Is the internet leading towards a single, shared cultural identity?

Is the internet leading towards a single, shared cultural identity? Or is it facilitating a break-up into many smaller groups, each of which see themselves as having a defined culture of their own?

Back in 1998, the year I swapped from above-the-line advertising to become a copywriter in an online agency, I popped out for lunch with a colleague. When I asked him where he saw the internet going, he thought for a moment and, pushing some pickles around the edge of his plate of Japanese curry, he said that he expected most internet users to disseminate into numerous small groups, each united by a common interest or way of thinking. They would live in ‘avenues (virtually speaking)’, he said. He apologised if the theory sounded pretentious. I bounced it around my mind and shook my head. No, not at all.

Back to the present, and I think there’s a lot of truth to the theory. The sheer quantity, and diverse variety, of blogs out there and social media channels with their thousands of sub-groups, attests to that. But what about looking ahead into the future? If many people are beginning to live in these digital ‘avenues’, how might that influence the nature of cultural identity?

Well, a simple way of trying to make sense of it could be to look at one of the prime determining factors of the ‘old’ cultural identity: physical borders between countries. It could be claimed that countries and territories have always acted as ‘holding vessels’ for cultural values. A group of similar-minded people clumped together in one physical chunk of space, with shared values, traditions, habits and languages. No matter how diverse these are, it’s the physically close proximity that underpins the sense of cultural identity that this all feeds into. And, importantly, before the internet, people usually had culture forced upon them, as they didn’t generally get to choose where to live, especially in their formative years.

So it’s interesting to note how the internet, due to the fact that it’s probably the most efficient means of humans connecting that has yet been invented, might be altering this. As people’s lives become more virtual, and as they spend less and less time in the real world, so their cultural identity can evolve, influenced by those whom they spend time with in the digital world. They can, in effect, actually choose the culture they want to be party to and feed into.

The advancements in technology, furthermore, will continue to accelerate this, as people will begin to experience more fluid, immediate and even sensory levels of communication with their fellow humans in the virtual sphere.

Whoever people choose to spend time with, whether fellow gamers, scientists or conspiracy theorists, then their outlook, habits and approach to life will be influenced accordingly. Thus, collective cultural identity – and the sense of belonging that ensues, which itself will continue to strengthen bonds within groups and amongst their aficionados – will continue to absorb the multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-viewpoint influences at its disposal from the two billion connected people worldwide, and evolve into a cohesive cultural (albeit virtual) identity.

So what part does digital advertising play in all this? Well, as brand-facilitated communications can act as a way of bringing similar-minded people together (after all, when you think about it brands are just tones-of-voice that encapsulate a certain approach to life that people may or may not identify with), digital advertising will continue to be a trigger for inspiring, polarising and shepherding people with shared values into the ‘avenues’ that my colleague mused about. It’s quite easy to see with lifestyle brands such as Nike, Uniqlo, Starbucks and especially games companies, such as this piece of work we put together for Ubisoft.

Additionally, it’s useful to note the flow of how the real world is catching up with these notions. In Britain’s Got Talent, for example, any time an act comes on the producers flash up a hashtag title – #chancer or #andnowwithwings (etc), so that everyone can communicate digitally at the same time, no longer just watching the telly screen, but watching it with an interactive screen/phone/iPad/laptop as well.

Actually, it’s an unusual dichotomy; almost as if nothing and yet everything has changed. People of common values and interests have always congregated together. That’s just the tribal instinct. But, the fact that the groups whom people increasingly hang around with (in virtual terms) can be scattered across the globe will, I believe, mean physical borders have less and less bearing on the way they think, act and see things. Culture will, increasingly, be governed by connectedness.

All avenues lead to the new cultural identity: it’s a rapidly-forming new virtual world out there. One in which passports may consist of thoughts and values, rather than visas.

  • Ian West

    I like this. It has ecological validity because it reflects the way we know people behave. The interesting activity will be attempting to map these new cultural connections. Back to Milgram’s six degrees ot separation – on speed.

  • Adrian Gans

    Lots of interesting thought starters here… the meaning of culture, globalisation and bottom-up disintegration of nation states and, for me, a very interesting angle on the development of individuality in an always-on, always transparent world. Will a new collectivism emerge in the 21st century that eclipses the selfish and often unhappy cult of the individual that has been dominant in the latter half of the 20th century?