The Effects of Social Media and Global Culture
And why the affects of social media and the internet may be one of the biggest adaptations humans will have to make in the Cognitive Age.
When the vikings first landed in northern Newfoundland over a thousand years ago, the belief is that they first killed some Beothuk warriors and then promptly asked if they’d like to trade. Not a very clever way of starting trade relations. Throughout history we’ve been taught, when cultures first met, conflict was the first action. More recent research is showing that conflict was actually quite rare and trade far more common. One reason for this may be that for millennia, there exists smaller cultures between larger more established cultures acting as buffer zones, minimizing conflict perhaps. These are called “shatter zones.” So what does all that have to do with social media and global culture? Possibly a lot.
These shatter zones, along with geography and transportation technologies, along with communications technologies, reduced the speed of connections between cultures to the point where cultural changes evolved over longer periods. We also know now, that one role of culture is to act as a barrier to other cultural elements, such as the adoption of technologies. When one Inuit tribe/culture was asked why they didn’t adopt the snowshoe like another tribe, the response was that such technology didn’t fit with their culture. We also know now that humans, throughout our history, traveled a lot more than we first assumed, either singularly or in small groups.
We can visualize this as a mental map, a river system if you will. As the image below shows. As humans were more spread out and living in smaller numbers than today, culture clashes were lesser due the factors explained above. It was like this for hundreds of thousands of years. Even agriculture took many thousands of years to become dominant, with many cutures trying it and rejecting it.
How Social Media Affects Global Culture
As communications and transportation technologies evolved, think printing press and sailing ships, cultures around the world collided more often and ideas spread. Fast forward to the late twentieth century and we have an incredible change. Within 24 hours you can cross the globe. You can speak to anyone almost anywhere in the world within seconds. You can also share with them music, text and audio, all elements of transmitting cultural ideas and concepts.
A primary use of culture by humans is the knowledge it provides us on how to navigate our daily lives, communities, families and society. Today, we have removed the shatter zones, the buffers between cultures, including the limiting factors of time and geography. Where once we had time to think about and decide whether or not we liked another cultures technologies, music, ideas and literature, this is no longer the case.
The internet and it’s resulting applications and uses has changed the river to a network of fast-flowing rivers, but most importantly a network. And network effects are very different from a smoothly flowing river with some occasional rapids. The biggest impact isn’t necessarily the technologies and reduced geographical barriers, but rather time itself. Both in terms of the ability to spread ideas, values and cultural elements (e.g. music, art, literature) and the opportunity of time to think about these impacts.
The map below shows the network effects of cultural sharing. It also shows that elements of a culture can spread in new ways, unlike before.
This network effect of cultural ideas may also help, in part, explain trolls, nationalism and populism and all the hatred we seem to see, read of and hear around the world. We have enough evidence now that online dialogue leads to actions in the real world, from rallies and protests to violent actions such as the January 6th uprisings in the United States and how we’re sharing cultural elements in Ukraine, an unprecedented event as I explored in my last post here.
Social media enables ideas and cultural elements to spread very quickly, reducing the issues of friction and time. Whereas before, we had elders, councils and other political and social leaders to think about and weigh in on an issue, these forms of “sober second thought” no longer exist either.
Cultures around the world have always had some form of leadership or counsel to act as a filter and aid in social discourse. Some cultures were more egalitarian, others highly religious and forms of leadership have varied widely for millennia, but they existed. Now, they do not. We have leadership, counsels and various forms of government, but they have little impact on broader cultural considerations.
Western governments are seeking ways to regulate and administer hate speech and harms to people, but they’re within the context of what a nation thinks based on a set of values. Authoritarian governments regulate social media not because of values that benefit their culture or society but that benefit their ability to stay in power.
As cultural elements spread faster than ever and we have no filters, nor time, to consider them, it means cultural ideas spread much faster. For the most part, this is very good. It helps us understand one another better, faster. But it also causes friction. And conspiracy theories. Which creates divisions.
So how can we adapt and navigate this new dynamic on the Cognitive Age?
I’ll be exploring this in greater detail in my upcoming book, Digital Sapiens and the Cognitive Age. Let me know your thoughts and ideas.