The Existence of Digital Culture... or not

During the hiatus of writing here, I’ve been working on a couple things. One will be a podcast which will be posted here as soon as its ready (get hype!), but the other has mostly been my PhD. One of the questions I’m determined to figure out throughout this research regards the status of “digital culture”, a question I’ll lay out the foundations of here.

In a lot of the research studying online communication, environments, etc., there’s an implicit assumption that something called “digital culture” exists. The presence of a culture different from the physical environment is taken for granted, but never fully questioned, or even considered in more detail. In many of these texts, the scholars have written out a wonderful description of how the similar the digital environment can be to the physical one scholars are used to studying, for example the similarly found study of the connection between the digital world and cultural capital (for example see Nissenbaum and Shifman 2017). But in these, it’s taken for granted that digital culture exists.

Perhaps more importantly, the assumption of a separate culture is also present in the people who aren’t scholars. The constant conversation of “gaming culture” for instance, or “nerd culture” more generally, is present on gaming podcasts, Let’s Plays, and, together with “digital culture” can be found frequently in discussions on forum sites like reddit.

For both the everyday user and the scholar in the field, the presence of a “digital culture” is referred to, accepted, but never defended, questioned, or explained. How is digital culture separate from the nondigital culture? Is gaming culture a subculture of this?

The literature is by far not all read at this point, but I wanted to take a minute out of it in order to type up thoughts, concerns, and issues encountered thus far.

The primary issue is what has already been addressed in the few paragraphs above: the presence of a digital culture is being treated as a given. I can understand the basis for this, especially as a frequent user of these arenas. The reasoning is summed up best in Trevor Blank’s description of the Internet as “field”:

While there are fundamental differences between the two – specifically that the former is virtual and the latter physical – they are bound by common themes. Both have folk groups, customs, lingo and dialects, neighbourhoods, crimes, relationships, games, discussion groups, displays of emotion, banking, commerce and various other forms of communication and education (Blank 2009, 11).

And this statement is in many ways true. There are crimes that can be committed that are difficult to explain in the physical realm without knowledge base of how the digital environment works. Lingo and behaviours are also different. But if we focus on behaviours – ways of speaking, types of lingo used, and forms of displays of emotion – these things can be different depending on which place you are. The way one interacts on Facebook, is not how it works on reddit, and the way 4chan behaves is immensely different than either of the other two. And this is similar to how the world outside of the online or digital context works. The way I act or talk among family is different than if among academics, all of which the way I talk or act while with gaming friends would be considered immensely inappropriate.

 If the scholars I’ve read so far have anything in common, it’s their insistence that the online world is not so different from the physical world. And this is what I believe as well. Storytelling online is not that different than storytelling elsewhere. So why is there a separation of a different cultural designation?

Perhaps what is truly at the core of the issue I’m having is not the presupposition of the presence of a “digital culture”, but the presupposition of the presence of digital “culture”. The emphasis should be on the second half of that.

I recently spoke to a friend of mine studying Hull as UK City of Culture in 2017 (the discussion was recorded for an upcoming podcast so stay tuned). One of the elements of her interviews she discussed was that people had different opinions of what “culture” actually means. While scholars can do that thing scholars do, and define terms, the people on those podcasts I mentioned at the beginning don’t do that. And more so, many scholars will mention a definition and move on without a second thought, or not define at all.

Perhaps what is at the core of the “digital culture” or “gaming culture” designation is an attempt of community separation. What’s the best way to tell everyone around that they are not a part of something you are? Tell them it’s a different culture – a different way of looking at the world. Whether this calls for the word “culture” or not, has yet to be seen.