Netculture and communication draft, request for comments

Michael Hauben (
1 Nov 1995 01:08:33 -0500

Please respond to this article or e-mail me comments about this
draft paper. Use my account.

Culture and Communication
The interplay in the new public commons - Usenet and Community Networks

Michael Hauben <>

As we approach the new millennium, social relationships are
changing radically. In 1978, the Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote of an
"approaching world-wide culture." (Mead 1978, p. 3) She spoke of a global
culture made possible by mass media, but she foresaw actual fundamental
changes made by current computer communication networks. A new culture is being
formed out of a desire for communication. (Graham) This culture is partially
formed and formulated by new technology and by social desires. (Jones,
Woodbury) People are dissatisfied with the modern condition, and much
of the new communication technology facilitates new global connections
(Uncapher). This paper will explore the effect of new communication
forms on human culture and of human culture on these new communication

The development of transportation and communication
technologies has linked the world together in ways which make it
simple to travel or communicate with peoples and cultures around
the world. The daily exposure to various cultures makes it
impossible for an individual to envision the world consisting of
only his or her culture. (Mead) We really are moving into a new
global age which affects most aspects of human life: for example,
economics, politics, and entertainment. These are all elements of
people's culture. The exposure to media and forms of
communication help spread many of the other elements. Television
and radio connect people with the rest of the world in a rather
impersonal fashion, whereas computer networks are increasingly
bringing people of various cultures together in a much more
intimate and grassroots manner.

Culture is a living dynamic part of people's lives. Human
culture gets set by how people live their lives. Culture is created
and re-enforced through how that person lives. One is taught culture
while growing up, but these perceptions change as he or she matures,
develops and lives an adult life. Culture is not statically
defined. Rather a person grows up into a culture and then changes it
as the life is lived out.

As people increasingly live a more global lifestyle,
whether through media or daily urban life, culture is changing. This
global experience is facilitated by the ability of the individual to
interact with people from other cultures and countries on a personal
level. Images and thoughts available via mass media show these
cultures exist, but when people get a chance to talk and interact,
then the differences become less of an oddity and more of an

There are critics who claim this global culture, or mass
culture is snuffing out individual differences for a pre-packaged
culture. These critics call for the isolation of communities from
each other so that the uniqueness can be preserved. This criticism
misses that human culture is a dynamic element of society, and
freezing it would produce a museum of human society. What these
critics do not recognize is that more and more these various cultures
are understanding the power of the new communication
technologies. More and more people are reacting against the mass media and
corporate dominance and calling for a chance to express their views
and contribute their culture into the global culture. Margaret Mead
tells a story of returning to a village in New Guinea which originally
requested medicine and trade goods. On this later visit, rather than
asking for more contributions of western civilization, the villagers
requested their songs be recorded via tape recorder in order to
contribute their own culture to the outside world. The
presence of radios made the villagers aware of other's music, and they
wanted a part of the culture broadcast around the world.

The new media of Usenet news, electronic mail and the Internet
facilitate the growth of global interactive communities. These forums
are made available through community networks, Universities, the work
place, internet access providers, and other public access
locations. Human culture is ever evolving and developing, and the new
public commons are of a global nature. People are coming together and
living more time of their daily lives with people from around the
world. Through the sharing of these moments by people, their cultures
are coming to encompase more of the world not before immediately available.

Usenet newsgroups are a relatively young medium of human
discourse and communication. (1) Studies are just being completed on
the global on-line culture. A recent thesis by Tim North asked the
question "is there an on-line culture and society on Usenet?" His
conclusion was that there is a definite Usenet culture, but that
Usenet can not be considered a separate society. Rather Usenet is
"a superstructural society that spans many mainstream societies and is
dependent upon them for its continued existence." (North) Others are
studying the on-line culture and the connection to the growing global
culture. (Jones, Avis, Graham, etc)

The Usenet technology was developed by graduate students in the late
1970s as a way to promote the sharing of information and to spread
communication between university campuses. This design highlights
the importance of the contribution by individuals to the
community. Thus the content of Usenet is produced by elements of the
community for the whole of the community. In forming of this public
space, or commons, people are encouraged to share their views,
thoughts, and questions with others. (Hauben & Hauben 1994) The chance to
contribute and interact with other people spread Usenet to become a
truly global community of people hooking their computers together to
communicate. People both desire to talk and to communicate with other
people. (Woodbury, Graham)

Both the technological design of opening one's computer up to
accept contributions of others and the desire to communicate led to
the creation of an egalitarian culture. People have both a chance to
introduce and share their own culture and a chance to broaden
themselves through exposures to these various cultures. As such, the
Usenet culture is an example of a global culture which is not a
reflection of purely one culture. Instead, Usenet both incorporates
cultural elements from many nations and builds a new on-line
culture. (North)

Community networks provide a way for citizens of a locality
to hook into these global communities for little or no cost. Community
networks also provide a way for communities to truly represent
themselves to others connected on-line. Without access made available
through community networks, through publicly available computer
terminals or local dial-in phone numbers, only those who could afford
the monthly charges or who have access through work or school would
represent themselves. Particular portraits of various cultures would
thus be only partially represented. Also, when access is available
and open to all, a greater wealth of contributions can be
made. There is a strong push in Canada and Canadian communities to get
on-line. A lot of grass-roots community network building is taking
place. A grass-roots organization, Telecommunities Canada, stresses the
importance of contributing Canada's various cultures to the
on-line community and in this way making a contribution to the whole
community. (Graham, Weston) In a similar way, Izumi Aizu says the
Internet gives Japan "an opportunity to bring its own cultural
value to the open world." He continues, "It also opens the
possibility of changing Japan into a less rigid, more
decentralized society, following the network paradigm exercised
by the distributed nature of the Internet itself." (Aizu)

There's something to be said about the attraction of
representing one's self to the greater community. The many-to-many
form of communication where an individual can broadcast to the
community and get responses back from other individual is an
empowering experience. No longer do you have to be rich and powerful
to communicate broadly to others and to represent yourself and your own
views. This power is making it possible for individuals to communicate
with others with similar interests (and different interests) around
the world. Grass-roots organization is boosted and even the formation
of local community groups is accelerated. Development of the commons
to the exclusion of the big media representations makes this a
grass-roots medium, or a new enlarged public commons.

The on-line culture is primarily a written one, although much
of the text is written generally in a non-formal almost off the
cuff type of nature. While people will post papers and well thought
out ideas, much of the conversation is generated in an immediate
response to others' messages. This text can feel like a conversation,
or a written version of oral culture. Stories akin to the great
stories of the pre-history come about. Legends and urban myths
circulate and are disseminated. Pictures and other non-text items can
be sent in usenet messages, but these non-text items are primarily
transferred and not modifed, thought upon or communally worked on as are
the textual ideas. The common shared on-line language is
English. However, other languages exist in country hierarchies and
newsgroups and in mailing lists. Along with IRC channels, gopher sites
and WWW pages.

Text also means that body language and other non-verbal clues
need to be spelled out. Extra-sensory emoticons have been invented
(e.g., <grin>, <laugh>, etc) along with smilies. Smilies are textual
drawings of a person's face with a smile or grin rotated 90 degrees
counter-clockwise to be typeable and printable on computer text
screens and printouts. (2)

North writes on how there is a distinct Usenet culture, and
that this culture is opening and welcoming of new-comers. He also
notes when there is unfriendliness to "newbies", but focuses on how
the on-line culture is documented and available for people to learn
from documents available on-line. This definition of culture and
netiquette (the on-line word for net etiquette) is available to learn
from and open for discussion. Bruce Jones sums up the net culture

"...the usenet network of computers and users
constitutes a community and a culture, bounded by its own set of norms
and conventions, marked by its own linguistic jargon and sense of
humor and accumulating its own folklore."

Both North and Jones elaborate on what they see to be an
egalitarian tendency or tendency to contribute to the community's
benefit. Jones writes,

"...the people of the net owe something to each other. While not bound by
formal, written agreements, people nevertheless are required by
convention to observe certain amenities because they serve the greater
common interest of the net. These aspects of voluntary association
are the elements of culture and community that bind the people of
usenet together."

The global culture is formed in several ways, none of which is
a generic corporate rubber stamp. People are taking charge. They are
bringing their own cultures into the global culture and spreading this
new culture around the world. This is taking on a general form and an
on-line form. The on-line form provides a strong means by which people
can spread their ideas and culture which in turn affects the broader
global culture. This broader global culture also affects newsgroups
or on-line media. The ability to express oneself to the rest of the
world is addictive and the rapid increase of new people joining the
on-line global community makes that manifest. "The voiceless and the
oppressed in every part of the world have begun to demand more power
.... The secure belief that those who knew had authority over those
who did not has been shaken." (Mead, p.5)


(1) Usenet was initiated in 1979
(2) Examples include :-) traditional smile ;-) wink, etc
See book1, book2, for more examples.

Cyberpoet's Guide to Virtual Culture

Beyond the hype, behind the glamour, underneath the sea of buzzwords,
icons and flames a new subculture is spreading in this petri dish known as
the Internet. Here science and art - media and mind - combine in a cyborg
frenzy to create this replicant cousin to cyberpunk and hacking. It is a
subculture with no name, few labels, but thousands of common attractors,
which link together before our eyes like digital DNA to create, in the
helix of the autologue, a new frontier for participants in these wide
virtual spaces to explore.

Any document that attempts to cover an emerging culture is doomed to be
incomplete. Even more so if the culture has no overt identity (at least
none outside virtual space). But the other side of that coin presents us
with the oportunity to document the ebb and flow, the moments of growth
and defeat, the development of this young culture.


Culture and Commitment: The New Relationships Between the Generations
in the 1970s. Margaret Mead. Anchor Books/Doubleday. Garden City, NY.

"Old Freedoms and New Technologies: The Evolution of Community Networking"
University of Waterloo, Canada, November 26, 1994.


Prepared for Telecommunities Canada
By Garth Graham
CRTC public hearings on information highway
March 29, 1995

Willard Uncapher somewhat autonomous section of a larger work.
copyright (c) 1992, 1994 not for publication without prior approval.
University of Texas at Austin draft, eh? and it has not been published. the electronic version loses formatting.

"Between Local and Global:Placing the Mediascape in the Transnational
Cultural Flow"

Bruce Jones' thesis proposal at UCSD dept of COmmunication

Cyberpoet's Guide to Virtual Culture

Net Cultural Assumptions by Greg Woodburry
Net Culture Assumptions II - Historical Perspective
by Gregory G. Woodbury
Published in Amateur Computerist Newsletter Fall/Winter 1994/1995
in Vol 6 No 2-3. Available from

Cultural Impact on Network Evolution in Japan
Emergence of Netizens

by Izumi Aizu
Institute for HyperNetwork Society
GLOCOM (Center for Global Communications),
International University of Japan

An investigation of their culture and its effects on new users."

Andrew Avis's "Public Spaces on the Information Highway: The Role of
Community Networks."

Michael Teachers College Dept. of Communications
Amateur Computerist Newsletter
WWW Music Index