Monday, September 27, 2010

Latinos Online And The Theory of Telepresence

As mediated communications increase in their importance, the question of how cultural differences may influence how people relate to each other in mediated situations becomes salient. Some time ago I published "A Theory of Electronic Propinquity" which basically states that the degree to which people are comfortable communicating via phone, teleconference, etc., varies with the degree to which there is a feedback mechanism in the channel, the complexity of the information being communicated, the skills of the communicators, the rules imposed on the communication, and the availability of alternative channels for communication that may be preferred over the current choice. A colleague Joe Walther at Michigan State University has done important research on the theory, but no one has done a cross-cultural comparison.

In particular, now that Hispanics are distinguishing themselves by embracing social media and online communications to a larger extent than other cultural groups in our society, cross-cultural comparisons are relevant. My hypothesis is that one of the reasons why Hispanics are eager to embrace social media, blogs, and other mediated online communications is because many of these media provide the feedback mechanism needed for satisfaction with the medium. This is because Latinos seem to rejoice in obtaining immediate feedback. That is, a fluid and spontaneous interaction. Further. As we have been raised with the expectation that we will be part of a close knit social group, we tend to have more skills to interact, even when the communication is mediated by technology.

Clearly, the complexity of the information is a limitation in that complex interactions are more difficult when mediated. Still, social media allows for broad bandwidth, or ample amount of information. Thus, social media is more acceptable in some situations than even face-to-face communications.  The rules for interacting in social media are flexible and it is precisely the lack of rigid protocol that is likely to entice Latinos to find satisfaction in modern online communications.

In other words, I have reasons to believe that new media allows Hispanics to recreate the village where everyone knows everyone else and where interactions are spontaneous. This cultural tendency towards going back to the village, but now in a global metaphor, liberates Latinos and other cultural groups. These are groups that have thrived in environments where interaction is free and enriching of everyday life. Environments where the satisfaction of life is found in social coexistence. Societal norms have stifled human communication but the emergence of online communications appear to be breaking them. That is why Latinos embrace these technologies, because they are technologies of liberation.

Clearly, we need to study these trends and consumer behaviors in much more detail. Still, the observable evidence is that the small village of our ancestors is now back online.