My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Dealing with Culture

[posted to OM]

People who have relationships with each other often have shared interests, values and tastes. As collections of relationships evolve, cultures form with collective interests, values and tastes (that may not resemble any or all of the individual members’). There are shared cultural practices and activities embedded in these cultures.

There are two ways of looking at this – through the foci or through the group. There appear to be communities that follow particular interests, say a music genre. But also – and this is important – there is a higher probability that your friends share the same interests as you than a random sampling of people. In other words, if you really like David Bowie, your friends are more likely to like David Bowie that a random collection of the same number of people. Of course, this does not mean that they all like David Bowie or that any of them like him as much as you do. Likewise, this doesn’t mean that the biggest David Bowie fan is your friend (although you’re more likely to have something in common with this person than a random stranger).

Cultures often form within social network clusters because members of the group tend to share things in common. Additionally, when people like each other, they are interested in trying out each other’s passion. Try dating someone who *loves* David Bowie – you’ll find yourself listening to him too.

Now, think about all social networking tools. They have all proliferated based on social network clusters – friend groups with dense network overlap. A lot of these groups have brought their groups’ culture with them and it is these cultures that people often recognize. In the early days of Friendster, this is why people thought Friendster was all gay men, all Burners, all whatever. The indie rock kids have invaded MySpace, the Burners took over Tribe.net, Brazilian culture has dominated Orkut. Depending on the cultures that an individual participates in, one service or another feels far more appealing.

Anyone interested in creating sociable applications needs to understand that this dynamic is natural and the product of very excited individual(s) spreading a product to their friendgroup. Why a group really values a particular software should be a problem to solve, not an act to suppress. Attempts to disrupt culture often disrupts a lot more than the narrow culturally defined group – this is the problem with social networks… attitudes flow through the networks just as much as information.

Culture emerges in most social technologies that bring people together. Like it or not, the company who has created the tools is faced with the responsibility of supporting that culture, particularly with hosted tools/communities. This can be very tricky when a company fosters a culture that they did not expect or want (a.k.a. it’s not a population that can be squeezed for money). What to do becomes an ethical question.

The irony is that most social technology companies want the whole world to use their service. The world includes a vast array of different cultures and communities, not all of which are compatible with each other. So when the cultures have to interact because of the tool, it is fundamentally impossible to actually have all cultures involved if there are conflicting ones. Take the homophobes and the queers – they really don’t go well together. If you choose to support the queers by making your tool queer-friendly, you will piss off the homophobes. And no matter what, those two groups really don’t want to have to interact with each other on the site.

Therein lies an interesting problem for builders of social tools – how to support culture, what to do when you have issue with the culture that emerged and how to deal with the fact that you can’t get everyone to use a social tool if the interface will reveal the values of the other one or if members from conflicting groups will have to interact.

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10 comments to Dealing with Culture

  • apophenia: Dealing with Culture

    Very interesting post about the development of communities and social networks in relation to shared interests. The post specifically deals with online social networks but the ideas can also be applied to fraternities and sororities…

  • Shalom Ms. Boyd,

    Should the goal be, perhaps, to make the tool, or medium, as transparent as possible? While the message will always clearly identify the group, that is a function of that group and not necessarily the medium. In the broadest sense, the Internet is a nearly transparent tool through which the widest range of groups may establish community.

    If the tool makes it impossible to communicate with the desired community without interference in some form from undesirable communities, then the tool is flawed. Individuals want to choose how they hear and are heard. The simplest example is the soapbox on a corner of the village green. The tool, the Green, is transparent to community. Those who choose to hear will do so, those who do not, will not.

    I’m enjoying your musings and looking forward to more.

    B’shalom,

    Jeff Hess

  • So would the gaps between these clusters be structural holes? Individual boundary spanners have much to gain. Is there value and opportunity in bridging them, not just for service providers, but communities?

  • Nick Robbins

    This sounds like a more general version of a problem I’ve been thinking about in community CMSes (Slash, Scoop, PHPNuke, etc.). Managing comment moderation for these sites is something of a black art, as control is very centralized and users are only able to use broad strokes (+1/-1), to draw attention to and away from certain comments.

    My idea is to use slightly-less-than free tagging instead of static numerical ratings. (That is to say, the system is dynamic, but viscous) Skipping the techincal mojo, the goal is to allow anyone to view the subset of comments that they value, and then present the whole site with a kind of zeitgeist based on what people are choosing to see. One could even choose to invert his weighting for the most popular tags, and choose to see only the least popular comments. Subcultures could emerge around certain tags — if you don’t specifically ask to see comments rated with that tag, you won’t see it as much, and the more people that choose to see it, the more it will be seen by all. You essencialy watch user behavior, normalize it, and make it the default.

    I’m not sure how well something like this would apply in systems that don’t have explicit rating/labeling. It also doesn’t solve the problem of allowing two mutually opposed cultures to coexist, as the more popular will always be dominant. It does, however, provide for the shifting of popularity, and the existence of multiple subcultures.

  • How do you make a “tool queer friendly?” Isn’t a tool, by definition, neutral? Or are you saying: if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?

  • Well, if you have a dating option (which many of these services do), do you assume that there are only men and women and that men only date women? There is nothing neutral about sex and sexuality settings on a service. And even if it’s not about dating, the vast majority of services require you to indicate male/female. And they usually put it in that order (un-alphabetized even though everything else is). This is indicative of a cultural prioritization. And what about people who don’t identify as either men or women?

  • Relationship Bonds

    It’s common to attend a networking meeting and visit with people you already know who share several of your interests and activities.

  • Is there then an inherent tension between developers of social software who by and large subscribe to the capitalist business model of infinite growth, and the communities that emerge out of the tools they build? Does growth of the network as a business necessarily erode the feeling of community that is perhaps best served by staying small enough to maintain a favorable ratio of strong to weak ties?

  • Bridging structural holes means collapsing two groups of people who may or may not share the same foci in common. This can be beneficial in cases where both need each other, but disastrous if it means collapsing contexts.

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