For more than 20 years computer-mediated communication (CMC) has been recognized as building new social communities formed around interests, not physical proximity (Korzenny, 1978). Attuned to the significance of these processes, communication researchers have been calling for more study of the Internet (Newhagen & Rafaeli, 1996; Parks & Floyd, 1996). Some have suggested that more exploration of networked ‘cyberspace citizens’ is needed to understand more fully the relationships and effects of fast-changing information environments and more diverse cultural encounters (Ogan, 1993; Baym, 1995).
A network analysis approach appears valuable in this pursuit. Social network researchers have asserted that when a computer network connects people or organizations, it can be fruitfully conceptualized as a social network (Garton, Haythornthwaith, & Wellman, 1997; Haythornthwaite, Wellman, & Garton, 1998; Wellman, 1997). Morris and Ogan (1996) maintain that conceptualizing the Internet as a network is a useful move and they suggest network analysis to address issues of social influence. Barnett (1997) and Barnett and Salisbury (1996) have proposed that international communication network research should be extended to computer networks such as the Internet. Such research on cross-cultural CMC networks has not yet emerged. This study conceptualizes sharing messages among online discussion groups as a form of cross-cultural communication network in cyberspace. It addresses the question as to whether the network evidence is more supportive of an undifferentiated, highly interconnected “global village” structure, a sort of ‘one world’ network, or more supportive of a differentiated and hierarchical “global metropolis” structure, one with multiple subgroups.
Global Village or Global Metropolis?
When scholars conceptualize Internet-based networks in the most general terms, the concept “global village” is likely to appear. McLuhan (1964) predicted the emergence of the “global village” as a result of television networks and satellite transmission technology. As people experience events at the other side of the world as if they were in the same physical space, “we now live in a global village… a simultaneous happening” (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967, p. 63). Today some observers have transplanted the term from its original conceptual location to describe what they perceive as resulting from Internet networks' global reach. Unfortunately the term, “global village” is used glibly (e.g. Harasim, 1993) and its theoretical underpinnings are most often unarticulated and such use unquestioned by others.
One notable exception occurred prior to the take-off period of the Internet. In the context of theoretical perspectives to international communication, Fortner (1993) argued against the use of the term “global village,” citing important features of village communication systems including some significant for this research. One is dependence on oral-aural communication in an atmosphere of intimacy. Another is the sharing of geography for living, including sharing both the sacred and the profane, as well as places of authority and of exile. Another feature of villages is that people marry, give birth, and die among those with whom they share daily life experiences. Where time and space has vanished by electronic communication technologies, people from around the world can communicate instantly as if they lived in the same village (McLuhan & Fiore, 1967; McLuhan & Powers, 1989).
Fortner (1993) posits that communication does not itself provide for these aspects of village life. Furthermore, communication alone cannot create social networks of intimacy and identity having the attributes he associates with villages. Communication can, as Lasswell (1960) and Lerner (1960) articulated, enable people separated by thousands of miles to signal events, know of the activities of others whom they do not personally know, and show potentially common elements in the ways different geographically separated people conduct their lives. Yet, mediated communication cannot foster the intimacy of village life and sharing of the same experiences.
Instead, Fortner argues that a metaphor of “global metropolis” is more fitting to mediated communication systems on a global scale. In contrast to the village, in the metropolis people rely on media for much of their information about other groups residing there. Some groups will be much more visible than others, depending on the relationships of the groups to the media. Information flow is unequal and elites are better known than strata are, because hierarchical and centrally controlled communication systems tend to reflect social inequalities among groups with ‘different degrees of socioeconomic, cultural, and political status’ (Fortner 1993, p. 25).
Given that the Internet is another global communication system with a complex and differentiated structure, extending the metropolis rather than village metaphor to the global level is more defensible to Fortner. Presented in Table 1 is a summary of contrasting features between two metaphors. Based on these arguments the question arises: What better characterizes the Internet's global cultural patterns, the global village or the global metropolis concept, or perhaps something different?
In line with the global village concept is an assumption that there is significant homogenization of world cultures. With the advent of the Internet, some commentators argue that today's CMC networks not only provide tools but offer venues for global community, a matrix where the world can meet and form Internet communities (Harasim, 1993). As these communities evolve over time, cultural uniformity would increase on a global scale. Such a perspective is consistent with the common social science conceptualization of ‘globalization’ (Waters, 1995). It is assumed that information as well as material goods are freely and frequently exchanged between different groups across national and cultural boundaries. It is thought that this makes different systems more consolidated, providing a basis for a new higher-order system that is more uniform.
Some critics have argued for another cause of homogenization of global culture: hierarchical and unbalanced information flow between dominant and peripheral cultures. One side of the debate about the New World Information Order (NWIO) (Gonzalez-Manet, 1992; McPhail, 1987, 1989; UNESCO, 1980) has asserted that the structure of international communications, studied using the nation-state as a unit of analysis, is unequal and unbalanced. There is interaction along the spokes, from the periphery to the center hub; but not along the rim, from one periphery member to another (Galtung, 1971). This has been alleged to results primarily from inequalities in economic power and the extent of a country's own media development.
Without a doubt, the Internet is a communication technology that is at this time distributed unequally across countries, as can be seen in the distributions of hosts by top-level domains (Internet Software Consortium; OECD, 1998a). Much like the diffusion of earlier technologies such as telephone, radio, and television, the spread of the Internet among nations has been unequal mainly depending on each country's economic and social development level (Hargattai, 1998, 1999) and has arguably contributed to a new geography of centrality and marginality (Sassen, 1997). More of the Internet connectivity, volume of data traffic, and hosts and domain names have been concentrated in the developed countries than in the underdeveloped ones (Brunn & Dodge, 2001; Danowski & Szumilas, 1999; OECD, 1998a, 1998b; Zook, 2001). The geographic distribution of Internet users and languages also shows high centralization: 35 % of on-line users are in North America and 30 % in Europe; 43 % of on-line users use English and 32 % use European languages in cyberspace, as of December 2001.1
Nevertheless, at least conceptually, the Internet provides the possibility of both balanced and horizontal flows of information between cultures. Tools and “places” are available for various groups with different cultural identities, even minorities and/or marginalized groups with fewer resources, to meet and discuss their interests. For example, there are hundreds of discussion groups with ethnic, racial, national, or cultural identity in the Usenet, listserver or bulletin board systems, and commercial on-line services such as America Online. Since this new communication technology allows people in the world to interact with each other with fewer constraints, the patterns of communication flow may potentially be different from the hierarchical and centralized flow model argued by world systems and imperialism critical theories.
This new communication medium has been expected to enhance intergroup relationships as well as interpersonal ones. Spears and Lea (1994) argue that CMC tends to equalize status, decentralize and democratize communication flow, and thus empower and liberate the individual user or group. This process facilitates establishing a more equal relationship between and among online groups. Morris and Ogan (1996), in their experiment on group interaction by e-mail, found that minority groups preserve diversity of opinion by clustering with regional neighbors. They argue that CMC can facilitate democratic structures with overlapping groups, minimizing pressures toward uniformity. Latane and Bourgeois (1996) acknowledge that the proliferation of e-mail networks has the potential to alter the dynamics of cultural change. This suggests the possibility of a substantial enhancement to multiculturalism in global communication. Minority cultures can have more choices than ever to redefine or develop their cultural heritage with more diverse alliances without losing local identity. In this sense, CMC may be a useful tool for democratizing intergroup relationships in the global social system.2
Nevertheless, with the expansion of social bandwidth for alternative voices there is also the possibility for a net reduction in the reach and effectiveness of diverse groups' messages. One potential problem is overload of receivers of Internet messages to the point that they curtail their browsing and increase selectivity, in effect tuning out on minority messages. As well, expansion of minority group voices may at some point lead the traditional mass media to label minority or marginalized groups with active Internet voices as deviant and not credible, as those media have been seen to do prior to development of the Internet (Shoemaker, 1982).
In the context of the post-industrial economy, globalization brings about rather complex layers of global culture. Waters (1995) proposes the differentiating impact of globalization on ethnicity and nationhood: globalization pluralizes the world by recognizing the value of cultural niches and local abilities. He asserts that globalization brings the periphery to the center by introducing possibilities for new ethnic identities to cultures on the periphery. Ang (1996) also argues that globalization is not leading to an easily comprehensible totality or a central value system, but to an increasing diversity of connections among all global areas. She sees that the contemporary world is “a thoroughly paradoxical place, unified yet multiple, totalized yet deeply unstable, closed and open-ended at the same time” (p.163). In her postmodern view of globalization, the capitalist world-system today is not an undifferentiated all-encompassing whole, but a fractured one, in which forces of the dominant order of Westernization are undercut by forces of localization, diversification, indigenization, and regional ethnic conflicts (Ang, 1996).
In short, these perspectives reflect different takes on the Internet's influence on world cultures. On one hand, the global village and associated world cultural homogenization may be expected. On the other hand, a picture closer to a global metropolis with multiple cultural foci may be expected. Moreover, there is a lurking murkiness lying between the lines of scholarly conceptualization of the Internet' cultural constructions. This raises the possibilities for yet other structures to emerge from empirical analysis.