Social Norms in the Digital Wonderland

We have so many discussions surrounding how our communication and empathy have been altered by digital culture and community.  We’re still trying to define it and understand our own behaviors in this rapidly evolving hot digital world.  But it isn’t tangible and there aren’t unspoken, yet understood social norms to guide us through it.  So, maybe it is a digital wonderland where everything we once knew is now quite possibly, the opposite.  Do social norms exist once we are interacting in a digital community?  How could we possibly uphold them, if they were even defined, when there is no physical context in which to shame someone for not conforming?


Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland 

Photo source: Getty Images

Barry Thatcher, in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010, p. 175), discusses three human threshold values that identify what humans usually negotiate within cultures.  Although there are more, these three tend to cause the most dilemmas in cross-cultural contexts and are the most connected to different uses of digital media.  The author asserts that cultures vary in the way that they handle these dilemmas, there usually is a yin/yang balance but also tension in which side is predominate… And that is what defines each cultures’ unique cultural integrity.


Photo source: Getty Images

The first is shared across all cultures.  It is the dilemma of the “I” relating to others or to a group.  We are familiar with the American preference for individualism.  However, on the other side of that is collectivism.  This is when individuals see themselves as highly dependent within a social construct or community.  This is a cultural view holding social or family groups at higher importance than the individual, the “I”.  Collective communication patterns emphasize interpersonal relationships, social hierarchy, social leveraging, group identities, close personal space, and writer-friendly writing patterns. (Spilka, Ed., 2010, p. 176)  Can’t we see our digital interactions as both “I” and “We” driven?  Of course, but does it have the same construct as our traditional physical interaction?  It doesn’t seem so.  The rules seem to flip-flop a bit.


The second commonality is that all cultures make and enforce rules, but the reason they are created and the flexibility of their enforcement varies.  The universalist cultural approach is to establish the rules defining what is right to all individuals, regardless of social standing.  The communication patterns associated with universalist protocols include strategies of fairness, justice and equality.  However, the other approach is the particularist culture.  This approach is such that the rules and decisions are applied depending upon relations and context.  Thus there are specific sets of rules for each social relationship.  While both cultural types exist within physical construct such as the universalist culture being more applicable to countries such as the U.S., Western European countries, and Canada and the particularist culture more applicable to Latin America or Asian countries, how do these cultural communication types change when we interact online?  (Spilka, 2010, p. 177) Are Americans so universally standard in their digital world interactions or do they become more particularist, becoming more involved with individuals because of the anonymity our digital world offers us?  Could this be why people develop such strong digital relationships with people whom they’ve never met face-to-face?


Lastly, all cultures negotiate public/private sense of space.  This is the idea that human interaction is a degree of involvement across different spheres of life, and this usually involves some sort of divide and trust factor. (Spilka, 2010, p. 177). There are two different approaches to this, according to researchers.  Those are: diffuse or specific cultures.  A diffuse culture is usually collective; involving friends, coworkers, and other social acquaintances.  These are relationships that tend to involve aspects of your personal life, at times overlapping sections.  On the other hand, diffuse cultures can be those of high conflict, mistrust, and competition.  Quite the opposite, specific cultures are those of high public trust and ease that allow for relationships to exist within their own spheres with little crossover with others.  It favors more collaboration because the competitive piece is not relevant.  At what points do we interact collaboratively within our digital world and, then when do we behave more as in a diffuse culture.  I see the social media aspect of our digital world to be much more diffuse.  In one respect we are interacting as friends, but then also competing at who has the best life (from a digital perspective, at least).


All the aspects of communication and culture that are difficult enough to navigate in the traditional sense, seem to be at times upside down in the digital wonderland.


Photo source: Getty Images

Posted on November 11, 2018, in Blogs, Creative, Digital, Literacy, Social Media, Society, Technology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Your comparison to a wonderland works well here and I was struck by this question, “Do social norms exist once we are interacting in a digital community?” Much of what you wrote makes sense when in a professional space, but having immersed myself in fan communities on Tumblr recently, it seems like all bets are off! I do feel people are more on the defensive and have no qualms calling one another out, especially since it isn’t a workplace online environment where the stakes are higher. Plus, there’s the option to remain anonymous. It seems to me that on Facebook certain fan groups have rules and enforce them but sites like Twitter and Tumblr are like the Wild West!

    • Agreed! It’s as if the only way people actually reel in their crazy is if someone else is moderating a site or page and enforcing decency. I’ve actually found that my opinion of people whom I cared for severely declined because of the way I saw them behave online with others or just by their posts alone. I’ve wrote about it in this class and in others, I still wonder if it is the digital world that has allowed us unleash our madness because it always existed below the surface or did the digital age itself deteriorate human decency? I don’t know.

      • I’d be interested in hearing more about how you wrote about this trend in other classes. Might there be a way to extend that research and write about the two worlds–professional workplace and personal playground–and how that embodies our course goals?

  2. Hi JJ,

    Your blog this week was very exciting and I began to consider what norms are we actually participating in when use digital technology and let alone in the digital world itself. As I began to think more and more on this, the norms for each platform, especially for social media, differ greatly. While in Facebook you can be inclusive to a set group of individuals by creating stronger settings, inviting them to like a page or attend an event and even be a part of conversation. This differs greatly from other platforms like Twitter, Pinterest, etc. Twitter you can be a member of a “public” or “private” group, where others may visibly see what groups you are a part of through the “list” feature where as Pinterest you become a part of a group when you begin following others profiles, boards, etc. One commonality across all platforms is you having access and restricting what others have access to on your platforms or profiles.

    I agree with you that even, at times, the digital space is so all over the board, it can make traditional communication not seem in sync or traditional communication can also allow for an over reach or parallel communication that’s not aligned from what’s posted on social media.

    One item I wish the authors would have expanded on this week is this idea of inclusivity and access. While they touch on it a little through the second commonality of making and enforcing rules, not everyone even though many of these communities are still free are afforded various resources such as computers, smartphones, and even an internet connection in order to access the digital space. This can make it harder for those without access to feel like they are caught up, etc.

    Great comparisons and examples from the reading this week!

    Thank you,


  3. Hey there,

    Great post again this week! Thank you for your thought-provoking content.

    Though I really like your post title, I wonder if the word ‘Norms’ is cause for debate. After all, ‘norms’ implies ‘normal’, and what does ‘normal’ even mean these days? Is there such a thing? Furthermore, if society is slowly phasing out this word, what would be its primary replacement? ‘Status quo’, perhaps?

    You make a great point that cultures create and enforce their own unique sets of rules, many of which are unwritten. Therefore, it is easy for people from different cultures to inadvertently offend one another, even if caution is exercised. There are just some rules or ‘norms’ that are so culturally specific and non-universal, creating inevitable intercultural-communication breakdowns.

    Also, I really like the images you included in this post. I especially like the last one, which I’d like to add as my desktop background. Ideally, I’d like to find one without the “getty images” copyright marking.

    Awesome post!


    • I struggled with “norms” while reading our text, as well as with the title. Because, you are right, it implies “normal”, and what is considered normal now? I don’t know that any of us have a handle on that.

      Thank you!

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