FutureChallenges.org and Google’s Internet and Society Collaboratory are running a “blog carnival”, inviting comments on the cultural aspects of Internet-driven globalization. They’ve asked the following questions:
“Do globalized telecommunications and communication across borders and cultures have any impact on intercultural practices? Does the Internet create a bigger space for cultural similarities? Or does it instead have the opposite effect? Does it increase awareness of the cultural differences all over the world?”
A few years ago, I watched a TED Talk and read a book by Clay Shirky, who offered an impressive range of examples of the social “surplus” created by the internet. Being a somewhat early adopter of technology as well as an avid user/consumer of social media, I have made many of these positive experiences. Yet a uniform effect on “culture” seems hard to identify: On the one hand, there are scale effects that lead to huge rewards for those who attract the most attention (“there’s only one Google, or maybe three”). On the other, niche markets and social groups also prosper online (Anderson’s “long tail”). So the internet allows you to focus on your obscure obsession, but also makes sure you know about Justin Bieber.
I’ll leave it to more qualified observers to comment in detail on the internet and culture as a whole. What I want to do instead is look at a tiny set of online communications, namely (micro-)blogging about politics and political science.
First, there’s “strictly academic/professional” blogging. For political scientists, that means writing about theory, research results, or methods. For journalists, think of quicker, less edited news reports or analysis. These posts often are pretty sophisticated and evoke serious discussions. I think of comments as a variant of peer review or letters to the editor, and the contents might be lighter in tone but are similar to formalized academic or journalistic work.
Second, there’s what might be called “citizen journalism”, or just freelance reporting. This can happen on Twitter, Facebook or reddit, but also through specialized channels (Wikipedia and other wikis; services such as Ushahidi) or on private weblogs. People can spread “their” news and analyses through the internet, largely independent from any organization or employer backing them. This is the most radically new of the three categories, and hard to imagine on the same scale without recent technological progress.
Third, there’s “behind the scenes” blogging. This can be meta-observations or just background information that would not be reported in a “regular” piece: What equipment do you take on a field trip? How should you behave on your next conference? Oh, and there’s a new tumblr page mocking the profession’s rituals (preferably by adding captions to pictures of cats)? Academics, in particular, seem to have a strong urge to be humorous, maybe because our output usually isn’t.
OK, but how does all this relate to the question of whether the internet makes us all culturally more similar, or maybe more aware of our differences?
When it comes to sharing information, ideas and norms, I’d say that “strictly professional” blogging adds to an already high level of exchange. For academics, it’s crucial to publish ideas, and blogs are just an additional channel. Nonetheless, reading a blog post might still point me to information that did not make its way to mainstream academic journals. Likewise, we should not forget that the selection of topics covered by “traditional” media outlets is already shaped by globalization. Yet blogging journalists can widen their audience beyond the usual subscribers of their print publication, and experiments such as FiveThirtyEight have attracted many non-NYT readers.
For non-traditional sources, such as freelancers reporting news or adding their opinions to debates, there is even more potential: If such a perspective attracts sufficient attention, it can create awareness to an underreported issue. This awareness might then lead to interactions between people who are usually divided by geographical distance, culture, or ignorance. Unfortunately, most of the valuable contributions out there probably never reach that threshold.
The third category, which I have labeled “behind the scenes” blogging, is valuable because it creates awareness for (and reflection about) the social practices in a profession. Learning about what colleagues from a different cultural context usually do, like, or worry about can create a sense of community and cultural affinity. Whereas we have traditionally relied on initial face-to-face meetings as the basis for repeated interactions, the internet makes it more common to communicate with a wide array of people, irrespective of whether you have met in person. Almost automatically, this increases the variety of interactions.
Does this lead to shared cultural understandings or at least mutual tolerance? Or does the web merely offer a cheap and anonymous way of reinforcing prejudices and being angry at each other? As any self-respecting political scientist will tell you: It depends…
Academic blogging is probably a “most likely” case of a positive effect. After all, we’re talking about a group of people who share similar ideas and practices, are used to cross-border exchange, and have a lot to gain from talking to each other. Yet I am also cautiously optimistic for non-academic political blogs that speak to a general audience. Whenever people are exposed to voices from outside of their well-established “filter bubble”, this is a great chance to learn and understand new perspectives. The internet certainly offers a huge potential in that direction.
Thanks to Sören for his comments. This post was also inspired by a forthcoming article on blogs in academia by Ali Arbia.