Culture and Communication:
The Impact of the Internet on the Emerging Global Culture
Michael Hauben [email protected]
This paper is an expanded version of a paper accepted for presentation at
the IFIP-WG 9.2/9.5 conference on Culture and Democracy Revisited in the
Global Information Society to be held May 8 - 10, 1997 on the Greek Island of
Corfu. That paper will be included in the proceedings of the conference to
be published by Chapman and Hall.
As we approach the new millennium, social relationships are changing
radically. In 1969, the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote of an
"approaching world-wide culture." While she wrote of a global culture
made possible by the electronic and transportation advances of her
day, her words actually foresaw fundamental changes that have been
substantially enhanced by the computer communication networks that
were just beginning in 1969. A new culture is being formed out of a
universal desire for communication. This culture is being formed and
formulated both by new technology and by social desires. People are
dissatisfied with the their conditions, whether traditional or modern.
Much of the new communication technology facilitates new global
connections. This paper will explore the emerging global culture and
the influence of the new net culture on a new participatory global
Culture and Communication:
The Impact of the Internet on the Emerging Global Culture
I. The Emerging Globalization of Everyday Life
The concept of a global culture arises from the extensive develop-
ment of transportation and communication technologies in the twentieth
century. These developments have linked the world together in ways which
make it relatively simple to travel or communicate with peoples and cul-
tures around the world. The daily exposure of the world's peoples to
various cultures makes it impossible for almost any individual to envision
the world consisting of only his or her culture (Mead, 1978, p. 69). We really
are moving into a new global age which affects most aspects of human life.
For example, world trade has become extensive, more and more words are
shared across languages, people are aware of political situations around
the world and how these situations affect their own, and sports and enter-
tainment are viewed simultaneously by global audiences. The exposure to
media and forms of communication helps spread many of these cultural
elements. While television and radio connect people with the rest of the
world in a rather removed and often passive fashion, computer networks are
increasingly bringing people of various cultures together in a much more
intimate and grassroots manner. A global culture is developing, and the
Internet is strongly contributing to its development.
Culture is a difficult concept to define. Tim North has gathered six
different definitions in his unpublished Masters thesis:
* Culture: The shared behavior learned by members of a society, the
way of life of a group of people (Barnouw, 1987, p. 423).
* A culture is the way of life of a group of people, the complex of
shared concepts and patterns of learned behavior that are handed
down from one generation to the next through the means of language
and imitation (Barnouw, 1987, p. 4).
* Culture: The set of learned behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and
ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population
(Ember and Ember, 1990, p. 357).
* Culture . . . taken in its wide ethnographic sense is that complex
whole that includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any
other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of a soci-
ety (Tyler, 1871; cited in Harris 1988, p. 122).
* Culture: The customary manner in which human groups learn to
organize their behavior in relation to their environment (Howard,
1989, p. 452).
* Culture (general): The learned and shared kinds of behavior that
make up the major instrument of human adaption. Culture (particular):
The way of life characteristic of a particular human society (Nanda,
1991, p. G-3).
--From North "The Internet and Usenet Global Computer Networks", chapt.
One common category in some of these definitions is the passing of
previously learned behavior from one generation to the next. Another
common category in them is the importance of experience and patterns of
behavior being shared among a group of people.
Historically, during most periods, culture has changed slowly and
been passed on from generation to generation. In the last half of the
twentieth century, however, for most peoples the normal rate of cultural
evolution has been accelerating. Mead (1978, p. 64) writes that while in the
past, culture was transmitted from the older generation to the younger
with slow change from generation to generation, today the younger genera-
tion learn from both their elders and their peers. The learning from peers
is then shared with their elders. Human culture gets set by how people live
their lives (Graham, 1995). Culture is created and re-enforced through how
that person lives in context of society and social movements. One is taught
the culture of his or her society while growing up, but those perceptions
change as he or she matures, develops and lives an adult life. Culture is
not statically defined. Rather a person grows up into a culture and then
can contribute to its change as time progresses. (Mead, 1956)
People increasingly live a more global lifestyle, whether mediated
through television, radio and newspapers, travel or actual experience. This
global experience is facilitated by the ability of the individual to interact
with people from other cultures and countries on a personal level. Images
and thoughts available via mass media show the presence of other cultures,
but when people actually get a chance to talk and interact, then the
differences become less of an oddity and more of an opportunity (Uncapher,
1992). As Professor of Education Dennis Sumara observes, the formation of
self-identity is influenced in relations with others. People and cultures
change from the interaction with other people's cultures. This new interac-
tion and subsequent change is part of the formation of a global culture. He
The sense of self-identity ... emerges ... from our symbiotic relations
with others. In coming to know others we learn about ourselves. It is
important to note, however, that it is not a static or unified self
that we come to know, for in the coming-to-know -- we are changed. We
evolve through our relations with others.... (Sumara, 1996, p. 56)
There are those who claim this global culture, or mass culture is
snuffing out individual differences for an prepackaged commercial culture.
These critics call for the isolation of communities from each other so that
uniqueness can be preserved. This criticism misses that human culture is a
dynamic element of society, and freezing it would produce a museum of human
society. Uncapher correctly points out that what these critics do not
recognize is that more and more people of various cultures are under-
standing the power of the new communication technologies. More people are
reacting against the mass media and corporate dominance and calling for a
chance to express their views and contribute their culture into the global
culture. As an example, Margaret Mead tells a story of returning to a
village in New Guinea which she had visited three decades earlier. She
In the 1930s, when one arrived in a New Guinea village, the first
requests were for medicine ... and for trade goods. The European was
expected to bring material objects from the outside world... But in
1967 the first conversation went:
"Have you got a tape recorder?"
"We have heard other people's singing on the radio and we want
other people to hear ours." (Mead, 1978, p. 5)
The presence of radios made the villagers aware of the music of others, and
they wanted a part of their culture broadcast around the world.
Mead understood the importance of diversity to the survival and
strength of a species, whether human or animal. However, she also under-
stood that part of the global commonality was through the spread of
scientific understandings and technological developments. The desire for
technology is strong among those who have only heard about their advan-
tages. She wrote, "People who have only seen airplanes in the sky and heard
the wonderful ways of radio, satellites, telescopes, microscopes, engines,
and script are eager to experience these things for themselves." (Mead,
1978, p. 121) The Internet is one of the new technological advances of today,
and can be seen to fit with the above examples but for more advanced
societies. It is important to understand that coupled with the desire for
the technological advances is the understanding of the need to control the
introduction of such technology and participate to have its use benefit the
particular peoples in their particular needs. The peoples of the world
understand that with the implementation of technology comes a responsibil-
ity for the management and careful handling of that technology. Mead writes
...the very burgeoning of science that has resulted in world-wide
diffusion of a monotonous modern culture has also stimulated people
throughout the world to demand participation. And through this
demand for participation in the benefits of a monotonous, homoge-
neous technology, we have actually generated new ways to preserve
diversity. (Mead, 1978, pp. 153-154)
Even in the primitive communities that Mead studied in the Pacific
Islands, she recorded that these people adopted democracy and the use of
technology with their own variations and new aspects that served their own
needs. The new advances in communication technologies facilitate new
democratic processes. People are discovering new ways to participate and
add their cultural contributions to a larger world. Efforts to communicate
require the acceptance of technological standards and the building of a
common technical framework. The growth of communications networks and
standards at the same time allows diverse cultures to share and spread
their varying cultures with others.
II. Global Contact over Computer Networks.
The new media of Usenet news, electronic mail and the Internet
facilitate the growth of global interactive communities. These electronic
forums are made available through community networks, universities, the
workplace, other public access locations, internet access providers and
other businesses (Hauben & Hauben, 1997, p. 8). Human culture is ever
evolving and developing, and the new public commons that these technolo-
gies make possible are of a global nature. A growing number of people are
coming together online and living more time of their daily lives with people
from around the world. Through the sharing of these moments by people,
their cultures are coming to encompass more of the world not before
immediately available. Mead (1978, p. 88) understood that a global community
and awareness would require the development of a new kind of communication
that depended on the participation of those who previously had no access
to such power or such a voice.
Usenet newsgroups are a relatively young medium of human discourse
and communication. The Usenet technology was developed by graduate
students in the late 1970s as a way to promote the sharing of information
and to spread communication between university campuses. This design
highlights the importance of the contribution by individuals to the commu-
nity. The content of Usenet is produced by members of the community for
the whole of the community. Active participation is required for Usenet to
have anything available on it. It is the opposite of a for-pay service that
provides content and information. On Usenet, the users produce the con-
tent, i.e. talk, debate, discussion, flames, reportage, nonsense, and scien-
tific breakthroughs fill the space. Usenet is a public communications
technology framework which is open. The users participate in determining
what newsgroups are created, and then fill those newsgroups with messages
that are the content of Usenet. In forming this public space, or commons,
people are encouraged to share their views, thoughts, and questions with
others (Hauben & Hauben, 1997, p. 4). The chance to contribute and interact
with other people spread Usenet to become a truly global community of
people hooking their computers together to communicate. People both
desire to talk and to communicate with other people (Graham, 1995;
Woodbury, 1994). Usenet was created to make that communication happen. In
time it has also given a public voice to those who would not have the
opportunity otherwise to have their voice heard. By promoting a democratic
medium, these graduate students who created Usenet were helping to create
the kind of medium Mead believed was an important condition towards the
development of a global culture.
In a recent study about the global online culture, Tim North (1994)
asked the question "is there an on-line culture and society on Usenet?" His
conclusion was that there is a definite Usenet culture. He lists four of the
important defining aspects of this unique online culture,
1. The conventions of the culture are freely discussed.
2. The culture is not closed to outsiders and welcomes new members.
3. There is a strong sense of community within the Net culture.
4. It's what you say, not who you are. (North, 1994, chap. 5.2)
North continues by describing how there is a distinct Usenet culture,
and that this culture is opening and welcoming of newcomers. He also notes
when there is unfriendliness to "newbies", but focuses on how the online
culture is documented and available for people to learn from sources
available online. This description of culture and netiquette (the word for
social etiquette while online) is available to learn from and open for
discussion. Bruce Jones describes the fullness of net culture,
...the usenet network of computers and users constitutes a community
and a culture, bounded by its own set of norms and conventions,
marked by its own linguistic jargon and sense of humor and accumulat-
ing its own folklore. (p. 2)
Both North and Jones elaborate on what they see to be an egalitarian
tendency or tendency to contribute to the community's benefit. Jones
...the people of the net owe something to each other. While not bound
by formal, written agreements, people nevertheless are required by
convention to observe certain amenities because they serve the
greater common interest of the net. These aspects of voluntary
association are the elements of culture and community that bind the
people of usenet together. (p. 4)
While North proposes that Usenet is a distinct culture, he argues
that it cannot be considered a separate society. Rather Usenet is "a
superstructural society that spans many mainstream societies and is
dependent upon them for its continued existence" (North, 1994, chap. 4.2.2).
North argues that the Net does not need to provide the physical
needs made possible by a society. He writes,
In this superstructural view, the Net is freed of the responsibilities
of providing certain of the features provided by other societies (e.g.
reproduction, food and shelter) by virtue of the fact that its mem-
bers are also members of traditional mainstream societies that do
supply them. (North, 1994, chap. 4.2.2)
Rather those who use the Net live in their daily offline society, and
come to the Net for reasons other than physical needs. Others (Avis, 1995;
Graham, 1995; Jones, 1991) also are studying this new online culture and its
connection to the growing global culture. There is a distinct online culture
and a distinct offline global culture. While the online culture strongly
contributes to the developing global culture offline, it is not the sole
contributing factor. The contribution of the online culture to the global
culture through such technologies as Usenet and electronic mailing lists
are important as they require participation of the users to exist. Since as
a medium Usenet encourages participation, it supports the contributions of
many diverse people and cultures to the broader global culture.
Both the technological design of opening one's computer up to accept
contributions of others and the desire to communicate led to the creation
of an egalitarian culture (Jones, 1991; North, 1994; Woodbury, 1994). People
have both a chance to introduce and share their own culture and a chance
to broaden themselves through exposures to these various cultures. As
such, the Usenet culture is an example of a global culture which is not a
reflection of purely one culture. Instead, Usenet both incorporates
cultural elements from many nations and builds a new online culture (North,
1994). Self-identity evolves through relations with others. (Sumara, 1996, p.
56) The new connections between people of different cultures allows each
culture to broaden itself based on the new understandings available from
other places; culture changes through the exchange with new ways of
understanding and life. And this change and shared changes gets shared
around the world.
III. Community Networks making Online Access Available.
Being a relatively young medium, the Net is available to a small
subset of the world. However, this is rapidly changing. Projects are ex-
tending the connections to undeveloped countries and the basic technology
needed to gain access is as simple as a computer and modem connected to
the local telephone or amateur radio network. Another hurdle to overcome
is technical training. However, the democratic ethos of the Net spreads
through the help that users offer each other online. A large number of
people who are on the Net want more people to be able to use computer
technology. Many are helpful and take the time and effort to spread their
knowledge to others who desire to learn. Similarly everyone online at one
point was new and learning. This experience of "newbie"ness provides a
common heritage to unite people. The problems encountered in implementing
and using new technology encourages people to connect to others using the
technology. This is an incentive to hook into the Internet where such
people can be contacted. The commonality of people participating in the
same technology creates a basis to develop commonality towards other
Community networks provide a way for citizens of a locality to hook
into these global communities for little or no cost (Graham, 1995). Communi-
ty networks also provide a way for communities to truly represent them-
selves to others connected online (Graham, 1995; Weston, 1994). Without
access made available through community networks, through publicly avail-
able computer terminals or local dial-in phone numbers, only those who
could afford the cost of a computer and the monthly charges of commercial
Internet service providers (ISPs) or online services or who have access
through work or school would represent themselves (Avis). Particular
portraits of various cultures would thus be only partially represented.
Also, when access is available and open to all, a greater wealth of contri-
butions can be made. There is a strong push in Canada and Canadian commu-
nities to get online. A lot of grassroots community network building is
taking place. A Canadian national organization, Telecommunities Canada,
stresses the importance of contributing Canada's various cultures to the
online community and in this way making a contribution to the whole commu-
nity (Graham, 1995; Weston, 1994). In a similar way, Izumi Aizu (1995, p. 6) says
that Japan has "an opportunity to bring its own cultural value to the open
world." He continues, "It also opens the possibility of changing Japan into a
less rigid, more decentralized society, following the network paradigm
exercised by the distributed nature of the Internet itself" (Aizu, 1995, p.
There's something to be said about the attraction of representing
one's self to the greater community. The many-to-many form of communica-
tion where an individual can broadcast to the community and get responses
back from other individuals is an empowering experience. No longer do you
have to be rich and powerful to communicate broadly to others and to
represent yourself and your own views. This power is making it possible for
individuals to communicate with others of similar and differing interests
around the world. Grass-roots organization is boosted and the formation of
local community groups is also accelerated. Development of the commons to
the exclusion of the big media representations makes this an electronic
grass-roots medium, or a new enlarged public commons (Felsenstein, 1993).
The online culture is primarily a written one, although much of the
text is written generally in a non-formal almost off the cuff type of
nature. While people will post papers and well thought out ideas, much of
the conversation is generated in an immediate response to others' messag-
es. This text can feel like a conversation, or a written version of oral
culture. Stories akin to the great stories of the pre-history come about.
Legends and urban myths circulate and are disseminated (Jones, 1991). Pic-
tures and other non-text items can be sent in Usenet messages, but these
non-text items are primarily transferred and not modified, thought upon or
communally worked on as are the textual ideas. Graphics and graphical
communication and collaboration occur more on the world-wide web (WWW),
although it is still a less effective communication medium. The common
shared online language is English (Aizu). However, other languages exist in
country hierarchies and newsgroups and in mailing lists, along with IRC
channels, gopher sites and WWW pages. Moreover, all these developments,
textual or graphic, make possible a global conversation of diverse views.
Mead recognizes that "True communication is a dialogue." (Mead, 1978, p.77)
She points out that real communication occurs "...in a world in which con-
flicting points of view, rather than orthodoxies, are prevalent and acces-
sible." (Mead, 1978, p. 80)
The new global culture is formed in several ways, none of which is a
generic corporate rubber stamp. People are taking charge. They are bring-
ing their own cultures into the global culture and spreading this new
culture around the world. This is taking on a general form and an online
form. The online form provides a strong means by which people can spread
their ideas and culture which in turn affects the broader global culture.
This broader global culture also has an effect on newsgroups or online
media. The ability to express oneself to the rest of the world is addictive
and the rapid increase of new people joining the online global community
makes that manifest. "The voice-less and the oppressed in every part of
the world have begun to demand more power .... The secure belief that those
who knew had authority over those who did not has been shaken" (Mead, 1978,
p.5). Mead states later, "There are new technological conditions within
which a new initiative for the human race is possible. But it will not be
found without a vision." To the former call for brotherhood and sisterhood
or of loyalty to kin and one's ancestors, Mead proposes, "we can now add a
vision of a planetary community." She explains that "Within such a vision,
the contributions of each culture ... can become complementary." However,
Mead emphasizes, "but within the new vision there must be no outsiders."
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