Is the Internet destroying your culture … or creating it?

“Mass culture is dead. Every one of us is creating our own version of culture.”

This quote from futurist Faith Popcorn sums up a lot of things I have been experiencing lately.

Whether it’s YouTube-inspired dance moves, crowd-sourced literature, or my own personalized information stream, the Internet is inexorably un-tethering  culture from the places on earth and moments in time.

Culture used to be narrowly defined by country — perhaps even a region within a country — that had its own way of dress, food, art and lifestyle. But what happens to this concept when all art, music, and literature is globally-dispersed, user-generated, open-source, multi-platform and available on demand?

Well, for one, I sense that I am creating my own individual “culture!”

Not long ago, pop culture in America was largely defined by TV networks, local newspapers, ad executives, Hollywood and record companies. Now, I make my own newspaper. I watch programming from all over the world whenever I want to, and largely commercial-free. There is nobody in the world who  watches my “TV network” or listens to my “radio station” or reads “my newspaper.” I am surrounding myself with the World Culture of Mark. And through my own publishing, I’m influencing the culture of others.

Even something as physical and seemingly regionally-specific as dance is evolving digitally and globally.  Chris Anderson recently gave a compelling TED speech on how the rise of web video is driving this phenomenon.  In one example, he showed how dance moves now spread through the world, are enhanced and improved, and then sent back the other way again.  A global culture of dance is evolving through what Anderson calls Crowd Accelerated Innovation.

Personally, I like it!   I get a rush out of connecting to the world on my terms and my time. I love experiencing these amazing new cultural mash-ups.  But over time, will these rich historical cultures be diluted or even forgotten? Will we have museums to the regional cultures and customs the Internet diluted — or destroyed?

So much to think about and this is a subject EVERYBODY can have an opinion about!  Here are a few questions for you. Pick one that interests you and tell me what you think about it in the comment section!

  • Will the Internet eventually create a definable World Culture?  Is having a global cultural icon like Michael Jackson a sign of this?
  • Will the rich customs and culture of a place like France or Japan be made less relevant to the next generations by a digitizing, globalizing world?
  • What are the implications of an Internet culture that seems to favor the English language?
  • Are you creating your own user-defined web culture?

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  • Kathy Snavely

    I really should read your posts first thing in the morning, not when my brain is spent at night, Mark!

    I’m embracing your final question, a user-defined web culture. Being a part of the Twitter community is one of the most mentally stimulating activities I enjoy. On Facebook, I gingerly reacquaint myself with folks from the many schools I attended (no, I wasn’t that bad), keep up with friends from church, and share informal conversations with my students, which helps me better serve their needs. I get more from the interent daily, feeling like I’m an explorer on a great adventure.

    And the vast majority of newer friends & acquaintances I make using social media amazes me; geography isn’t limiting. I so enjoy the conversations with people like you, Mark, @treypennington, @HowellMarketing, @DebWeinstein, @DaveEvans – connections I wouldn’t have made without initiating communication in a media that many still don’t value and understand. I feel very blessed that I get it – and connect with others that do!

  • Jim LeBlanc

    Had not really thought about it in those terms but as an American it is very interesting to be exposed to these cultures from the comfort of my computer room. I was recently absorbed with a Coca cola sponsored talent show in Pakistan. Apparently it is very popular there. It was unlike anything we would see here and it was fun peering in on this far away cultural program. I guess it is like you say, I have chosen this as part of my personal world culture. I’m with you . I like it!

  • My first thoughts were to gloomily agree that national cultures are being eroded – the great levelling effect of online communities moving towards an English-speaking, US-centric norm. But I think it is actually much more encouraging than that.

    The key here is that WE CAN CHOOSE. Previously, a given culture was impressed upon us at birth and we were stuck with it. But online global communities give us the option of discovering different cultures and adopting them if we like.

    This has of course happened for years. The diversity of surnames in the US compared to the UK shows how nationalities and cultures melded centuries ago. The question is: was that a levelling and therefore diminution of existing cultures, or did the world experience a net overall gain through the creation of a new culture, ie that of the US?

    Indeed, the pervasiveness of the web, and the technological dominance of certain cultures over others will probably create a siege mentality, ie that the guardians of distinctive cultures become all the more committed to protecting them – and in letting the world know about them.

    Cultural cross-polination? I’m all for it. The more we know and understand about each other, the stronger we become.

    Wow. And I thought this was a business blog. Is this what the world is coming to?


  • Great post Mark! I’m inclined to agree that crowd sourcing and the increased sharing that we are seeing will yield some interesting cultural products. I don’t know that we’ll be overtaken by “a culture of one,” but I think you’re describing the power we have been given to explore culture(s) more fully–and that in itself is exciting.

    You ask “But over time, will these rich historical cultures be diluted or even forgotten? Will we have museums to the regional cultures and customs the Internet diluted — or destroyed?” I don’t think this is in danger of happening. Immigrant groups of other largely insular cultures manage to survive the assimilation process and keep the main tenets of their religion alive (dress, food, etc.). I think we’ll see the same here. Sure there may be some “cross pollination”–change is inevitable–but because these groups tend to be so heavily into “social teaching,” the main ideas will persevere.

  • Wow! I can probably make a blog post about your second question.
    From my perspective, culture itself is subject to the laws of change and evolution. So as such it is constantly being diluted/evolving, (depending on how you look at it). Even ancient cultures like India, China have evolved…albeit maybe less so than Egypt of the pharaohs to the Islamic society of today.
    It is true that the speed of self-change has accelerated in recent years, especially with technology enabling rise of the ‘me’ culture that you have mentioned.
    Even with the ‘me’ culture, some aspects of your culture, that you hold dear have probably been strengthened by the ability to easily find others (in distant places) to share/connect with. If you look at countries like India and China, the new tilt of the global economy along with the huge populations are allowing these places to develop their own online media cultures (based on local dialects, behaviors etc).

    So in effect it probably never has been a win/lose situation. Probably more ‘win some’, ‘lose some’ situation. That’s a trend likely to continue.

  • Mark

    @Kathy — I really like your idea of Twitter as culture. Certainly I have surrounded myself with a a diverse and lively group of people who enrich my life, some of whom you mention here. I like this concept of creating a Twitter culture. Thanks!

    @Jim — That is a really great example. I love the TED talks (well as I have time at least) and appreciate how this offers expose to new perspectives from around the world. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion today!

  • Mark

    @John — Amazing commentary. You have my wheels turning here, especially on the siege mentality statement. I’m thinking of the recent response of the French to infiltrations into their culture, a resistance even to people who don’t “look” French (burqua issue), whatever that means. I had not connected the dots on this before but I’m thinking this supports your point.

    Another experience I had recently — I was working on a marketing project for a B2B company in Spain that had a strong presence throughout Europe. A big part of my proposal was to incorporate multi-lingual capabilities in the project. The president of the company told me not to waste my time — all of his customers spoke English. I felt a little disappointed that we will be foisting English on an entire content of customers, but it will save a lot of money.

    Thanks for the valuable European contribution on this topic John!

  • Mark

    @Krystal — Thanks so much for sharing your perspective. Certainly your background in anthropology is a great launching pad for this discussion! It’s good to have diverse points of view on this topic!

    @Jacob — Really fantastic point and hope you do write that blog post! That would be great! Thanks for contributing today!

  • Mark,

    It’s interesting that you bring up this phenomenon. There are a couple of things that I think would bear relevance to what you’re describing.

    Max Weber – Weber’s philosophy is largely political, describing politics and culture, however, there is something to take away from it: The cyclical nature of culture and institutions. In this case, it would be that culture influences the internet, which in turn, influences culture. So it’s not an either/or situation, but rather a both/and if you look at things through Weber’s philosophy.

    The other aspect comes from sociology: Symbolic interactionism. It states that culture/society is created through interaction. Where in the past, cultures changed slower (presumably) due to the speed at which communication/interaction took place, the change has sped up due to the ability to communicate with each other instantaneously.

    Sorry to go all academic 🙂 My mind’s there since I am preparing for a presentation to be delivered in San Fran next week.

    However, I want to address the bullet at bottom of the post that talks about an internet culture favoring English. On one hand, I am concerned about it, coming from the point of view that doesn’t favor cultural imperialism. I think that it drowns out some of the beautiful things that the world has to offer by implicitly allowing English to remain the dominant language. But, I’m rambling. Gotta head to another presentation on viral videos! Looking forward to your comment.


  • Mark

    Aaron — Very cool and interesting. Another reason why I think this stuff spreads so fact — it’s fun : ) That would be Schafer’s Second Corrollary on Inverse Realism. You can look it up. A lot of people confuse it with my well-known First Law of Universal Narcissism but DUH! Good luck in San Fran Man!

  • I don’t think there will be a World Culture. I think humans are too much village orientated. [insert other word for village: clan, tribe, sect, cast, twellowship, etc.] We are social animals, but really only to our own extended family and friends. In the end, we won’t want to become part of a global group. We strive to be different from others, but not too different from our neighbors.

    Like @John pointed out, the big difference now is we can choose a different village a little easier now. But not every village, vitural or real, will appeal to everyone. “Elsa, we’ll always have Paris.”

    I’m not an anthropoligist, I just play one on the web.

  • I think the global village is a wonderful phenomenon. But “my culture” has an inherent danger—I may be unconsciously shaping my world to reflect my own opinions, prejudices and preferences.

  • Mark

    @Frank — You crack me up! Thanks for the great comment.

    @Kimmo — Ouch. Yup … I can see that danger. Thanks!

  • I think we are creating an exciting, online (melting pot) culture. Or maybe others would state it as the online (mixing pot) culture is evolving. Maybe in it’s own way it is replicating what happened in North America, which became the mixing pot of European and other cultures, together as one N.America but still a mixture of many. IMO, I don’t think we will lose our individual “culturishness” in the overall scheme of things 🙂

    An aside: are we sure that the English language will remain the predominant internet language? Hmmmm….

    I am traveling this week; if I get a chance I’ll return and comment at greater length. This is a seed, a very large seed, for a really great discussion. @CASUDI

  • Mark

    @Casudi — Thanks for your important perspective on this Caroline. If not English, i would be interested to know what your thoughts are on this! Thank you!

  • You always surprise me with what you write about….I never would have thought about this…

    I must admit, I’ve met some pretty cool people from other countries- just makes me want to travel the world even more!

    But like several people said, I think we will all keep a semblance of our own culture.

  • Mark

    @carolee — It’s good to be surprised, right? hey, maybe i will be “the web’s most surprising blogger.” That would probably work! : ) Thanks!

  • Regarding English as the lingua franca of the internet, I don’t think it represents any kind of “cultural imperialism”. After all, a language is a language, that is, a means of getting yourself understood, not a political view or an endorsement of a certain economic structure, don’t you think?

    If there is one language that can make many people from most countries able to connect, I don’t care what it is. I’m just happy that it is English as it is my strongest foreign language…

    Communicating in a language other than your native tongue may of course somewhat restrict the colorfulness of your expression. I’m sometimes experiencing it myself. Then again, I find it fascinating, for example, when I translate an idiom, a saying or a proverb in my mother tongue into English and see people’s eyes light up in understanding. It’s just this kind of grassroots understanding and friendship that will make the world a better place—and the internet is making it all possible.

  • Mark

    @kimmo — I share your view on this. Really a refreshing and uplifting perspective. Thank you!

  • I have only lived in the United States for about 7 years. I was born and raised in Germany. Interestingly, the longer I live here, the more differences I see between the two cultures. It’s about our traditions and rituals: How we eat, how we spend our vacation, what holidays we celebrate, and how we celebrate them. It’s about how we build homes and cities; what makes us feel cozy. It’s how we have smalltalk, and what we feel is appropriate to say, and when or how to say it. It’s about how we define ourselves as a man or a woman. It’s the sports we watch, and how we watch them. It’s school systems, political systems, family values, the definition of beauty, how we view the world and it’s about the language we speak.

    The internet gives us a chance to look in from the outside, but I don’t think it will really change cultures any time soon.

    Here is what I hope it will do:
    We always say the internet connects us all. My hope is that it will help us understand that we all ARE connected. That there is no isolation. That everything we do, inflicting pain or spreading happiness, is a powerful contribution to the world we all share. That what matters is not how we’re different, but how we’re the same. That we all already share one language and it’s the only one worth knowing: The one of love and kindness.

    I’m dead serious when I say that I can see in a lot of places how the internet is starting to make that change.

  • Mark

    @Dagi — I think this is one of the most profound comments we have had on here! Thank you!

  • Dagi’s comment throws a big shadow; I was here…

    Good stuff

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  • masimba

    English language’s dominance is a sign of cultural imperialism. According to Ngugi Wa Thiongo (1987) ” language is a carrier of culture”

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