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Culture, Identity, and the Internet

Universität Münster


Speaking of the Internet, culture and identity are two of theforemost subjects regarding its social aspects. And the most frequentlyasked question is "What does the Internet do to culture andidentity?" This question certainly has its merits, but itreduces people and their cultures to somewhat willingless objectsbeing altered by technology. Inverting the question into "Whatdo culture and identity do to the Internet and its use?"may shed more light on the complex relation of cultural identityand the uses of technology.

The subject of such an approach is the people using modern communicationtechnologies and their culture. This opens up various advantagesfor an analysis:

  • Technology and its application can be viewed according tothe daily life situations of people all across the world;
  • The social and political structures that influence the powerrelations among individuals, groups, and governments can be addressedin order to better understand uses and perceptions of the Internet;and
  • Finally, the people themselves can be asked about their motivation,goals, casual uses, and perceptions in regard to the Internetand its narratives.

In July and August 1997, I conducted a survey which was especiallyset up to examine these questions and to analyze the problemsmentioned above. The questionnaire consisted of about 50 questions,addressing the status of the people's (immigrant -- "native")motivation to use and their actual use of the Internet as wellas asking for an assessment of terms and general views about theInternet and its impact on global issues.

The study will be supplemented by several "rounds" ofsingle additional questions for participants of the initial survey,based on the material derived from the analysis of the data received.This will take place during the first half of 1998.

The results contribute to the analysis of the relation of culture,identity, and the Internet. It is especially the people's potentialto organize and act upon the premises of culture and identity,be that an ethnic, work, or gender-centered identity, that isof vital importance for future work. An analysis of these potentialsis paramount for the development of strategies to empower groupsand overcome existing inequalities by using modern communicationtechnology such as the Internet. Any strategy to implement technologieshas to be based on such "ethnological" data as wellas on market analysis, which often does not account for culturalissues.



Culture and identity are two of the foremost subjects when speakingabout the Internet and its social aspects. But there seem to beonly two views when it comes to the relation between technology,society, and culture at large: The Internet then is either bador good for society and its culture in general. Both views, obviouslythe opposite sides of one coin, state a very deterministic viewof technology; i.e., technology alone acts and changes societiesand their cultures.

Therefore it is not surprising that one of the most frequentlyasked questions concerning the Internet is "What does theInternet do to a given culture and identity?"

This question certainly has its merits, but it reduces peopleand their cultures to somewhat willingless objects being affectedand altered by technology. Inverting the question into "Whatdo culture and identity do to/with the Internet and its use?"may shed more light on the relation between cultural identityand the uses of technology. I want to argue here that identity-- meaning "real" life identity -- is important forthe uses and perceptions of the Internet. I therefore set up asurvey which was to examine this relation and that is the focalpoint of this paper.

Theoretical background and basic assumptions

The primary assumptions for this survey were the self-organizingpotential of the Internet and the actual use of it; i.e., thatpeople use the Internet because of its excellence to discuss issuesthat affect their day-to-day lives and maybe organize along identitiesor lines of interest.

Other than prominent narratives tell, the Internet is not a placewhere identity plays little or no role at all, but is on the contrarya place where identity is important and provides a tool throughwhich needs, problems, or issues related to identity (not onlyethnic, but also gender, age, or class) may be articulated.

Earlier nonempirical, phenomenological research on ethnicity andthe Internet showed that relations of this kind can be observedand have an important impact on how the Internet is used and developed.

Although the survey was focused on the Internet, its use, andsignificance, conclusions can also be drawn about the implicationsof the social and political backgrounds against which these processestake place. It is necessary to take this analysis beyond the Internet,as the inherent logic of the Internet and many of today's processesof social change originate in the same "global narrative."

The most important feature of this narrative is a "global-villageideology," which neglects national and regional borders aswell as social, political, and economical frontiers. Along withthis somewhat misconceived picture of today's world, differences,such as those that relate to cultural identity, are said to benonexistent, or at best remnants of a premodern age. Differencesshould be kept to the private sphere and must not interfere withthe politics of the public sphere. Ethnicity then has to be limitedto folklore, such as performances for tourists, especially inthe countries of the South, and is not seen as a way to live aself-determined life. Thus ethnic conflicts are also not recognizedas the result of possible oppression or existing inequalities,but rather as archaic tribal sentiments, for which a market-driven"world village" has no room, let alone attention (thesame can be said of other nonmainstream identities and cultures).

Identities other than those that can easily be incorporated intothe mainstream politics of a global market economy will thereforebe ignored and thus rendered virtually nonexistent. To me theseseem to be rather dangerous politics, considering ethnic conflictsall over the globe and growing social unrest in many countriesof the North.

Although this global-village-economy narrative promotes somewhatanarchistic models of "less state" and more privateresponsibility (reading corporate) and empowerment for all bymeans of the market, it is nonetheless a hegemonial ideology,whose beneficiaries are primarily a few big transnational corporations(TNCs) which are mostly situated in the North. On a politicallevel, it can be stated that the North (Europe, US-America, andJapan) maintains its hegemonial power by way of this ideology.

The Internet can be seen as a result and a motor of this ideology,with the exception that it is to a great extent a truly self-organizingsystem, which is used as an alternative means of disseminatinginformation and discourses on an equal-voice principle.

To assume, however, that the principle of equality of sendingand receiving information renders inequalities of various kindsinsignificant and invisible would be false and misleading. Quiteto the contrary, these issues are an essential part of the Internet,as the social and political structures that influence the powerrelations among individuals, groups, and governments can be freelyarticulated there. Therefore, these issues have to be equallyaddressed in an analysis that aims for a better understandingof the uses and perceptions of the Internet. The survey triedto examine the relation between the Internet and the "outsideworld," of which the Internet is an integral part.

The subjects of my approach, however, were the users of moderncommunication technologies and their cultures themselves. Thisopens up great advantages for an analysis, for the actors themselvescan be questioned about their evaluations, motivations, and assessments,which provides qualitative as well as quantitative data for thestudy.

The questionnaire: design and intentions

The survey took place over a two-month period between June andAugust 1997. It was aimed at Internet users and their motivations,goals, casual uses, and perceptions in regard to the Internetand its narratives. Therefore it was designed to proceed entirelyon the Internet.

The questionnaire consisted of 61 questions divided into 5 sectionsand was advertised through individuals, which operated as multiplicators,mailing lists, and some Usenet-groups in the soc.culture hierarchy.The questionnaire was either sent to interested persons by e-mailon request or could be reached via the World Wide Web. Three differentlanguage versions -- English, French and German -- were available.Unfortunately I didn't do a Spanish version, which would haveopened up the survey to many people in Latin America, as I learnedduring the phase of collecting the data.

The preparation of this survey took approximately 5 months andwas based on prior theoretical and phenomenological research onthe relation between identity, culture, and the Internet (seeZurawski 1996 and 1997) [1].

The division of the questionnaire was due to analytical purposes,i.e., different aspects of the above-mentioned relation as wellas some general data about the users and their use of Internetservices.

Part one asked for general demographical data, such as age, sex,occupation, educational degree, and some more specific data suchas country of birth, nationality, and self-assigned ethnic group.

Part two posed questions on migration and cultural contacts. Thepart was divided into two sections according to the status ofthe respondee, i.e., if the persons or his/her parents had migratedto where they were living at the time of the survey or not. Iassumed that the status of being a migrant (in the broadest sense-- i.e., studying, working abroad, etc.) may have an impact onpeople's perceptions of their own culture and its use on the Internet.As it would be ignorant to assume that nonmigrants live withoutcontact with people in other regions of the world, similar questionswere posed to them as well. The questions reflected this assumption.Section one dealt with the contacts of migrants to other immigrantsin the host country and their personal experiences; section twodealt with the international contacts nonmigrants may have andthe role the Internet plays in keeping these relationships alive.

Part three dealt explicitly with the relation of the Internetand issues of cultural identity. A first set of questions focusedon the Internet use and the assessment of the medium's effectivenessregarding the dissemination and discussion of cultural issues.A second part asked for the personal interests of the respondeeson and off the Internet. A last part was dedicated to possiblesocial or political commitments and the role the Internet mightplay in them.

The assessment of various statements was the goal of part four.Nineteen statements about the Internet and the information agewere presented and were to be rated on a scale ranging from agreeingvery much ("1") to not at all ("4"). The intentionhere was to evaluate the respondees' personal views on popularstatements about these issues. Agreement or disagreement withthe phrases may reveal certain types of Internet users, e.g.,those that are very optimistic about the Internet or those thatare rather pessimistic about technology in general. Furthermore,these questions served as a test if the statements, which weretaken from media discourses about the Internet (print as wellas TV), are taken for real or if these are considered mere mediahype or part of hegemonial narratives as discussed above.

In the last section, six open questions were formulated about"global society" and ethnicity. For each question, upto five items could be named, chosen freely by the respondeesaccording to their personal views. The questions were concerningthe term "global village"; "the definition of ethnicity";the definition of "one's own ethnic identity"; the changesbrought about by the information society; and, lastly, a questionasking for an outlook on the political, cultural, or social changesthe Internet might cause. These questions were aimed at personalbeliefs, norms, and values of the persons answering. The lastquestion was testing the expectations of the Internet's futureimpact, which also reflect how people view their world (or certainaspects of it) as of today.

The survey to a great extent tried to capture the motivations,interests, and assessments of various issues -- most prominently,cultural identity -- and their relation to the Internet. Seventeenquestions were designed as open questions with each having spacefor four to six items being answered. These questions were usedespecially to further explore the field of research and addedto the experimental and explorational character of the study.

Internet surveys as well as survey methods are new and have yetto be tested and evaluated. That holds especially true for thekind of survey and approach I have chosen to test my theoreticalassumptions.

Therefore this survey can be seen as the result of a thoroughearlier research, but also a work in progress which serves asa starting point for future studies in this field. Thus this paperreflects this ongoing work and cannot be seen as a finished orcomplete evaluation.

Results: evaluation, discussion, and context

The questionnaire was answered by 135 people from around the world.Only 120 questionnaires could be used for the final evaluation,because of some problems with the Web page on the initial dayof the study (the answers were not able to be processed, due toincompleteness). In addition I had 15 more requests for e-mailquestionnaires, which in fact were never sent back to me. Thissmall amount of responses makes it hard to call the survey representative.Thus the survey doesn't give a picture of the Internet users intheir totality, but it does provide some insights into what someof them do think and how they assess certain developments. Fromthe overall sample, however, important conclusions can be drawnabout certain user types and the importance of the Internet forspecific uses.

a. Demographics

The respondees came from 21 countries around the globe, with theUSA and Germany standing at the top followed by Australia, NewZealand, Canada, and Austria. The place of birth added up to 25countries with the same ranking. Forty-four different ethnic groupswere named and a third (29.9%, N=110) said that they were categorizedunder yet another ethnic label by third parties. Caucasian, White,and German were the single most frequent labels named, followedby other "European" groups such as "Celtic,""Anglo-Saxon," or "European." When resamplingthese labels by region (Europe, Africa, etc.), the "European"ones stand at the top, before "American" and "Australian."All others add up to a fourth, containing many from non-OECD countriesand so-called cosmopolitan labels, such as "Black,""Jewish," "global," or even "middle-class."Although the GVU-survey [2] operated with "primarilyspoken language" as an indicator of ethnicity in additionto race -- which I find very unsatisfying, as it doesn't reflectthe self-assigning moment of ethnicity -- the results come quiteclose regarding the variety of the self-assigned ethnic labels.

The average age is 34.97 years, which corresponds perfectly withthe average age reported in the 8th user survey of the GVU (N=10,000),where the average is 35.7 years. The slightly younger age in mysurvey seems to respond to the greater amount of European users,which are found out to be younger in the GVU survey. A cross-tabulationof age and the country of residence shows a similar tendency.

The foremost area of occupation in my survey is the educationalsector (with slightly over 50%, half of them students), followedby management and others. Of the survey participants, 31.9% hadan undergraduate degree of some sort, 36.6% a graduate degree,and 16.8% a doctorate. The high number of people in educationalareas might be due to the fact that the advertisement of the surveywas to a great extent done in academic mailing lists and thosethat are devoted to social and political engagement. This toomay be responsible for a high number of women (42.9%; comparedto 38.5% in the GVU survey) among the respondees. Whether thisis an indication for the self-organizing and empowering potentialof the Internet, I will discuss shortly.

First conclusions can be drawn from these data, which are importantfor any further analysis. The demographics here suggest that theparticipants of my survey are mainly academics and come from orlive in the "North" rather than in the "South."It seems to me that the respondees represent an elite rather thanan average user, although knowledge of whom I left out cannotbe obtained. This reveals one of the major obstacles of Internetsurveys. The comparison to the GVU survey, however, confirms myassumption. This means that the Internet users in general representsome kind of elite that hold the power and control over the useof the Internet and most importantly over its content. When consideringthe Internet as a tool of empowerment, especially in the fieldof human rights or ethnic issues, the control over content suchas self-images and other distributed information becomes crucial.This aspect is a prerequisite when analyzing the empowering andself-organizing potential of the Internet and its services.

b. The Internet and self-organization

Two basic questions underlie this section:

  1. In which way do people make use of the Internet; i.e., doesit reflect their personal interests and the situations in whichthey live?
  2. What about identity on the Internet? Does it play a role forthe actual use?

A range of questions was focused upon these issues, asking forpersonal interests in general, issues of interest on the Internet,as well as social/political engagement and if the Internet isused for it. These were all open questions to which a great numberof different answers were given. For better analysis I sampledthese answers into categories, which were generated on the basisof the items themselves.

When asked what contents available on the Internet are especiallyof interest (N=117), educational and scientific information madeup 30.8%, followed by news (12%), special information such assexual orientation (9,4%), leisure, and an "exchange"item which contained unspecified use of mailing lists, e-mail,and netnews (both 8.5%). As four items could be named here --15 items were identified altogether -- the second, third, andfourth namings showed similar rankings, but with smaller differencesbetween the items. Special interests and scientific informationstood out as the two most prominent on all four listings The unspecifieduse of mailing lists, e-mail, and netnews as a means of exchangeand communication was continuously visible around 8.4% throughthree of the four listings (N=107, 91, 75).

The three most frequently named personal interest items were politics(N=104, 16.3%), social and society issues (18.3%), and issueson women, gender, and sexuality (together: 17.3%). Scientificinformation was fourth with only 7%. Politics and society issueskept appearing at the top in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th listings(N=98, 92, 71, 52). Also, scientific information and issues onethnicity and migration gained some points. Software and computersgot relatively little attention in both personal interests andissues that are looked for on the Internet.

Given that a large portion of the respondees are academics, thehigh amount of scientific information that is being sought onthe Internet is not very surprising. As it is not specified whatfield this scientific information belongs to, it can be assumedthat the personal interests are also subject of research. Scientificresearch, then, is not looked for as a purpose by itself on theInternet, but to answer questions or gather material on a particularissue, which might correspond to the personal interests stated.

A cross-tabulation of the two aspects (Internet-interests/personal-interests)underlines this tendency and the relationship between the two.

In addition to the scientific orientation of the respondees, itseems that many are participating in social or political action.69.8% (N=116) state that they are socially or politically engaged.64.5% (N=90) of these use the Internet for this engagement. Themajor fields of engagement are social (27.5%, N=969), sexual orientation(20.3%), and political (17.4%). Under social engagement I subsumedsuch issues as whiteness, women's issues, immigrant and minorityrights, disability, health care, social justice, and development.Sexual orientation includes exclusively gay and lesbian issues,as others were not stated. Political engagement was assumed whenengaged in a political party.

Although I didn't have sexual orientation in mind when inquiringabout ethnicity and cultural identity, it seems that this is ofimportance to quite a few people in this survey. Also, this correspondswell to the items named as being important for one's own cultural/ethnicidentity, especially the item "personal experience,"which would correspond well with a homosexual identity. "Personalexperience" stands at the top in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5thlistings (N=84, 70, 51, 38). The most-named item in the firstlisting (N=86) was historical ancestry (20.9%), before language(16.3%). While language is not of great importance in the furtherlistings, historical ancestry is 2nd in all the other four.

When asked if they knew any resources that are devoted to cultural/ethnicissues (N=79, 1st listing), 27% of the respondees named eithermailing lists (11.4%) or Web sites (16.5%), which together withthose focused on special interests (gay and lesbian issues) addedup to 51.9%. The rest were split on other kinds of lists or sites,which were more scientifically or generally oriented, but neverthelesshad an ethnic or cultural tendency. 38.9% (N=113) use these resourcesand do make a statement on what actually is communicated via theselists or Web sites. Group-specific information, such as events,history, etc., ranked 1st with 24.4% (N=45, 1st listing), followedby political and socially relevant and educational/scientificinformation (both 11.1%). The second listing (N=34) saw politicaland socially relevant information at the top with group-specificat 2nd and educational/scientific on 3rd. The other listings weresimilar, but cannot be accounted for here, because of their smallnumbers. Even with those respondees that use these resources,it is hard to make significant statements, because of the smallnumbers. However, the fact that almost 40% use these resourcesand that many more know about them in one or the other form, inaccordance with my phenomenological research, makes it possibleto say that ethnic/cultural identity is articulated on the Internet.To the question if these resources are "meaningful at all,"39.2% (N=102) indicated "very meaningful" and 51.5%checked "moderately meaningful," which would back myassumption. And most important, 83.3% (N=42) of those that usethese resources indicated that their own ethnic identity is of"very much" importance (26.2%) or "moderate"importance (57.1%). The rest indicated "little" or "no"importance.

The degree of importance of one's own ethnic/cultural identity,however, is not significant for the subjects preferably discussedon the Internet or the respondees' personal interests, which certainlyreflects upon the audience of the Internet and the general significanceof elites for the articulation of identity on the Internet.


The conclusions drawn from the data presented above can by nomeans be final or conclusive, but do provide a superb tool forfurther analysis of Internet and information-society-related questionsand issues.

As has been said at the beginning, the composition of the respondeesin this survey suggests that mainly White, "Western,"and rather well-educated people answered the questionnaire. Thosethat were coming from non-OECD countries mostly migrated to the"North." The number of those migrants that gave "study"or "work abroad" as reasons for their migration is high.Only three stated that they were political refugees. I have doubtsthat any of the respondees belong to those people that are featuredin news shows, having been squeezed onto small boats or killedbecause of the wrong surname, which supposedly indicates a differentethnic identity. I believe even more that research in the areaof identity and ethnicity -- and this is applies especially tothe Internet -- must also focus on the political economy of communicationtechnologies and the power relations that are part of it, as FrancoisFortier showed for the latter two in his recent PhD thesis[3].

Taking parts of the answers given in the survey as qualitativeinterviews, a statement such as the one made by a Black femalefrom the Bermudas that "resources for Blacks are mainly forAfrican-Americans" alone requires further and deeper analysisof contents of lists and Web sites, which will be an integralpart in the completion of this survey.

An aspect which can be stated from the data examined above, however,is the fact that ethnicity or cultural identity -- as a decentralizedorganizational form other than national- or state-oriented oneswith their fixed and centralized identities -- was and is appliedto the Internet by its users, even more so since the Internetprovides the appropriate background, with its decentralized technologyand the various nonnationalistic but rather global narratives.

The assessments of some of the statements given in section 4 ofthe survey underline this last assumption. 40.7% (N=113) agreedvery much or moderately with the statement "the nationstatedoesn't play a role on the Internet." However, the statement"the nationstate doesn't play a role in a global society,"was agreed with very much or moderately by only 23.9% (N=113).And in addition, 42.5% (N=113) respondees agreed with the statement"the Internet creates new communities" which will replacethe existing ones.

These assessments may be indicators for the Internet's self-organizingpotential, which does have implications for the world beyond theInternet. The major consequence which has to be clearly seen isthat self-organization as opposed to the hegemonial concept ofthe nationstate must be acknowledged and reckoned with. Communitiesand societies may organize all or parts of their interaction onsuch a concept.

As it is rather unlikely that states will completely vanish inthe near future, they nevertheless will have to cooperate morewith the people. Self-organization such as ethnicity would beone resource communities, individuals, and the state could profitfrom.

The much praised self-organizing potential of the market veryoften works against people, as in many cases it is not self-organizedbut is backed and supported by states with arms and other meansof power as Schiller (1995) pointed out [4].

Modes of self-organization, which follow different logics fromthat of the market, are needed. Issues that focus on identityand culture could work against a total commodification of theInternet and help make the Internet a truly empowering tool.


1. Cf. Zurawski, Nils: Beyond th e global information frontiers: What global concepts ('Weltbilder') are there on the Internet and why? Paperpresented at the INET'97 in Kuala Lumpur

----: Ethnicity and the Internet in a global society.Paper presented at the INET'96 in Montreal

2. The GVU-user surveysare conducted by the Graphics, Visualization & Usability Center,College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology. The dataused for the comparison in this paper were taken from the 8thuser survey issued in fall 1997.

3. Francois Fortier:Civil Society Computer Networks. The perilous road of cyber-politics.PhD Diss. 1997

4. Schiller; Herbert: Information Inequalities.London 1995.

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