The medium is the bias

Emergency "Twitter was down so I wrote my...

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We don’t carry cultural biases around in our heads so much as encounter them in our environments. Humans require the flexibility to be able to engage with different cultural biases in different contexts. A person who is acculturated to be biased in one particular way will either gravitate towards that way of working or be somewhat handicapped in contexts outside of their cultural comfort zone. Imagine a right handed person working with their left hand: they can do it but it isn’t comfortable. Unfortunately we mostly aren’t even aware that we are operating in culturally biased environments and our flexibility is unconscious rather than reflective. Cultural theory offers a heuristic approach to recognising, naming and making sense of these cultural biases so that we can operate on a more ambidextrous manner.

A case in point: email. Here’s an excerpt from Johnny Ryan’s book on social networking:

“E-mail stripped away the accumulated layers of formality that had been observed in correspondence of the ink age:

‘One could write tersely and type imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much more like the telephone.’

Strict hierarchies were flattened, and the barriers between individuals at different levels of an organization’s hierarchy were minimized. Staff at ARPA now found that they could easily contact the Director, Stephen Lukasik, by e-mail. Similarly, Lawrence Roberts used e-mail to bypass principal investigators and communicate directly with contractors below them.

As e-mail spread throughout facilities connected to ARPANET, the rapid-fire e-mail exchanges between people at different levels of the academic hierarchy established new conventions of expression.”

The point is that in the 1970s the new medium of email effectively forced an Egalitarian cultural bias to be adopted inside an otherwise strongly Hierarchical organization. In the terms of Cultural Theory, email is a Weak Grid medium.

The upshot of this is that if your organization relies heavily on one cultural bias or another (and nearly all do) it may be important to consider carefully the quality of match between the cultural bias of the medium and the cultural bias of the organization. For example it would probably be a bad idea for the monarch to use email, since the medium implicitly undermines the cultural power of the institution. It isn’t just that the medium risks trivialising the sender, The medium actually implies particular social relationships which may or may not be conducive to the sender’s institutional arrangements.

Note that the English monarchy has intuitively understood this. If you want to contact the Queen in 2011 you have to write a letter.

The official website says:

“If you wish to write a formal letter, you can open with ‘Madam’ and close the letter with the form ‘I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty’s humble and obedient servant’. This traditional approach is by no means obligatory. You should feel free to write in whatever style you feel comfortable.”

…as long as it’s snail mail. This is just as well, since if you tried to tweet the Queen (which you can’t) the formal closing would take up over half of your 140 character allowance.

Conversely, those seeking to change cultural biases could do worse than to ‘bring the war to the enemy’ by seeking to force them to use culturally inappropriate media to convey their messages.

Unlike the Queen, Prince William has a Twitter account. When I looked it had 27,387 followers. This figure contrasts rather sharply with the number of followers the monarchy is supposed to have (many millions in several Commonwealth countries). In other words the very use of a Weak-Grid medium such as Twitter undermines the Strong-Grid hierarchical rationale of its user.

For those who do not operate in Hierarchical institutions these examples of blue-bloods using the Internets may serve to illustrate the horror with which many who defend a Hierarchical worldview look at contemporary social change. This horror can be hard to understand – isn’t it an over-reaction? Well, no. While most of us just see Twitter and Facebook. For the Hierarchical worldview these are further evidence of the end of civilization as we know it – and they are not wrong.


Johnny Ryan 2010 A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. London: Reaktion and Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

#approvalmatrix – fourfold typologies make it to Twitter

Here’s an older post from the Savage Minds anthropology blog about Mary Douglas’s grid-group typology (the basis of the four cultures explored on this site). It’s basically a mashup of that typology and an alternative scheme deriving from Pierre Bourdieu (if he wrote for the New York Magazine, that is): highbrow/lowbrow; brilliant/despicable.

I like it because I’ve been very interested in the proliferation of fourfold schemes in the social sciences – and here’s another one. In particular I’m interested in whether these schemes are each as radically new as the author or creator always seems to think, or whether there’s some kind of underlying structure that makes superficially different formulations somehow connect.

This particular juxtaposition reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s understanding of creativity, which comes about where

‘a single situation or idea is perceived in two self-consistent but mutually incompatible frames of reference’.

If you’re interested, the approval matrix has been re-purposed and applied to Twitter posts at O’Reilly Radar.

Koestler, Arthur (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Pan. Quoted in William Byers (2007) How Mathematicians Think. Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 28.

How Non-profits can benefit from Twitter

Marketing blogger Seth Godin has expressed his dismay that non-profit organisations don’t appear in the top 100 Twitter users. He thinks this is a tragic lost opportunity for marketing and he may be right. After all, we can guess that Twitter is working fine for the likes of Ashton Kucher, Britney Spears and Perez Hilton (although given the number of tweets Kucher has apparently made in the eight months since joining it’s surprising he’s found time to sleep. Perhaps he has an army of Tw-obots, all programmed to tweet till they drop).

But doesn’t the top 100 list itself give us some clues as to what is going on? The homogeneity of the list surely indicates something about Twitter and its users. They seem to be very interested in ‘stars’ who have music, concerts and merchandise to sell, and a pop culture ‘image’ to promote/offer. Is this really the best forum for non-profit organisations? I guess it can’t hurt to try…

A way of testing this would be to look at the top ten non-profits on Twitter, find out how they’ve used the medium and see to what extent the lessons learned might be transferable. Any takers?

One issue with all this is that of ‘early adoption’ of technology. Let’s face it, non-profit organisations have never been great at this. And it’s not clear that they need to be. If Seth is right, the first cabs off the rank will be big winners, but my guess is that the rest won’t suffer all that much. It’s not as though we are about to run out of things to be altruistic about if we don’t hurry. By backing no technology they also won’t suffer the early adopter problem of backing the wrong (or suboptimal) technology.

If they think they can get away with not Twittering, they will. Dare it be said they might have better things to do with their time?