The emerging cultural psychology of an emergent culture

We humans are unquestionably cultural creatures. We are born after some process of mating, raised and trained to understand certain rules, and sustained by livelihood earned via fulfillment of particular roles and tasks. The web and growing social media are new, but they extend from a trajectory of cultural development that is many millennia old. The pace of cultural development is increasing, but we are still physiologically mostly the same hairless monkeys we were when we the great African droughts in the caves of Bolombos 70,000 years ago.

Wellman proposes that the most important shift arising from the web is “the shift from group centered to network centered life.” (Reinhold, p. 220). If this is true, we may extend our practical social networks beyond Robin Dunbar’s number of 150, or we may not. Analysts of social networks have long acknowledged that we have both strong and weak links to others, and that strong ties require more investment of ourselves and our time than weak ones. Rheingold summarizes the strong ties require:

  • More time
  • Shared experiences
  • Deeper trust
  • More frank self disclosure (p. 225)

We may never expand beyond the 150 of our optimal tribal group in terms of strong ties, and we may never need to do so. Weak ties provide more divergent information than the information we already share with our network of strong ties, and the web drastically increases our ability to connect and interact with more distant individuals and to reactivate latent ties that would normally fade when we leave our high school or home town.

Wellman and others describe our new condition as networked individualism. Individualism as a concept in social sciences dates back to well before Mead’s investigations of “primitive” cultures, and is normally contrasted with the “collectivism” of non-Western cultures. Rheingold summarizes characteristics of this networked individualism as:

  • Boundaries are more permeable
  • Interactions are with diverse others
  • Linkages switch between multiple networks
  • Hierarchies are flatter and more recursive
  • People and organizations communicate with others in ways that ramify across group boundaries (Wellman, Quan-Haase, Boase, Chen, Hampton, de Diaz, & Miyata, 2003).

This list maps well onto the domains of cultural variation outlined in cultural psychology (e.g. Hofstede, 1980).

Collectivist cultures enjoy very deep connections within the group, and those boundaries are often very solid because accepting a new intimate implies addition of lasting obligations and responsibilities. Responsibilities in the digital domain will probably never have the depth or richness of relationships that span centuries and generations, and our lives will be the lesser for loss of ancient mechanisms of cohesion and connection. We cannot foresee what may replace them on the digital commons.

The web offers new realms of social capital, which is garnered through trust, cooperation, reciprocity, and consistency. We may act as individuals on the net, but social capital is conferred by collective interaction with others, much like the Asian concept of “face” (Ho, 1976). One gains face by displaying competence in one’s role as a member of the community faithfully and consistently, enhanced by showing wisdom and benevolence in social relations. Online social capital is not so different.

What can be different is the structure of society, which can often be quite hierarchic in collectivist cultures, disadvantaging those of lower status, whether by gender of heredity. Putnam and colleagues observed that Northern Italy, with its more horizontal system of guilds and civic organizations, built greater wealth than the vertical social structures of the feudal south, the people becoming citizens versus subjects. The net has been designed to remain horizontal, and hopefully will remain such.

The developing norms of online culture are generally egalitarian. Norms are necessary for social interaction and are learned through modeling, such as the social inattention by which we let minimally embarrassing situations and behavior pass unremarked if not unnoticed. Norms of reciprocity can be specific or diffuse, and the possibility of highly diffuse avenues for return on invested energy make the net a field ripe for exceptional levels of collaboration.



Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.

Ho, David Yau-Fai (1976), “On the Concept of Face,” American Journal of Sociology, 81 (4), 867–84.

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture‘s consequences: International differences in work related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Wellman, B., Quan-Haase, A., Boase, J., Chen, W., Hampton, K., de Diaz, I. I., & Miyata, K. (2003). The Social Affordances of the Internet for Networked Individualism. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 8(3).

© Stephen Fox, 2013, contact


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