Is Culture a Choice?

Is Culture a Choice?

In 1999, four entrepreneurs, technologists, and thinkers assembled 95 theses around a central theme: The Internet has changed how we communicate. Christopher Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and Doc Searls explained that markets are made up of people.

Ten years on, many companies still struggle with The Cluetrain Manifesto's original message. Doc Searls is still writing about providing tools for individuals to manage relationships with organizations. Customers free to select the experiences they want are more valuable, says Searls.

But, while “the flywheels in the selling machine are huge,” the buying tools are still inadequate or lacking. The automation people continue to be far ahead of the conversation people.

What's the weight of culture?

Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and pretty much everything we call “social” was supposed to be good conversation agents. Early creators were also technologists, they helped build tools like RSS and WordPress.

Before we talked about Google as one of the tech giants with outsized power, the company had build a beautiful platform for people who wanted to pull news and information of interest. Built by an engineer at Google Labs in 2005, Google Reader allowed us to pull from the sources we selected. It was shut down on July 1, 2013#.

Social media, and specifically Twitter, were going to be better sources, many said. The idea was that if you follow smart people, they read good material and will pass that along to their network – you.

Fast-forward to 2020, there's no maybe about it, it didn't happen. In fact, while Twitter's evolution had potential, the reality is that it became mainly a tool for distributing information, where conversation is a challenge. 

In the early years of blogging, creators were also community builders and information curators. Bloggers linked to direct sources, pointing their readers to other writers. Together with lists of blogs, links became the currency of the web.

The mistaken idea that the gift economy was sustainable left many creators in a limbo of sorts: Keep the day job, publish on the side. Some bloggers built industry-based publications, using self-referential links to build search authority and freemium models to make a living. Others built a following and membership through owning a niche.

Lest we succumb to survivorship bias, these are the exceptions. Most bloggers just stopped writing. Most ordinary citizens don't read blogs, much less write them. Social media, by contrast has been on a steady rise since the onset.

Two major factors made this easier. The unrealized potential of the third category in computing primed people for consumption. Social networks' diligent use of prompts to keep people active on their platforms primed them for addiction. Further, social networks were hatched and spread in a culture than favors individualism, that relies on personal experience for its narrative.

Dutch social psychologist and former IBM employee Gerard Hofstede became well known for his pioneering research on cross-cultural groups and organizations. Since 1967, his now expanded research on nations' cultural profiles found five dimensions or Culture's Consequences

Whether we're driven by individualism or collectivism, whichever our power distance and degree of uncertainty avoidance, masculinity or femininity traits, long-term or short-term orientation, these cultural values determine how we apply culture to decision-making.

We translate cultural character into social axioms, the basic premises people endorse and use to guide their behavior in their lives. This is true for our social media habits, as is for the overall business climate and how it translates into companies and organizations.

Creating culture

Cultural norms shape how individuals construct and impose meaning on a situation. Culture has weight, but what's the degree of corporate culture and which is national culture? Organizational psychologist Dr. Sharon Glazer set out to answer that question.

Elaborating on the work of Elke U. Weber and Michael W. Morris, she says, “people attend to and frame their understanding of situations around previously experienced scenarios, and these scenarios are shaped by culture.” Cognitive research has also consistently confirmed the power of priming in changing how people respond to the same situation.

Social networks have made their changes slow enough over time to rewrite experiences. Facebook's about face on conversation was one of the many examples of its overarching strategy of content exploitation. Well before, Kevin Kelly's 1,000 true fans essay in 2008 ignited the imagination of creators, the social network was courting them to build its database.

When Kickstarter launched on April 28, 2009 “to help bring creative projects to life,” it was a welcome respite. The platform soon gave us an alternative model for moving beyond words to actually building things to use in the real world. Creators were once again not just making things, but building culture.

In 2013, in just six weeks, a musician and his roommate built Patreon, a website where fans could support their favorite artists and creators directly. The subscription-model helps creators retain creative freedom while getting paid, and fans get to sponsor what they want to sustain. 

Make no mistake, we're all in the business of creating culture. Big or small, company or individual, each creator has the opportunity to build a platform, and culture with it. Even national brands.

Embassies' role has always been to represent, protect, negotiate, inform and promote. Some call their shrinking role into question, others tout their ability to inform policy and keep us honest. Many nations have organizations whose role is to support economic relationships proactively.

I'd argue that companies that expand abroad operate a very tangible form of cultural priming. Eataly exports a collection of Italian craftsmanship and food culture all over the world, Starbucks and McDonald's are a manifestation of U.S. culture.

What culture is media creating?

The lie of a post-truth world

We get the media we deserve. Hard facts are harder-earned as ever. Greg Satell says our search for knowledge is a journey and truth ever elusive. I say it's our responsibility to seek facts over opinion, conversation over hardened belief.

PBS NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer died in his sleep at home on January 23, 2020, at the age of 85. Lehrer was known for his tenacity and dedication to simply delivering the news.

In his honor, PBS NewsHour published MacNeil /Lehrer's rules for journalism. They're a good reminder of how our actions create culture, each short statement has a set of potential questions we could ask, as writers and readers: 

  1. Do nothing I cannot defend.
  2. Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.
  3. Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.
  4. Assume the viewer is as smart and caring and good a person as I am.
  5. Assume the same about all people on whom I report.
  6. Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.
  7. Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything
  8. Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should be allowed to attack another anonymously.
  9. I am not in the entertainment business.

We're wrestling with the truth as we make decisions, or should be. This includes important decisions at national level. Obama's social media campaign was an early indicator of the power of priming. Things have escalated since then. Culture in a very physical sense was the protagonist of Italy's recent regional elections.

We can use some perspective and clear thinking to sort wheat from chaff. In the meantime, our questions reveal our real intent more than we suspect. “The questions we ask aren't going to predict the future,” say the Cluetrain's authors. “They will create the future.”

Why aren't we asking better questions?

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