On the importance of recognising cultural diversity in understanding online behaviour

16 March 2014

Over the past couple of years I've heard and read numerous media items about the internet and its effect on linking our previously disconnected societies, on networks and their effect on our relationships, and on cyberpolitics and culture. Sadly, many of them have left me incredibly frustrated, and here's why.

I've noticed what I think might be a pattern and here is my (obviously, generalised) hypothesis: when the speaker or author is from the US or Europe, they present information as though what they're saying is applicable throughout the whole world, while actually only talking about the issue with regards to 'Western' countries. They use examples primarily from the US or Europe itself, occasionally mentioning massive events in passing like the Arab Spring, but overwhelmingly considering only points that have affected people in high-income countries such as their own.

This has been annoying me greatly in other spheres too; as I've written about before, using public platforms to discuss issues under such a narrow lens, while presenting them as though they are they are true everywhere in the world is incredibly reductive and offensive, not to mention purely factually incorrect on many levels. It was frustrating me so much that at the last talk I attended where I noticed this phenomenon, I asked the speakers whether they truly considered the issues they were discussing to be 'global' as they kept mentioning, and if so, if they could come up with some examples from outside the US and Europe, as they had all been thus far in the presentation.

Their answer: that they did consider it to be as global as they were describing, but then couldn't come up with any examples. One said it was in part due to not wanting to misappropriate others experiences, but then admitted that she didn't have experience in other cultures outside the US and Europe. This combination of answers felt unsatisfactory, to say the least. I felt like asking – but didn't – then, why use phrases like “across the world” or “globally” etc, when what you really mean is “In high-income countries like the US....”. Either way, I hope my comments made them think, if even just a little.

But then, came a book which has, happily, has restored a lot of my faith in privileged researchers and internet commentators, and makes me throw that hypothesis out of the window – “Now I know who my comrades are”, by Emily Parker. The book, which is subtitled Voices from the Internet Underground, takes a deep dive into online and offline politics and activism in three very different countries; Cuba, China and Russia. I came across it originally through an article by Mario Vargas Llosa ([en], [es]) which was already high praise, as he is one of my favourite authors.

In the book, Parker looks at how the internet has helped activists in the three different countries organise themselves and build movements, despite facing huge offline political barriers, with some only becoming activists almost by coincidence due to their online activities. What impressed me the most about the book is the author's clear and extensive experience with the three cultures in question. She didn't just parachute in there for a couple of months each to write a chapter on some activists – she lived in each of the countries (some, multiple times over), speaks the languages and really built up relationships with people there, over a period of multiple years. It's also impossible to imagine how she could have carried out such research without being caught out by the authorities without a deep understanding of how each of the cultures work.

This is, I feel, what has been missing in the work by many other internet commentators: a genuine understanding of the offline culture in the countries they're talking about, and an appreciation for how the offline society and politics affects the way people use the internet. Even on a practical level, Parker talks of “the Russian internet”, or “the Chinese internet”, making it clear that these “internets” are very different to those in other countries. Primarily, of course, due to censorship – but also in terms of most popular sites, ways that people share information, and ways that they access the internet.

I really wish that other prominent internet commentators would make the time and effort that Emily Parker has done to actually visit and learn about other cultures before making sweeping statements; yes, the internet can connect us across offline borders, but in order to really understand online behaviour, it is crucial to recognise the importance of diverse cultures and societies on people's behaviour.

The overwhelming message from the book is that the internet has allowed previously separate or disconnected people to know that there are others out there – to find out who their comrades are. The actions that people have taken as next steps (both online and offline), however, has been vastly different depending on their cultural background and their political situation. I thoroughly appreciated Parker's emphasis on the contrasts between the activists' online actions; finally, proof, research and a well-written book to back up my frustrations of 'the internet' being overwhelmingly talked about as a holistic, homogenous entity!

* If there are other books out there really analysing how diverse societies and cultures have affected online behaviour, I'd love to have recommendations of what to read next!


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