Hey Internet, where’s my cultural interface?

When you think about things the internet doesn’t do particularly well, it’s easy to imagine that someone out there is working on a platform to remedy the situation, probably in their parents’ basement. The fact is there are still many areas where the internet does not provide a perfect solution.

For example, I believe that the internet is not a great mediator between communities.

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Yes, we have fantastic tools to assemble crowds of like-minded netizens, of that there is no doubt. And on a more granular level, a service like ChatRoulette is bringing people of vastly different backgrounds together daily, even if the exchanges often border on the absurd or the obscene.

But are there gathering places where cultures collide en masse?

In meatspace, a.k.a. “offline”, we find a handful of good examples of the cultural interface I’m talking about. The 1995 Rugby World Cup, while ostensibly a festival celebrating a very specific sporting tradition, was in fact a forum for the rest of the world to make the acquaintance of post-apartheid South Africa. More importantly, it was a moment where South Africa’s different cultures, divided as they were and still are, came to terms with each other. They’ve made a movie about it, so it must be true, right?

So, what would a successful cultural interface look like online? And once we have it, who would really care?

Cultures are distinct for a reason, whether geographic, language-based or ideological. It’s not every day that the people of Idaho, USA, need to talk to those of Hunan Province, China. Certainly not about football, nor about preparations for Chinese New Year. But what about potatoes? According to the Washington Post, that day may come.

An effective cultural interface is one that identifies and bridges the divide between two distinct communities.

Geography is nicely taken care of by the internet. Bandwidth doesn’t bring people together quite like Boeings do, but it does the job cheaper and instantaneously.

Language is a bigger issue than you might think — there are people in the north of the Netherlands, the 135th largest country in the world, who can’t make out the southern dialect. Luckily, on the web, we see text translation services improving all the time, if not quite perfected already, and real-time voice-to-voice is plodding along after it.

What remains to be mediated is ideology and tradition: the stuff of culture itself. And this is where many-to-many communication comes in, which is often touted as the future of online media. Wikipedia expains it thus: “With the evolution to the full “many-to-many” computing paradigm, people can input and receive information to and from the Internet; they will be able to connect and communicate dynamically within a flexibly formed scope; there will be no artificial boundary between information and communication tools, and the definition of “many” will go well beyond people to include entities such as organizations, products, processes, events, concepts and so on.”

But is that really how we communicate when we blog or tweet to our followers and friends? Is that really what happens when a web documentary about Liberia is debated first among hipsters on VBS.tv, and then among middle-class families on CNN.com?

Some would argue that the internet is allowing us to move beyond culture, recalling Raymond Williams statement: “There are no masses, there are just ways of seeing people as masses”. If that is true, then who needs a pipe from one manufactured community to another?

To them I say: What we’re really talking about is technology. What do we have, what could we have, to bring distinct groups together when their interests clash or come together?

I don’t think the current generation of social networks has the answer… yet. But maybe some geek in a basement does. Let’s hope he or she speaks up soon.

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