All posts by ramonvanleeuwen

Orwellian Social Credit system: myth or reality?

Black Mirror

Everyone who has been keeping up with the offering of Netflix has heard of Black Mirror, the series about dystopian worlds becoming reality. In one of the episodes writer Charlie Booker depicts a world in which every citizen has a social score that everyone can vote on when getting into contact with the person in question. The main character of the episode is at a certain point in the episode denied access to a flight due to her low social score.  A scary thought, but as it turns out very much reality. The Chinese government intends to implement a similar system as portrayed in Black Mirror in which people are assigned a social credit. Main difference is that this score is attributed by the government through big data, not by fellow ‘victims’. In the coming year, 2020, the social credit system is bound to kick off. While the examples of a poor social credit provided in the Orwellian Black Mirror episode approach extremes, some of the scenes will turn out to be real consequences in China. For example, by the end of 2018 more than five million citizens of China have already been denied access to high-speed rail tickets due to having been placed on a blacklist due to debt  (Needham, 2019). Some other implications for citizens once the system initiates are being unable to find a job in civil service, journalism and legal fields or having your children being denied access to high-paying private schools (Botsman, 2017).

Sesame Credit

What if I told you that this social system has been a reality for over four years already? That’s right. Alibaba, the Chinese multinational giant in e-commerce and other sectors, has assigned its customers with a social credit score, commonly referred to as Sesame Credit (Jefferson, 2018). Alibaba is known to have close affiliates with the Chinese government and the Sesame Credit is partially a trial version of the social credit system about to be introduced (Financial Times, 2017).

So what is the Sesame Credit and how does it work? Alibaba collects a ton of data on their customers. Given that they are active in insurance, loans, e-commerce and even dating, it is evident that they have a lot to analyze. The credit system uses data on more than 300 million people and 37 million businesses (Alibaba Group, 2015). To add to this, their ties with the Chinese government provide them with access to official identities, financial records and even messages of Chinese WhatsApp alternative WeChat (Huang, 2017). All this data is gathered by Alibaba and then analyzed to come to a Sesame Credit, which can be interpreted as an indication of someone’s trustworthiness. While the exact algorithm they use to determine a person’s Sesame Credit is unknown, it is known that the heaps and heaps of data collected all amount to a different rating in five categories. Namely, credit history, fulfillment capacity (ability to live up to contract terms etc.), personal characteristics, behavior & preferences and lastly interpersonal relationships (i.e. your friends). Bound together, you get yourself your very own Sesame Credit.


Now, what to do with your Sesame Credit is a natural next question. A main difference when comparing the Sesame Credit to the approaching Social Credit system by the Chinese government is that the Sesame Credit is about rewarding trustworthy people rather than punishing those that do not have a high rating. Some ways in which the credit score has rewarded customers are when applying for a loan with Ant Financial, a daughter company of Alibaba or when trying to book a night at a hotel. The merit to a high social score there is not having to pay up front due to the high trustworthiness., a Chinese dating site, has even started to allow users to add their Sesame Credit to their profile as a way to provide better dating opportunities for users (Hatton, 2015). These are just some of the more obvious applications for the Sesame Credit and how it creates value for people with a high rating.

A remaining question is the value for Alibaba itself. Other than being a nice perk to hand out to customers, a first glance at the credit system raises the question as to what the use is for Alibaba. The reason why Sesame Credit or any social credit in China has a lot of purpose for these entities is the way it points out desired behavior. By encouraging people to behave by making them aware of the fact that every move is being monitored and therefore counts, people will start to behave more desirably in order to retain their high Sesame Credit and, consequentially, the rewards that come with it.

Basically, the Sesame Credit seems to be a win-win situation for those people that are, in the most broad definition of the word, decent and Alibaba. By evoking good behavior in people so that their Sesame Credit becomes an accurate reflection of their proper conduct, Alibaba boosts the average trustworthiness of their customers as well as providing their model citizens with proper rewards. Naturally, there are questions as to the ethics of monitoring every step customers take as well as analyzing them and adding a trustworthiness tag to a human being, but all ethical issues aside, the business model seems to merit both the user and the company. It works, and given that Sesame Credit was a trial indirectly executed by the Chinese government, we can look forward to the implementation of ‘the real deal’, the actual social system that will go live in 2020.


In conclusion, the episode Nosedive from Black Mirror has opened the eyes to many westerners which regard to the social credit system that is about to be introduced nationwide in China. Despite this more recent revelation, the Sesame Credit, a predecessor to the big fish by the Chinese government has been up and running for four years already and is deemed a success. Customers get assigned with a trustworthiness score and in return get access to many advantages such as discounts or not having to pay deposits at hotels. If this system will work in a punishing fashion has yet to be discovered, but it will most certainly be an interesting development to keep an eye out for.


Alibaba Group (2015) Ant Financial Unveils China’s First Credit-Scoring System Using Online Data. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Botsman, R. (2017) Big data meets Big Brother as China moves to rate its citizens. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Financial Times (2017) China changes tack on ‘social credit’ scheme plan. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Hatton, C. (2015) China ‘social credit’: Beijing sets up huge system. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Huang, P. (2017) WeChat Confirms: It Shares Just About All Private Data With the Chinese Regime. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Jefferson, E. (2018) No, China isn’t Black Mirror – social credit scores are more complex and sinister than that. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Needham, K. (2019) China: Big Data watches millions during Chinese New Year. Available at: (Accessed: 7 March 2019).

Nice shirt you created! How about this?

This is a review of the study “Social Product-Customization Systems: Peer Input, Conformity, and Consumers’ Evaluation of Customized Products” by Tobias Schlager, Christian Hildebrand, Gerald Häubl, Nikolaus Franke and Andreas Herrmann (2018)

Suppose you are in desperate need of a new wardrobe, but the predetermined shops with stock shirts, pants and other offerings are too stale for you. In other words, you feel like getting creative and coming up with your own design. You might be a good designer, you might not be. It does not necessarily matter when endeavoring custom clothing websites in which you get to decide what your new clothing should look like. The reason for this is the recent invention of social customization systems, which the aforementioned article discusses in depth. Social customization systems aim to offer constructive feedback on a customer’s submitted design, providing opportunities to improve the design by suggested changes or complimenting the custom piece of clothing.

This form of value cocreation can be executed in two distinct ways, publicly or privately. In public customization systems, the feedback is displayed in an accessible environment, for example on the website of the custom clothes shop. In a private setting, however, the criticism or tips are provided in a personal setting that is not accessible to others. An example of this would be through e-mail. Social customization systems are becoming more implemented in products that are often demanded to have certain customization options. Some examples are cars, computers and clothes. This study dives deeper into differences between private and public customization systems and the response on the feedback provided.


The goal of the researchers was to find information on the hypothetical relations in social customization systems between thinking styles, public and private nature of the system, conformity to peer input, perceived closeness to input providers and the evaluation of the final product. That’s a lot of vague information to take in, so to fully understand what is meant by the mentioned variables, we’ll move on to the hypotheses.

The first hypothesis the authors address is about thinking styles, public vs private recommendations and conforming to product modifications. Thinking styles, according to researchers, can be separated by the terms holistic and analytic. Holistic thinking entails taking into account the whole of a situation when addressing a problem, whereas analytic thinking tends to split up the problem in components, analyzing them one by one. The researchers hypothesize that people with a more holistic (analytic) thinking style tend to conform to product modifications more when the recommendations are provided in a public (private) setting.

Besides this hypothesis, the authors look deeper into the evaluation of the final product as a result of perceived closeness to input providers and the extent to which the consumer has conformed to peer input. The hypothesis reads that people who conformed to suggested modifications in a greater extent, are more likely to evaluate their final product more favorably when the perceived closeness to the input provider is high. Simply put, the authors wanted to find out if you, after implementing suggested modifications, evaluate the final product configuration more positively when you feel close to the person who provided the feedback and whether you evaluate it more negatively if you feel distant to the provider.

Conceptual model


The researchers did five different studies in order to find support for their hypotheses. While not all five studies were aimed at both hypotheses individually, they did in most cases contribute towards support. Consequentially, the authors managed to find significant support for both hypotheses, which means that holistic thinking people are more likely to conform to public recommendations, whereas analytic people prefer private communication. Secondly, they found that closeness to the input provider does implicate that you are more likely to evaluate the final product favorably.

Theoretical implications

The findings of this study offer three new insights in existing literature with regards to social customization systems and consumers’ final product configurations. Firstly, it is now empirically supported that when a consumer receives public input on a design or setup, this person is more likely to conform to this input when the thinking style is holistic, while the opposite goes for private input and analytical thinking styles. Secondly, the finding that perceived closeness to the input provider matters when evaluating the final product modifications contributes to literature. Lastly, this research shows that the main predictions of social impact theory  are relevant across systems in passive systems rather than systems in which active participation and contribution is the standard (Latané, 1981).

In short, this study enhances insights on two important moderators (closeness to input providers and thinking style) as well as expanding the understanding of the social influence in social customization systems.

Managerial implications

Practically speaking, these results are highly relevant in managerial decisions. Given the findings with respect to thinking styles and conforming to customization, decision-makers should take into account what the more prominently present thinking style is in a certain market or country when deciding on the nature of recommendations. For example, it was mentioned in the study that German people, on average, are more analytic thinking people while Japanese people tend to be of a more holistic thinking nature (Monga and Roedder John, 2007; de Bellis et al., 2015).

Besides that, the conclusion that feeling close to a person when taking into consideration their suggested modifications, allows for managers to think about how they wish to design their social recommendation system. Given that it is difficult to determine the personality of a person just through their browsing behavior on the website, it could possibly be a wise move to further implement abilities to share your customized product with friends, whom you are often times feeling close to.


One of the most solid decisions made by the authors of the research was the opting for five different studies to find proof for their hypotheses. While a single study often times suffices in providing support for a hypothesis, the authors decided that, in order to eliminate most doubt or ambiguities in the research, five individual studies would improve the reliability of the research. This has definitely helped the credibility of the paper.

Another strong aspect of the study was that researches 2, 3 and 4 were all conducted in a natural environment rather than a fabricated one. The participants of those studies were asked to browse a website in which custom men’s dress shirts could be designed on an actual online social customization system. By providing the natural element to the studies, the chances of generalizability of the research increase.


While the findings of the study are highly relevant and some good overall decisions were made in the design of the study, some weaknesses are present as well. Particularly the decision to attribute a whole country to a particular thinking style is considered to be a non-desirable move. The first of the five studies that were performed in this research categorized Japanese people in general as holistic thinking people while German people were all attributed with the analytic thinking style. You might have tested this for yourself and are likely to have found conflicting results. This means that the generalizability of the study is at stake. This is not the only weakness found that impacts the generalizability. Other than the thinking styles being attributed with entire countries, the studies were often times focused almost solely on male or female participants rather than having a gender neutral product with an even distribution of gender. This makes it difficult to conclude whether the results hold across genders.


de Bellis, E. et al. (2015) ‘Cross-national differences in uncertainty avoidance predict the effectiveness of mass customization across East Asia: a large-scale field investigation’, Marketing Letters. doi: 10.1007/s11002-015-9356-z.

Latané, B. (1981) ‘The psychology of social impact.’, American Psychologist, 36(4), pp. 343–356. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.36.4.343.

Monga, A. B. and Roedder John, D. (2007) ‘Cultural Differences in Brand Extension Evaluation: The Influence of Analytic versus Holistic Thinking’, Journal of Consumer Research. doi: 10.1086/510227.