November 9, 2009
Practical Geographies: Understanding How Cultural Practices Shape Social Media Usage

For the past few months, I have been glad to work with a solid team of friends (and now, colleagues) over at the Web Ecology Project. Earlier this year, the dozen of us teamed up to see if we could research -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- online culture and the communities that shape it. However, what I've come to realize as the months have flown by is that what we're trying to study is in fact online cultures (plural) and how communities shape them.

Conveniently, the major trends of the Internet seem to have evolved in easy-to-remember decades. If we want to talk about the social history of the Web, popular definitions have already been laid over these decades: the '90s represent Web 1.0, while 2000 to present equates to Web 2.0. Obviously, these monikers are overgeneralizations of the actual directions in which Internet use has moved, and I will not even approach explanations of what they might mean. Instead, I want to ask: What are we looking at in the coming decade in Internet culture? Or, more generally, Where do you go to find cool, interesting things online?

In relation to the Internet, globalization remains a buzzword even today, but when it hit the academic market as the next new fad, it inspired quite a few interesting theoretical and lexical developments. In response to globalization, a number of critics responded that as large businesses were moving toward global chains and marketplaces, individuals were congregating in considerable factions at the local level. The Internet, then, became a new use case in understanding the solidification of neighborhoods and small-interest groups (eg., Long Tail demographics). Following the "local" craze, we eventually saw some rather entertaining bastardizations, such as the glocal.

The Internet has long been a debate about destroying physical geographies in favor of transnationalism. As we move into 2010, though, we are seeing new boundaries being drawn around the cultural elements that have for the most part ultimately defined these nations: everyday practices, tastes, and languages.

The problem encountered in understanding the implications that culture has on online social networks is one of breadth: when talking about "culture," we're talking about a lot of different things. Initially, our research at the Web Ecology Project attempted to simplify the problem: How do the platforms we use (eg., Twitter, Facebook, Friendfeed) affect how we use the platforms to interact with others, share information, learn? The simplification drove forward two aspects of social networks: platform and use.

Given the potential for multiple uses, though, we run into a few barriers: linguistics, for example. Jon Beilin, one of my colleagues, most recently published code to delineate multiple languages for one of the networks on which we work, Twitter (which is available here:

But moving past the basics of approaching multiple languages, I have slowly realized that linguistics online have been shaping their own communities.

The problem, then, is conflating community with geography.

When I speak about geography, I want to emphasize that there are certain areas of the Internet with emerging barriers to participation. Earlier in the decade, the discourse revolved around the technological barriers to online participation (literally, physical difficulties like broadband, cheap computing for poorer demographics, or the appropriate knowledge to understand the basics of using a computer). However, now that this initial barricade is being lowered, a seemingly unintentional barrier is being erected: the formation of communities based around linguistic entities. One might argue that these linguistic geographies have always existed, in part because the primary geography was an English-speaking one. Of course, one might also argue (and it is probably more correct) that our personal understanding of our communities, then the outlying networks, and then the Internet as a whole is wholly shaped by our individual perspectives of inclusion (basically, it's hard to notice the grand scheme of the world if you're living on an island). Still, it's interesting to note, at least now, that the Web might be moving toward islands of language that require years of knowledge to enter. At the end of October, the Associated Press reported on the approval of the use of non-Latin characters in Web addresses. So far, English has been the mediating language (as Jay Walker demonstrates in his TED talk, embedded below), but perhaps other languages will mediate separate spaces from the English web, as they do now but topped off with Latin-character domain names.

But linguistics, at the point in time, still seems to be a bit far away for worry. Instead, how can we look at a well-used system (eg., Twitter) to understand the cultural practices the emerge from it?

I ask the weird question, Where do you go to find cool, interesting things online?, half as a joke (an audience member asked me this while I spoke on a panel at South by Southwest 2008), but in half-seriousness as well. Henry has written before about how Twitter's attitude promotes two general practices: But if we update the question of "What and where do we share?" via online social networks to "What networks require certain or specific contextual uses of sharing given their communities or geographies?," then we can begin to discuss the cultural attitudes that overlay the coded frameworks we interact with every day.

So, let's take Twitter as the example. Initially, Twitter started out as a service to say something easily (type and post), quickly (less than 140 characters), and to anyone (on the Web or even to your phone via SMS). People started talking to their friends, their acquaintances, and even complete strangers. Content was retweeted in celebration of good or respected information. But around all these practices, communities were formed. Now, it's a bit easier to see where these communities exist: recently, Twitter created "lists," where a user can add another user to a group defined by one word or phrase. For an example, you can check out the lists that feature me (click here), such as "researchers," "academic nuts," or "anime-and-japan." Even before the integration of lists, an external Twitter application called TweetDeck let users delineate their own user groups. But the general trend towards understanding and identifying these communities means that users are creating hierarchies of information, which has inspired us at the Web Ecology Project to ask, Is it possible to recognize which communities are noticed? Or, more specifically, can you determine which followers a Twitter user really follows?

However, only until these communities are identified can we continue on to ask, What are the cultural practices that shape the conversation to these communities on online social networks? I want to focus this question into a single idea: practical geographies. By practical geography, I mean a network of users that is defined by 1) base of familiarity (be it knowledge, language, etc.), and 2) borders of inclusion and exclusion. Therefore, it is the practices of communicating with these communities and entering different geographies that will shape the future of social networks.

Cross-network analysis will also prove to be an interesting feat, as social networks solidify their user bases in the near future. Will we run into problems as we conflate sharing on Twitter as the same compared with sharing on Facebook? Facebook boasts the "Like" button, as does Google Reader, but I retweet it on Twitter. Currently, I can change the way the retweet is presented to my followers, but Twitter is planning to implement a new system that automatically replicates the original tweet.

And with whom do I even want to share my information? Again, Where do you go to find cool, interesting things online? Or, for me, Where should I go to post the interesting things I find online? My sharing usage tends to be through Twitter, but I could easily do the same (and catalogue it much easier with tags on Delicious). Only a few weeks ago, I decided to disconnect my Twitter account from my Facebook feed, because my friends just didn't care much about what I was posting. My realization was that most of those I follow on Twitter aren't even my friends, so that there now exist two communities of contacts: one for conversation on Twitter, and one of personal interrelationships on Facebook.

Ethics too seem to play into these networked relationships, even stronger and (as strange as it sounds) more philosophically than before. It's not uncommon to "unfriend" people you don't know on Facebook today, even though it was a ubiquitous trait of early users to friend anybody that you had met in real life. The cultural uses of Facebook seem to have shifted from an archive of arbitrary acquaintances to a network for maintaining close connections. Also in October, danah boyd wrote an article comparing the semantics of status updates on Twitter and Facebook and argues that they are different because the systems have evolved based on the communities.

I could go on about how privacy acts as a passport further solidifying these geographies, or how walled gardens are both intellectually fulfilling but shaping the Internet in a way that destroys the ubiquity of information. No longer, perhaps, will people find interesting things by pure serendipity. And then there's the issue of governmental restrictions and censorship.

What does the future of Internet culture look like? I'd love to hear your thoughts. Comment, or send a message to

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