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The Digital Romance Economy

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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 internet.org 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 internet.org, 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.

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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.

Callum Connects

Mikyung Kim, TV Commercial Producer

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Mikyung Kim is a savvy producer who runs her own TV and print production business, based in Hong Kong.

What’s your story?
I am a TV commercial and print producer working with advertising agencies and brands to bring their communication needs to the screen. My background is in film production and I started my career in Hollywood working with Oscar winning directors Michel Gondry and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Before starting my own company last year to produce content directly with agencies and brands, I was with Ogilvy & Mather Hong Kong for nearly five years as the Senior Producer and Head of TV running the film production department.

What excites you most about your industry?
How it’s constantly evolving! Every day is different and it’s certainly never boring. I love that it’s a creative industry and that my job involves talking to people with creative minds on how we can bring a story on paper to life. It’s exciting that the advertising industry places high value on the creativity and effectiveness of content. I’ve produced a few commercials that creatively push the envelope with fun and sometimes wild ideas that have converted into positive brand awareness. Ever heard of KFC Finger Lickin’ Good…Nail Polish that yes, tastes like chicken? https://www.adweek.com/creativity/kfc-just-made-edible-finger-lickin-good-nail-polish-yeah-tastes-chicken-171245/

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Seoul and raised in Hong Kong until graduating from high school at HKIS. I spent my university years in Boston at Emerson College and worked in Los Angeles at Anonymous Content and Partizan Entertainment. But on a brief visit back to Hong Kong in 2010, I decided to move back and continue my career here, and it was the best decision I ever made.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Hong Kong is my home so it will always be my favourite city for business and for me personally. What I love about Hong Kong is that while I am based here, I can actually work with agencies and brands from anywhere in APAC. If I need to attend an important meeting, I can just hop on a quick flight easily. I spent most of 2017 working in Seoul with Korean agency Cheil and Samsung, and currently I am working with Japanese agency ADK and Toyota based in Singapore.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Fake it until you become it,” from Amy Cuddy’s TED talk. Worth a watch. This helped me early in my career when I felt like I was under qualified for the job I was in. I learned to fake my confidence and fake a powerful body language until I truly felt that confidence became something real. It was nerve wracking at first but it worked and now I don’t have to fake it.

Who inspires you?
My friends. Noelle who worked part time jobs while being a full time student to pay her own tuition while we were in college together. Osti who is a lawyer focused on supporting developing nations and a board member of Redress, an environmental NGO working to reduce waste in the fashion industry. Vanessa who runs a real estate company, co-owns the gym Crossfit Asphodel, started a health foods business called Quo and NGO The Keep Moving Project to promote wellness in our community. Cathy who will be the first Asian woman to direct a big budget superhero film starring Margot Robbie with Warner Bros and DC. And too many more to name!

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
5.2 million plastic bottles are thrown away in Hong Kong every day. Plastic pollution is a major issue for the environment and we as responsible citizens can do our small part by reducing our consumption of unnecessary plastic. I do mine by having a water filter at home and carrying my own reusable water bottle with me everywhere I go. I love the brand Hydroflask because the stainless steel material keeps water hot or cold for hours, so I don’t feel tempted to buy a cold water at 7-11 on those hot, humid days we have here.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
About five years ago I purchased my very first stock and put one month’s salary into it, which at the time was a lot of money for me. Knowing how that stock has performed now, I would have put all my savings into it.

How do you unwind?
Exercise is essential in my daily life to help clear my head and de-stress. My go to is a workout at Crossfit Asphodel, running outdoors, yoga and hiking. But a glass of red wine and live music at Soiree in Soho on Sunday night works pretty well too!

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
One of the best trips I ever took was to the island of Lombok in Indonesia. Two girl friends and I did a 3 day 2 night hiking and camping trip to summit the Mount Rinjani Volcano. It was physically challenging but mentally relaxing. There was no cellphone reception, no distractions, we had the company of nature and nights with skies full of shooting stars. It was pretty magical. We then went to the Gili Islands for a few days of scuba diving, yoga and sitting on the beach doing nothing but sipping on coconuts. That was pretty relaxing too.

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office” by Lois P. Frankel and “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. Essential reads for every working woman and/or man who wants to know how to support the working women in their life.

Shameless plug for your business:
I am a TV commercial and print producer that can plug into an existing advertising agency or brand team to produce their communication needs. Many advertising agencies these days are scaling down so they have creative directors and account services but may not have an in-house producer, so I can fill that gap by becoming a part of the existing agency team. For brands that want to produce content directly without involving an agency, I can also bridge the gap by bringing my production knowledge in-house and working as part of the marketing/brand team and liaising with the other departments in the company such as product team and ecomm.

How can people connect with you?
They can email me at [email protected]
or visit my website at mkimproducer.com

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:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Callum Connects

Renne Ballard, Owner of Renée Ballard Communications

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Renne Ballard runs a social media agency working with business women, helping them find their business’s voice.

What’s your story?
I began my career in PR/communications ten years ago in Australia, after arriving home from two years in Dubai. In Dubai I was working for Emirates Airlines as a flight attendant and flying around the world non-stop for two years. This really sparked my interest for how people communicate. I started out as a community manager for an online advertising company, then moved into the corporate world of outdoor advertising, managing internal and external PR and communications. After having a baby four years ago, I decided to leave the safety net of corporate, and stride out on my own. I now run a social media agency and I specialise in working with business women, helping to find their business’ voice so they can use social media to achieve their business goals.

What excites you most about your industry?
I love the open accessibility online provides. It’s free for businesses to get online and connect with their target audience. Twenty years ago, advertising and PR was insanely expensive and quite elitist, but through incredible platforms like Facebook or Twitter, any business can connect with who is looking for their product/solution. Social media is particularly effective for small businesses because they have the edge when it comes to authenticity and a clear voice.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m in Hong Kong because I’m a trailing spouse. I know it’s such a daggy term, but I love it, it makes me sound so dedicated to my husband! Alas, we came to Hong Kong for my husband’s work. He’s the Design Director of Asia for an international retail design agency. We’ve been here for almost two years and it’s been a huge learning curve in terms of business and culture. We love the fast-paced nature of Hong Kong and the fact that everything is open late – it suits me perfectly because I’m nocturnal.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
That’s easy, Hong Kong. It’s the perfect blend of start-ups and mothership-sized institutions. I love the small business side, watching the collaborations between workshare spaces with galleries, networking groups and foodies; it’s a hothouse of creative partnerships here.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
When you’re are feeling scared about your next step, lean in and feel the difference. Is it fear mixed with excitement? Or fear mixed with dread? Always go with the former and cut loose the latter.

Who inspires you?
I love Tamara Mellon (Jimmy Choo founder). She has created multiple empires and she never stops trying new business models and pushing her limits. It helps that I love shoes too.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
I just turned 40 years old. At best, I’m probably halfway through my life. It makes me constantly question, “Am I where I want to be?”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I would have asked more questions to the people I looked up to, and listened less to the people telling me I won’t achieve my goals.

How do you unwind?
In this day and age, it’s scandalous to say, but I love sunbaking. At any chance, you’ll find me poolside, laying in the sun in a trance-like state.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Northern Danang in Vietnam. We were there at Christmas, at the foot of the mountains and it was beautiful. Heaps of wildlife and jungles and enough five star resorts that I was never parched once.

Everyone in business should read this book:
‘The E Myth’ by Michael Gerber. It’s an oldie but a goodie because it succinctly outlines how to transition from a one person operation to a global business like McDonalds. Once you see how important systems and processes are, you can recognise shambolic companies a mile off.

Shameless plug for your business:
Renée Ballard Communications is a social media agency that works with business women who are ready to make social media work for them. We create effective, powerful social media strategies that are tailored to the people who will be breathing life into them. We hand on heart promise to never use annoying, marketing buzzwords and that we value laughter above everything else.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected] or www.reneeballard.com or +85296670115

Twitter handle?
@ballard_comms

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:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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