverance, and working hard helps.
I am lucky to have a big support from my family. My sisters who are also into technology field, make my life more beautiful and meaningful, to share not only the personal but also technical matters with them.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
With the bigger goal of supporting the future generations, this is the beginning. It had to start somewhere. In the very long journey this is the first step that I took.
My current startup is Faasthelp. We build artificial intelligence products.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?How did you make a match if you did, and how did you end up being mentored by him?
There have been many mentors at all stages of my startup. A startup eco system has brought me too many friends and mentors who have been very helpful at every stage of my startup and I am thankful to all of them.
My primary mentors in my life are my parents. The spirit of entrepreneurship was ignited when I was a kid and my mother was managing her small industry. The strong value system, sense of service, and responsibility towards the society is instilled in me by my dad. The strong urge to do something by myself was driven by my parents. They are the role models and driving factors.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I take personal interest in grooming and nurturing talent. I have established processes that identify the potential talent and to groom. I play to the best of their strengths and encourage them to take risks. My business needs also drive me to develop new skills and grow them. I value emotional intelligence and so is the strength of my team.

Do you consciously or subconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously and subconsciously support diversity, this again I can say got from my parents, my dad always wanted all women to be empowered and my mother had more women in her work force.
I have mentored women entrepreneurs, especially in their technical initiatives as I come with a vast technical expertise. I have extended my entrepreneurial connections to other women entrepreneurs. Our organization has more women representation.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
To be a great leader, you have to be a good leader, for that you must be a good human being, driven by high values, honesty, and ethics with great empathy for the people around.
Motivating the team, being a good listener with persistent hard work is a general thumb rule. Now there might be several ways to implement these and depending on the industry the implementation might differ but the ground principles remain same.
Entrepreneurship is continuous learning and I encourage others to do the same. Aim high and work towards the set goals is a way to go. I believe mindset to do service is also a way to become a good leader.

Advice for others?
Always be positive and create a positive impact on everyone. Have your values defined and do not compromise on them at any cost. Each small step taken towards the big thing is important, value them and go ahead, you will succeed surely. Success is something which we define our self and it can be achieved from any field and anywhere, on the way keep helping others.
The present focus is to develop the startup which I have taken up and my next idea is to continue to innovate and create technology products which will improvise human life.

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

To learn more about Faasthelp, please click here.

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Lessons Learnt from The Lean Startup



The Lean Startup book authored by Eric Ries has been sitting on my shelf for quite sometime now, so since I am currently contributing to the making of a startup I figured I’ll take a look into it.

The book is divided into 3 parts, after reading the first two I had my mind blown with the pragmatic and scientific approach to building startups that is described in the book.

In this post, I would like to share some important insights that I gained regarding building highly innovative businesses.

Validating Value Proposition And Growth Strategy Is The Priority

Usually, a highly innovative startup company is working in its most early stage at building a product or a service that will create a new market.

Consumers or businesses have not been yet exposed to something similar to what is going to be built by the startup. Therefore the absolute priority for startups in early stage is to validated their value proposition i.e. to get real data about eventual customers interest regarding their product/service.

The other priority is to validate that the growth strategy that is going to be executed is, in fact, effective.

The growth strategy of a startup is its plan to acquire more and more customers in the long term and in a sustainable fashion.

Three kinds of growth strategies are described in the book:

  • paid growth in which you rely on the fact that the customers are going to be charged for the product or service, the cash earned from early users is reinvested in acquiring new users via advertising for example
  • viral growth in which you rely on the fact that customers are going to bring customers as a side effect of using the product/service
  • sticky growth in which you rely on the fact that the customers are going to use the service in some regular fashion, paying for the service each time (via subscription for example).

These growth strategies are sustainable in the sense that they do not require continuous large capital investments or publicity stunts.

It is important to know as soon as possible which strategy or combination of strategies is the most effective at driving growth.

Applying The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a set of techniques that helps us figure out correct stuff. After making some observations regarding a phenomenon, you formulate a hypothesis about that phenomenon.

The hypothesis is an assumption that needs to be proven correct or incorrect. You then design experimentations that are going to challenge the assumption.

The results of the experimentations makes the correctness or incorrectness of the hypothesisclear allowing us to make judgments about its validity.

In the lean startup methodology, your job as an entrepreneur is to formulate two hypothesis:

  • hypothesis of value (assumptions about your value proposition)
  • hypothesis of growth (assumptions about the effectiveness of the growth strategy)

These hypothesis are then validated/invalidated through experimentation. Following the precepts of lean manufacturing, the lean startup methodology prescribes to make experimentations while minimizing/eliminating waste.

In other words, you have to burn minimum cash, effort and time when running experiments.

An experimentation in the lean startup sense is usually an actual product/service and helps startups in early stage learn invaluable things about their eventual future market.

Sometimes startups learn that nobody wants their product/service, imagine spending 8 months worth of engineering, design and promotion work (not to mention cash) in a product/service only to discover that it does not provide value to anyone.

Minimum Viable Products And Feedback

As we pointed out earlier, an experimentation can be an actual product or service and is called the minimum viable product(MVP).

The MVP is built to contain just enough features to validate the value and growth hypotheses, effectively requiring minimum time, effort and cash.

By getting the MVP launched and in front of real users, entrepreneurs can get concrete feedback from them either directly by asking them (in focus groups for example) or via usage analytics.

Analytics scales better then directly talking to customers but the latter is nonetheless used to cross validate results from the former.

It is crucial to focus on metrics that creates fine grained visibility about the performance of the business when building(or using) a usage analytics system. These metrics are called actionable metrics because they can link causes and effects clearly allowing entrepreneurs to understand the consequences of ideally each action executed. Cohort analysis is an example of a analytics strategy that focuses on actionable metrics.

The bad kind of metrics are called vanity metrics, these tend to hide how the business is performing, gross numbers like total users count are an example of vanity metrics.

The author cites several examples of different startups that managed to validate or debunk their early assumption by building stripped down and non scalable MVPs and even sometimes by not building software at all.

You would be surprised to hear for example how the Dropbox folks in their early stage managed to created a ~4 minute video demonstrating their product while it was still in development. The video allowed them to get more people signed up in their beta waiting list and raise capital more easily.

Closing Thoughts

In the first two parts of the book, the author talks also about how employees inside big companies working on highly innovative products and services can benefit greatly from the lean startup approach, although very interesting this is not very useful for me right now.

The third part, talks about the challenges that arises when the startup gets big and starts to stabilize and how to address them. Basically it revolves around not loosing the innovative spirit of the early days, again, this is not very useful for me so maybe for good future reading.


About the Author

This article was produced by Tech Dominator. see more.

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