Could social media evolve human culture globally?

As the printing press became more popular in the late 15th century, it lead to a lot academic books. And a lot of academics arguing. That hasn’t changed. But with all those books, came the greater exchange of knowledge and, arguably, lead to the age on enlightenment in the 18th century. As there was no TikTok, Facebook, email (or spam) and wires hadn’t even been invented, let alone WiFi, it took a rather longer bit of time for ideas to spread and cultures to change. Measured in centuries in fact. Even today, some cultures, such as Brazilian tribes still remain fairly reclusive, although that too, sadly, is changing.

It took hundreds of years for global cultural changes since the invention of the printing press, then colonialism and all sorts of other conflicts. Prior to that of course, cultures were changed as empires rose and fell around the world.

There’s a new theory of how humans evolved socially, known as “complimentary cognition” and new research is strongly indicating this is how we, as a species, teach each other and evolve through collective intelligence. It suggests that our ancestors evolved through adapting to dramatic environmental and climatic variabilities. We evolved to specialize in different, but complementary, ways of thinking. Perhaps social media is a form of complimentary cognition?

In 2013 a song from South Korea raced around the world like fire, Gangnam Style. It remains one of the most viewed videos on YouTube. The song reflects an area of Seoul that is considered one of the wealthiest and glamorous areas of the city. Unless you’re from South Korea however, you probably didn’t know that, nor really cared. But the video itself, even though sung in Korean, carries the message of glitz and glamour and a sophisticated and modern culture. It is in ways aspirational. It has been declared one of South Koreas biggest moments in Soft Power, which is a form of nations projecting power through cultural means rather than dropping rather big bombs on people and generally blowing things up. An example of American use of soft power is the exporting of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and music. Every country tries to excerpt some form of Software power as part of its global reputation strategy. Hearts and Minds was part of the military doctrine developed by the U.S. military post Gulf War and in Afghanistan etc.

Cultures evolve over time, impacted by such factors as climate, language, available communications tools, and social development (political systems, religion etc.) Over millennia, all cultures have been impacted through trade and conflict, some more than others. Key to changes in cultures is communication. Until the rise of the internet and thus social media however, cultural changes and impacts were relatively slow. A snail’s pace compared to today.

Cultures change and shift over time as a society gains knowledge and connects with other cultures through a peaceful means or otherwise. Today, humans can communicate unlike ever before in our history in a manner where “time” is almost meaningless, where geopolitical boundaries are of little concern and physical conflict is now psychological in nature.

Ideas are the very firmament upon which cultures arise, develop, fall and change or adapt. Social media are tools that make the creation, sharing and adoption of ideas almost frictionless, so they spread quickly. In the case of Gangnam Style, it influenced dance moves around the world, just the song Macarena did years before. A hit song, written story, poem, recipe or political idea can emerge from any culture in any country at any time.

The question then becomes, if cultures are shaped by ideas and the speed of communicating these ideas, expressed through art, music, food etc., will social media change cultures around the world? Has it already? One can certainly argue that is has, is and will.

We’ve seen conspiracy theories and disinformation already impact society. The whole Qanon ideology influenced American politics and has impacted other countries around the world. Authoritarian governments and populist leaders have adopted the messaging and idea behind Qanon to beat at the walls of democracies as much as foreign state actors opposed to democracy have leveraged them. As with all technologies, there is always a good and bad side.

To truly understand if social media is impacting and changing global culture will take a lot of research over a couple or a few decades. We have at least one decade of social media in the bag. It started out hopeful and today seems much darker and brooding. That may well be just a phase. We might anecdotally say that social media is influencing global culture, but cultures take time to change.

Today, I’d suggest we are in a phase of “storming” as we develop norms of digital etiquette, defining what is and isn’t appropriate. How long this will take is anybody’s guess and a topic for another post. We can share our cultures however, unlike ever before. What makes our world so interesting is the many different cultures we have. It makes the tapestry of our world vibrant and wonderful. This is the good of social media. A downside would be a boring global monoculture.

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