It has become a commonplace that the Internet has changed the way people live in many aspects. It facilitated access to various types of information, significantly increased the speed of message exchange, provided means for creating consolidated networks of wide circles of people and in general made the world a global village. However, when applying this term, people usually mean a village as seen from their viewpoints, i.e. the way they perceive the world in more simplified terms, communicate with people in the most distant places and feel that they live in a huge yet friendly community where people are eager to help and chat about things they have in common. Yet this attitude takes into consideration only the top of an iceberg, leaving more complicated and multilateral processes out of scope of attention.
As in every village, the communication/relations process runs in two directions, and people are expected to give as much as they receive from these transactions, and sometimes the process of giving or contributing to processes of communication that occur across the state borders is too slow or impacts too subtle or too global aspects of life for people to notice it immediately. Hence in order to explore the international/transnational communication in the context of advent of the Internet it is necessary to define how international/transnational communication differs from communication within one culture, what particular aspects of international communication were affected by the Internet and whether these changes bring mutual benefits to all parties of the communication process or negatively influence this process.
International/Transnational Communication vs. Communication within One Nation/Country
When contribution of the Internet to communication among people is discussed, the main arguments about facilitation of the communication process are drastic compression of space/time concepts and creation of feeing of simultaneous omnipresence in various locations without regard to their actual geographical position. The 21st century has witnessed the boom in digital communication technologies, of which the Internet is the most influential and powerful, and made information access to affairs of locations and people belonging to a single country/nation as fast and convenient as to affairs of the most remote places of the world. In other words, from technical point of view the Internet has equally facilitated communication within one country and communication running across the state borders. If technical side of the issue is similar for both types of communication then there must be some other aspect that serves as a ground for differentiation. This aspect is cuture(s) of countries among which the communication channels are established, and it is in the context of cultures and human reactions to various events and concepts that international/transnational communication is evaluated.
In its turn, it is the extensive communication and interaction taking place among various world’s cultures that provides the basis for a phenomenon of globalization, and in the area of communication as such it is the new opportunities delivered by the Internet that account for the explosion of new patterns of behavior and socialization at the point where different cultures meet. Globalization may be defined and evaluated from multiple points of view, and very often globalization is described as equal to aggressively promoted international trade. However, globalization is penetrating and shaping all areas of human life and even the success of global trade is conditioned by the level of understanding of particularities of local cultures achieved and demonstrated by marketing managers and distributors who try to sell a product in some new environment. Hence it is the question of intercultural communication that underlies the international communications on the web, and in the light of cultural interaction many particularities of the new digital era communications become visible and provide material for research and evaluation.
Web 2.0 and the New Media
Returning to the issue of the Internet and international communication, it is necessary to note that it was Web 2.0 technology that actually enabled and boosted international communication. The term ‘Web 2.0’ refers to web resources and media that are based on real-time interactivity, ultimate user-friendliness and content generated by users. This interoperability and equal access to content production and dissemination have enabled the efficient international communication in it full sense and led to development of new communication media or to upgrade of already existing media. Web 2.0 includes social networks like Facebook, Twitter, etc., blogs, branches of Wikipedia, sites for sharing photo and video content, various web applications (messengers etc.), and the main difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 is the high interactivity of the latter and its openness to participants from around the world. The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined in 1999, and already in 2002 the new media of communication introduced by it were described as allowing users to control on equal basis the content they generate in interpersonal communication. Communication in social networks further allowed interacting with numerous respondents simultaneously and customizing messages addressed to different users, like posting comments and replies to comments. The cascade-like treads of comments under posts dealing with some controversial or sensitive topics themselves provide extensive material for exploration of human behavior on the web and of attitudes towards some socially meaningful issues. However, the idea behind the Web 2.0 is providing freedom of unlimited interpersonal communication to people all around the globe. The only limit is availability of a Pc, laptop or a tablet computer and more or less stable Internet access.
A few independent teams of researchers have explored the new media created by opportunities of Web 2.0 and defined characteristics of these new media. They are convergency, digitality, interactivity, virtuality and hypertextuality. Of these features virtuality and hypertextuality are of special importrance, because virtuality is the characteristic of the new media that allows creating new virtual space and delivering unique experiences to users across all borders. Besides, virtuality allows creating new patterns of self-construction and identification, as virtual accounts and profiles allow changing age, gender, appearance, race etc. This experience transforms the way people perceive the world and helps in tolerating and understanding the cultures different from one’s own. Hypertextuality is responsible for smooth flow of data streams across all networks and for limitless interconnection and intersection of data flows.
Opportunity to don a new identity and to plunge into the sea of new virtual spaces and locally crafted unique cultural experiences pushes forward the desire to explore the cyber world beyond own ‘s country. While defining globalization and studying its causes researchers note that globalization would not arise as such a world-changing power if it was not supported and shaped by international communication and media. Globalization, according to Waters, is a social process that removes geographical limits that naturally constrain cultural and social arrangements, and people caught in the whirlwind of globalization suddenly realize that these constrains exist no more. Hence whatever aspect of international communication may be taken, communication among cultures will lie in the heart if it, and the rest will rely upon the success of this cross-cultural communication. In its turn, cross-cultural communication is the most active and multifaceted when conducted via the Internet.
Influence of the Internet on Intercultural Communication
So it seems appropriate to take intercultural communication as an important aspect of international communication and to explore how it is influenced or shaped by the Internet or whether it influences the way the Internet practices are developed. As researches show, although new Internet media have made the global community a very interconnected and interdependent entity, they also changed the form and meaning of messages shared across cultures and communities and influenced that way people understand these messages. Understanding is especially affected if these messages flow from one culture to another. In this light three main aspects of Internet influence in communication are currently being explored. First, it is influence produced by national culture on the evolvement of new media used for communication. Second, it is the influence made by new media on cultural and social self-identities of communicators, and finally, it is the influence created by new media in various segments of intercultural interactions. The latter includes, among others, intercultural relationship, adaptation and conflict.
Why is this articulation of intercultural background of international communication important? Very often international communication via Internet is portrayed as communication that is separated in space, but unified in all other aspects like identity and background. A person writing a comment or sharing a post subconsciously expect readers/friends/other people who will see it to share his/her system of values, tastes and social basis and expects the reaction that is reasonable particularly in this reference frame. It is quite normal that a person creating a message keeps in mind the target audience, and this imaginary audience in this case comprises people similar to a message sender. However, the Internet is present practically everywhere and a message appropriate or understandable in one context, will be misunderstood or met with hostility in some other cultural environment.
The reverse process is also true. Culture may dictate the choice of media for information dissemination and communication, and even within the same Internet tool international communication will flow in some distinctive way, because local cultural patterns dictate interlocutors the appropriate mode of behavior even in this universal communication pool. For example, while using Facebook, Korean students and American students will demonstrate different behavior with regard to self-presentation and establishment of new contacts. Korean students who belong to high-context and collectivist culture will look for contacts within their own community and will seek support from their ‘Facebook friends’. The feeling of belonging to a local social community prevails over the need to find new connections or to explore wider social circles. To the contrary, American students who stem from low-context culture, look for entertaining opportunities and are ready to explore and make new international connections if it promises new experience and chances to promote positive image of themselves. Besides, the tendency to explicitly present one’s achievements and to make them a tool for making new connections within and beyond their culture is also characteristic of American students who are brought up in the framework of individualistic culture.
So the informal ‘unfiltered’ communication among members of these two cultural paradigms may be problematic in social networks, because open display of one’s individual achievements and contesting attitude to self-development may be regarded as explicitly rude and inappropriate. On the other hand, American focus on self-making and self-realization may not find any matching value in the culture where a community is placed on top of an individual. At this point of cultural clash it is interesting to see how long-term co-existence of different national cultural paradigms within the universal and easily accessible information field provides for slow yet visible interpenetration of ideas from these cultures. It is gradual transition from passive observation to active exploration and processing of new cultural paradigms and incorporation of some foreign elements into previously unshaken cultural models. Mutual penetration or at least acceptance of other possible culture would be impossible without permanent exposure to these paradigms within the common communication space. Web 2.0 and its media tools have provided more than enough opportunities to share this virtual common space for communicators all around the world.
The ideal behind re-constructing one’s cultural identity and incorporation of foreign elements rely on the fact that these new concepts are represented in full scope and without any censorship. Before the advent of the Internet in its current interactive and users-shaped form all media used as loudspeakers for transmitting the national messages to other countries were controlled and cured by governmental establishment or influenced by the policy of a channel that owned the transmitting media (radio or TV channel, newspaper, news website etc.). Web 2.0 and initially unlimited access to fresh data from around the world allowed citizens of more closed and oppressive societies to see other paradigms of social order and to compare them against their own conditions. New coverages from foreign channels also provide information presented from a different point of view, and this image of the situation assembled from multiple pieces is more objective that the view imposed by one official media. Information exchange with carriers of other cultural identities and social orders also plays a role in decomposition and new construction of cultural identities, and this direct and permanent exchange is possible only in conditions of Web 2.0 and its tools like blogging, social networking etc. It is interesting to note that in conditions of exposure to foreign social and cultural experience one’s own cultural identity may be weakened or strengthened; yet in any case the critical review of one’s own beliefs and values takes place.
The role of social networks in international communication is regularly tagged as a propelling force that removes the geographical barriers and allows exploring the world without having to travel. The consequences of this exploration may be either good or bad, depending on the way in which the media is used. However, it is interesting to note that during personal integration into a foreign cultural environment international communication plays an important role of psychological rehabilitation and of an instrument for establishing new connections. The research demonstrated that people who in the course of foreign studies or language studies widely employed blogging/social networking for creating extended messages dedicated to various topics, were more successful in attaining knowledge and understanding of foreign culture and finding new foreign interlocutors than those who were not employing these tools to a great extent. Besides, exploitation of social media helped to find international business contacts and to maintain this connection until the actual contracts were concluded.
Social media that provide grounds for sending and receiving messages and finding online communities with similar interests have become the integral part of adaptation of foreign students/workers to the target culture. The omnipresence of the Internet allows them to communicate with their families and relatives who stay at home and with new people with whom these students/workers are expected to build partnerships. Presence of new people (new culture) and family/relatives/friends (native culture) within the same communication area like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace etc. positively influenced the accommodation of these newcomers to foreign culture and environment. In this case international communication takes place in very particular circumstances, yet its sense remains the same: it is connection between people separated by state borders. Only in this case communicators belong to the same cultural context, and they try to maintain it during their communication as much as possible.
Intercultural conflict in international communication via the Internet is a notion that should be carefully defined and presented with certain disclaimers. When representatives of nations with different cultural paradigms meet in the virtual space they very rarely transmit the official position of their states, this kind of communication occurs on more personal and humane level, and the most typical conflict is the one related to contesting religious views of communicators. Intercultural conflict on a more global level pertains to the fact that traditional media that were previously accessible to the national audience only, in the era of the Internet and online newspapers became the subject for wide trans-national examination and discussion. The bright example of the intercultural conflict in this case is publication of a series of materials in Chinese and American print and online media that highlighted the Beijing Olympics in 2008. While the official Chinese image transmitted abroad during these games was that of a great power rising to prominence in the globalized world, the Western presentation, namely the presentation seen in the New York Times and in Washington Post, depicted China as corrupt, authoritarian and unevenly developed country. As both images of China were available for comparison due to the Internet, many internet users, including Chinese people, began questioning the reliability of information provided by the Chinese media. Although the doubts about censorship and data curation have always existed, such vivid juxtaposition of contrasting pieces of news from the Chinese and American sources was a serious hit in the face of the Chinese official position. In case of Google withdrawing from China because of censorship requirements, China and Washington also transmitted different messages, and correlation of these messages within the global Internet data field showed the difference of cultural values. Washington criticized China for human rights infringement, lack of freedom of speech and hybridization of governmental mad business positions. China in response criticized Google’s breach of national laws. The presented conflict arises because of opposing cultural paradigms existing in China and America. Chinese values are face saving, loyalty, rigid social order and community interests coming first before rights of an individual. American system of values is opposite to this pattern, and individual freedoms are more important than maintaining of harmony and face saving. This conflict of cultures in communication has existed long ago, yet the Internet as pervasive and universally accessible medium makes this conflict more acute and visible than ever.
Language in International Communication
The Internet as the product of the USA was initially created in English, and major developments in it were also introduces in English. Until the advent of Web 2.0 and the flood of users-generated content in all possible languages the core of the Internet remained ‘English’, local sites being created in local languages and offering very few options for international users to read them. Equally, those who did not know English could not access international data bases and sources and were confined to local media. The obvious superiority of the English Internet-segment made experts believe that expansion of the Internet in the international communication would wipe away minor local languages and would establish English as the global language. However, the time proved different. Accessibility of the Internet to users’ content demonstrated that they are ready to develop and support their own languages and to promote them across the borders. As the example of one Catalan family demonstrated, after living in London a younger boy continued to use Catalan in his communications with his peers abroad in Madrid and he was not going to trade his native language for English. The same happens across the world – users tend to uphold and value their own languages rather than to adopt English as a universal means. Is also testifies to the fact that globalization is not the one-way imperialist process in the course of which local cultures vanish. To the contrary, local influence becomes more obvious as more and more representatives of a particular culture promote their views and demonstrate the viability and reasonability of their life views. Globalization would not be so successful if it did not yield to local requirements, and even McDonaldization became possible only because these fat-food restaurants incorporated elements of local cuisine. The same can be said about the role of the Internet in international and intercultural communication read about this in the essay about the internet.
Hence the Internet in its interactive form set two simultaneous trends: it facilitated communication across borders, provided sufficient means for it and delivered help to those who need to maintain strong relations across borders. On the other hand, it revealed cross-cultural conflicts and showed the depth dividing representatives of different cultures. In the universal open space for communication these contrasts are especially obvious and worrying. Another trend is that users now can influence how international communication is conducted and can exchange the first-hand data in the real time mode. This aspect relates already to policy-making and governing, yet the Internet is an integral tool that made people’s participation in it possible.
All in all, the Internet is an efficient tool of communication if it is used by all users on equal ground and if the Internet is not subject to censorship. International communication will lose its sense if some part of this communication will be blocked for some political or religious reasons. The universality of the Internet means that it is accessible from different places and can be accessed in many ways, and limits on the freedom of speech and freedom of thought do not strengthen the culture within which they are practiced. To the contrary, this society is more prone to upheavals and unrests than the one where people are free to communicate and can talk fearlessly to any interlocutor across the world.