The Cultural Impact of Digital Communication

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

The world is digitally connected in ways not imagined even a decade ago, yet the world is increasingly divided based on just how connected people are. Learn about the effects of digital communications on culture, and the implications of the digital divide, in the 21st-century.

Digital Communications

Technology brings cultures ever closer. However, only half the world's population has internet access. This is the digital divide; the ability to access technology. And the digital divide is not just developed versus developing countries, but also about the rich and the poor, and the quality of technologies available to people. Even in wealthy countries, the digital divide exists when rural areas lack the communications infrastructure of urban areas, and lower income people cannot afford higher speed access and devices. So what does this mean for culture and communication?

Culture & Communication

Culture expresses itself in many ways, but a common thread is that it represents a shared view of the world and shared values. Until the 20th-century, we rarely were exposed to other cultures because communication technology limited who we could communicate with, where we could communicate, and even what we could communicate.

With advances in technology, our world, and our view of cultures has become larger because we have the potential to interact with anyone, anywhere. As digital technologies have allowed us to expand our communication circles, we have developed relationships and shared experiences and values, different from those of previous generations. Digital technologies like social media have allowed us to communicate, and share, in real time around the globe and across traditional cultural boundaries. The digital divide, however, may, in fact, create even greater separation between cultures that are connected from those that are not.

Effective communication is ultimately about human interactions. Communication occurs in both verbal and nonverbal forms. Verbal forms are the words that we speak and write. Nonverbal communication revolves around the facial expressions, and gestures we may use, how we employ silence to convey meanings and our tone of voice. Our cultures dictate what is, and is not, acceptable, the relative importance of nonverbal versus verbal communication, and how specific we are in our communications, as well as, the degree to which we show emotion.

The Cultural Challenges of Digital Communications

Digital communication employs technologies such as computers, mobile devices, and even television sets to communicate. The form of the communications can be emails, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, or video technologies like Skype and YouTube. Technology is providing the connection, instead of face-to-face interactions. Especially in written digital communications, the context of communications, including emotions and nonverbal cues that play such an important role in cultures, can be missed or absent.

A further challenge exists in a global digital communications environment when everyone is using the same platforms, regardless of where they are, whether email or social media. Because they all involve the written word, it is tempting to assume that one size fits all. We share messages through email, and on Twitter and Facebook, but are they culturally appropriate everywhere they reach? The answer to this ultimately depends on the goal of the communication.

Global Communication Models

In the context of culture, global communication can be divided into three basic models, which can be applied based on the intent of the communication. The models reflect the degree to which we need to adapt our communications to local norms. In the context of digital communications, each poses some challenges.

Transcultural communication assumes there is a common form of communication that transcends borders and cultures. These forms of communication are seen as valid and acceptable across cultural groups and do not generally reflect cultural adaptations. When the global Occupy movement used Twitter to coordinate activities from Wall Street to Hong Kong they were using transcultural communication. News stories about the movement circulating around the world were another form of transcultural communication. In both cases these were transcultural communications because they reduced, and even eliminated, the subtleties normally associated with communication, making it apparently easier to communicate across cultures. At the same time, cultural norms could interfere with how a tweet or a story was interpreted.

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