Internet culture shock

The digital divide is not only technological, but cultural too.

Read time 5min 50sec

When Leslie Poles Hartley opened his 1953 novel, “The Go-Between”, with the line: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," the Internet had not been invented yet. The sentiment, however, also holds true for the Net. Sometimes real life and the land of the World Wide Web might have similarities and crossovers, but leaping from one into the other can be as startling as waking up on a different continent.

A friend, having run out of Internet data early last month, was forced to take a sabbatical from his otherwise very active Internet presence. Returning on Monday, he remarked how out of touch he felt.

“I've been off the grid for too long; I don't know what's happening at all any more,” he lamented. "I'm feeling totally out of the loop and overwhelmed by all the stuff I have to catch up on."

What we don't consider is the exclusive society that the Internet can be.

Tallulah Habib, social media activist, ITWeb

Social networks like Twitter are known for their fast churn. The half-life of a tweet, Andy Hadfield theorises, is probably no more than a few seconds. Even big Twitter issues like #thespear #boycottwoolies and #jessicaleandra blow over within a few days. It's understandable that missing a few weeks of tweets would make one feel out of touch - but it's not just social media. The Internet is a vast ecosystem of blogs, networks and news articles that feed off each other. Ideas propagate, lingo develops, memes are created and fads are followed. There's a lot more to it than reading a summary of Top Tweets of the Week.

I know exactly how my friend feels. The week I was graduating, I missed out on “Don't touch me on my studio”, and I was away at a conference when “Gangnam Style” went viral.

Behind the times

“I feel like I've just discovered the Internet and there is all this cool stuff to do and watch and read and see and talk about,” he said. “But I've come into the conversation just a few minutes too late.”

Social networks tote slogans like “join the conversation”. Blogs encourage us to “speak to the world”. News Web sites allow us to “let your voice be heard” in the comments. The words that are unsaid, though, are that the world may not want to listen.

Twitter is often said to be “like high school” in that there are 'in' groups and 'out' groups, but the sad truth of the matter is that this is the case across the Internet.

When we speak about the digital divide, we often look at the technology that allows people to connect to the Internet. What we don't consider is the exclusive society that the Internet can be.

Talking in tongues

The Internet is a land of opportunity, but also a land of conformity. Those who fail to conform to understood norms are often excluded. Sometimes this may be unintentional, but in other ways, it's very intentional. Take, for instance, the advent of 1337 SP34K (leet, or elite, speak) - a “language” formed in the early days of the World Wide Web to keep n00bs (newbies) from understanding what was going on. Then there are the memes - the ever-present repetitions of amusing or otherwise entertaining pieces of culture, modified for added effect. If you stumble upon a meme for the first time and don't 'get it', you're seen as ignorant and can become the object of ridicule (Don't believe me? Ask someone what Gangnam Style is.) Likewise if you start spreading a meme that is old and no longer in circulation, the recipient might spend more time laughing at you than the content. (Hint: if you haven't seen longcat, now's not the time to send it to your friends, and quoting 300 was so last decade.)

And you thought learning not to stick your chopsticks upright in your rice while in China was hard?

In addition to the language and the cultural units we call memes, the Internet also has its own fads and celebrities. Never forget, it gave us Justin Bieber. A more recent example... Scientist Nikola Tesla has become popular again after Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal did a write up on why he deserves all the credit for electricity, and was the “ultimate” geek. In fact, a campaign to raise money to create a Tesla museum reached over $1 million in just a few days after the comic was published.

Then there are the prejudices. There's been a lot in the media recently about the implicit sexism of the Internet - GeekFeminism counts 27 incidents this year. Anita Sarkeesian is probably the best example - she continues to undergo harassment across the Net for daring to start a project to raise funds for research into the portrayal of women in games. The harassment has included a “beat her up” flash game where players can pretend to punch her.

Those who do not use English as their primary language are continually mocked and ridiculed on English-language sites, and it gets even worse when it comes to religion.

Of course, this is just the dark side of the Internet. It's also a wonderful resource. Internet education may save our youth and the rate at which knowledge is shared has enabled advancements in our technology and fields like medicine in just a few years that otherwise would have taken decades. There is also a lot to say about the democratising force of the Internet and the role it plays in politics (getting young Americans to vote in the last election, the Arab Spring). This is why it is incredibly important that we try and get as many people online as possible, and close digital divides. After all, it's not a democratising force if most of the population is not participating, is it?

However, the closing of digital divides cannot stop at putting a mobile phone - or even a laptop - in the hands of every person. That is just a starting point.

If a digital native, my friend, can feel so alienated in a landscape that just a few weeks ago felt like home, I can only imagine how someone who's never logged on before must feel.

If we really want to close digital divides and bring everyone online in any useful way, we owe it to them to be tour guides in this brave new world we call home.

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