The internet – this place I live – has a culture. Srsly.

Online culture needs to be recognized as a unique culture.

(TL;DR version:  *The internet has its own valuable culture. Those of you who only see online media as a way to promote your projects to people who are wasting time online … please get off my lawn –  solicitors aren’t welcome.)

To this audience this idea probably seems like stating the obvious, but I had this moment of clarity while talking to a colleague who works with “diverse” audiences; people working with people of a visibly different culture (skin tone, apparel, socioeconomic class) are careful to learn their audiences needs, but people who suddenly decide social media is important don’t make the same attempt to understand the online audience.

Okay, that was a stupidly long sentence. Nonetheless, think about all the times different employers have created cultural sensitivity programs. Think about all of the concern that goes into keeping track of whether it’s correct to say black or African-American. Think of all of the public events that you scheduled after double checking that it wasn’t a religious holiday (okay maybe not everyone does that one, but I lived in Boston long enough to keep track of the Jewish calendar). In the real world, when we want to engage with diverse audiences, we’ve been taught that we need to take time to understand these diverse audience’s cultures.

But those of us who spend more of our time in virtual environments than in real environments have our own culture too. We speak it memes, and in some cases have our own grammar (“because pants” is a valid statement in my circles), and there’s a shared understanding communicated thru the T-shirts we wear and in the toasts we make (to science!)

I often have people complain to me that the Internet is dumbing down America, that they don’t understand why they should waste their time among people who can’t even bother to write out all the letters in CU L8R, and that the time necessary to become part of the Internet community is time they can’t waste because they have real friends. These same people then ask me, how is it that my programs can be successful online when their best efforts only bring in 10 to 20 people. The difference is that this is my culture and I don’t assume my culture is the culture of idiots wasting their time online. I recognize in the shorthand abbreviations the need to dash off an idea, the need to not irritate carpal tunnel of little bit more today, and the easy slang that is no different than saying bye-bye to a friend.  The Internet does have its own dumb corners, but currently so too does the History Channel. And… some of my “real”est friends are people I mostly communicate to through my screen.

I fundamentally don’t understand why it is a waste of time to try and understand Internet cultures but not a waste of time to understand the culture of inner-city kids that are in our classrooms.

If you are going to try and engage online audiences, immerse yourself in our world first. Come to the dark side – we have cookies.

7 Comments

  1. Bill G. September 21, 2012 at 7:49 am #

    Very good cookies. I’ve been enjoying them for over two decades now. Thank you.

  2. Dave Rockwell September 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I love these key points:

    1) “We speak it memes, and in some cases have our own grammar (“because pants” is a valid statement in my circles), and there’s a shared understanding communicated thru the T-shirts we wear and in the toasts we make (to science!)”
    Casual observers of social media and the online community often only see that they don’t understand the conversation or that the language used doesn’t use the language conventions they use. I like that the online community is finding new ways to convey complex (or simple ideas that are often complicated by opinions) in 140 characters or a few words with a picture. The online world gets it.

    2) “The difference is that this is my culture and I don’t assume my culture is the culture of idiots wasting their time online. I recognize in the shorthand abbreviations the need to dash off an idea, the need to not irritate carpal tunnel of little bit more today, and the easy slang that is no different than saying bye-bye to a friend.”

    There may be something even more primal that is going on here as well. It’s the simple communication of ideas. Modern humans live better on line. Grocery list in an email, it’s on your phone. A “Running L8″ notification that Ted is going to be late for lunch, it’s on your phone. Confirmation that Sue feels “Not2bad” today, a quick glance at a messenger app that is on your phone. Why make it take longer than it needs to be to get message? Communicate clearly, now!

    Side note:

    This got me thinking about how the early digital culture will be perceived by observers 32,000+ years from now. Like cave paintings, if only a small amount of this content survives, what will social scientists make of us? How will samples of our digital “wall” art/information be used describe us?

    Chances are that they will think we thought kittens in mugs or hanging from a tree branch were cute (they are), but the larger message should be that we placed value on communicating, sharing information and connecting with others in a way the enhanced and enriched our lives. The overwhelming majority of people in the digital culture are there because they want to be a part of culture that invites them in to learn more and then allows them to engage with others who are drawn to the same information. In the digital age we aren’t just an audience for content, we are participants and collaborators.

    Thanks for making me think about this. I like the mental image of a mug of kittens on a cave wall in France.

  3. Rita September 21, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    Loved the post. Especially the last sentence ;D

  4. Beth Katz September 21, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    I like many aspects of the online community but especially that it is asynchronous (we don’t have to be on at the same time) and that it can go both ways (I can comment – hopefully sensibly – on what you say). Synchronous Google Hangouts are fun, but it’s also good to read/listen when I have time.

  5. Stephen October 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    I follow people in twitter who have things to say that i find interesting. I do a bit of astronomy outreach on Facebook. It’s quite a bit better than sharing photos of what i just ate, or gossip, or worst – fb ‘games’. When i have nothing to say, i’ll post a joke, often original.

    When i was a kid, i wanted to become a celestial mechanic. But they told me that God made the heavens perfect, so there’d be nothing to fix.

    or

    Hardly anyone is opposed to planetary oppositions.

  6. JimmyJimJam January 12, 2013 at 12:46 am #

    I couldn’t agree more, just watch this report here!: http://www.hulu.com/watch/421096

  7. Duncan January 25, 2013 at 5:21 am #

    I know someone who commented (after being asked if he’d followed a link emailed to him) that he didn’t have time for stuff like that (ie, anything remotely trivial on the internet), because he had over 200 LPs he wanted to listen to. Srsly. *boggled*

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