How to Map Culture


Thought experiment: You’re a curator in 1905 and you’ve inherited 20,000 works of ancient art from a disorganized, eccentric colonist. He put ancient Egyptian artifacts with Roman amphoras, a Han Dynasty fertility vase with his own drawings. Your job is to organize the priceless work and throw out the trash. Geography seems like a good first step. You put the sarcophagi with other ancient Egyptian relics and the fertility vase in the Han Dynasty section of your ancient Chinese art wing. You throw out the nudes.

Okay, now imagine it’s 2205, and a similar eccentric collector sends you a .zip file of 20 million pieces of content. Kermit the Frog memes are mixed with failed Etsy projects. A Don Delillo short story is next to a Vine of Aviva throwing her prosthetic leg in “Real Housewives of New York.” Priceless works of net art sit next to dick pics. Your task, to organize all this, is harder. First, there is the sheer amount of content. Second, the relevance of geography has collapsed. The IP address of origin is not a relevant differentiator from one Kermit meme to the next. But still, intuitively, we know that there is some higher-level organization of cultural content, apart from geography. So, in a world where geography means less, how do we organize the museum of the net? We must develop a new map, apart from geography, to start to define different cultures.

In our everyday speech, “map” is synonymous with a to-scale depiction of some geographical landscape. But there are other maps that aren’t just related to geography. This is particularly true in neuroscience. Semantic maps tile the human cortex, where neurons that represent words are organized by phonetics and content. The “cortical homunculus” is a neurological “map” of the anatomical divisions of the body. Ekman’s Atlas of Emotions is a map of five key human moods. Maps are not just about geography, but they are reliant on some sort of space, and this space can just be theoretical.

We must find this new theoretical content space and start charting its territories.

So let’s go back to our cyber curator. Perhaps the way to complete this daunting task is to chart culture by content. Our curator would group content into, say, a few discrete categories: an internet culture, a lifestyle culture, an art and literary culture, a pop culture. This would allow our curator to put the Kermit memes in the Meme Culture wing, the Don Delillo short story in the 20th Century Literature Culture wing, etc. But what about the Vine of Aviva throwing her prosthetic leg? Yes, it fits in reality TV culture, but seeing as it is also a top-viewed Vine, why wouldn’t this go into the Vine culture as well? Here, the medium and the content are in direct conflict. The problem, in short, is since we must actively label and draw boundaries around these cultures, we both oversimplify and don’t give an organic description of how cultures may overlap.

Let’s try mapping a new space. If culture is defined as the behaviors, beliefs, values and symbols that a group of people pass along by communication and imitation, then let’s focus on the people passing the content rather than the content itself. Luckily, our curator in 2205 has an advantage when focusing on who is passing what information. He or she has every digital conversation ever had since the advent of social media some 200 years back.

On Twitter, for example, we can not only see who is tweeting what, but we can also see the pattern of retweets, mentions and likes that comprise the world’s conversations. Our curator could use a new means of organization. Here, top influencers in a pop music culture category are more likely to follow each other on, say, Twitter, and thus are more likely to exchange content. In meme culture, the same rule applies. The benefit of this space is that we can see, organically, what content was passed in what group, and the wings of the museum start to build themselves. They are also dynamic, as new cultures are formed, new Twitter users are born, and influencers follow and unfollow one another. We don’t have the philosophical quandary of where to put the Vine of Aviva throwing her leg because the community sharing it the most will have it automatically put in their wing. The downside, though, is that Katy Perry may follow Hillary Clinton, who follows the conservative Salman of Saudi Arabia, who may not care about the same content as Ms. Perry. In short, these clusters of cultures through social patterns may be hard to label and get messy fast. What do we call a culture that shares both Yelp reviews and Beyonce videos?

These are merely suggestions of new spaces, both of which are yet to be charted. The beauty of a content atlas is not only the lack of reliance on geography when defining culture. In theory, this map will also evolve and shift as the relationships among people it depicts change. This cultural plate tectonics will allow anybody, both in the present and future, to understand what the world is and was.

Culture can be a set of nuanced political beliefs shared, a meme that ripples through the fabric of the internet through imitation, a series of small language decisions that affect intimate understanding and catastrophic misunderstanding. With this new content atlas, we can start to better define culture, not just as a set of geographically isolated practices but as a breathing global system.