Digital culture refers to culture shaped by the emergence and use of digital technologies.
What is digital culture?
Digitalisation has become a particularly pervasive influence on culture due to the emergence of the internet as a mass form of communication, and the widespread use of personal computers and other devices such as smartphones. Digital technologies are so omnipresent around the world that the study of digital culture potentially encompasses all aspects of everyday life, and is not limited to the internet or modern communication technologies.
While it would be artificial to distinguish clear-cut eras distinct from each other, culture shaped by digitalisation differs from its predecessors, i.e. what have been called print culture and broadcast culture, in a number of different ways. For instance, digital technologies have enabled more networked, collaborative and participatory forms of culture. Following Miller (2011), the specific characteristics of digital culture can be explained with the kinds of technical processes involved, the types of cultural form emerging, and the kinds of experiences digital culture entails.
Digital Culture and technical processes
In digital technologies, information is represented in numerical code. In practice, this means that digital material is easily modifiable and can be easily compressed (Miller 2011, 15). Practical everyday examples of this include the use of Photoshop for easy modification of images, and the storing of large amounts of information in e.g. smartphones. Unlike in broadcast culture, media are also networked and interactive, and so-called user-generated content has emerged as a cultural phenomenon to blur the boundaries between senders and receivers, or broadcasters and audiences, of media content. For instance social media platforms such as Facebook, and blogs and online forums host massive amounts of user-generated content.
The technical infrastructure also enables the hypertextual nature of digital media, as links can be created between different nodes of content. Hyperlinking is indeed one of the primary ways of organising content online. Yet further central features of digital material enabled by the technical processed involved are its automated and databased nature. Digital databases, like any database, have their own specific ways of storing, retrieving and filtering data, and turning that data into meaningful information. Digital databases are much more flexible than pre-digital ones, and an essential component of many everyday activities such as using an online search engine or a social media platform.
This also relates to the process of automation mentioned above. Many digital objects are created out of databases through automated processes. This also allows for personalisation of content. In practice, for instance social media feeds, recommendation systems and personalised advertising online are the result of such automated, algorithmic processes. (Miller 2011, 14-21) Due to the ubiquitous presence and immense influence of such processes, some have characterised present-day culture as ‘algorithmic culture’.
Given that digital material is easily copied, spread and modified, digital cultural products are potentially in a constant state of ‘becoming’, in some respects more adequately described as processes rather than finished products. This is why for instance the established cultural form ‘narrative’, along with authorship, has been problematised in networked, hyperlinked digital environments: products are never complete, reading paths are hyperlinked and networked, and relationships between creators and audiences often anti-hierarchical and products collaborative constructions. (Miller 2011, 21-30) Collaborative digital art, online fan fiction and internet memes are just some examples of such present-day cultural production.
Digital technologies have also influenced the links between objects, space and time. (Miller 2011, 22-24) Objects can be easily not only modified, but also recontextualised, and objects from different historical and spatial contexts can be brought together to articulate something new or to create an ensemble of objects. For instance, music or film and TV streaming services – often also in a personalised way enabled by databased automation – are popular realisations of this. The shrinking of distance between audiences and art objects is another typical example: not only is cultural participation more democratic due to the instant availability of works of art, but also the means of producing e.g. moving image and visual cultural products and making them available to broader audiences have become more accessible forms of cultural participation. Virtual reality technologies can be expected to further transform cultural forms and participation.
It is still common to have a distinction being made between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’. This is a misleading distinction: even though virtual environments are intangible, this does not mean that they are not ‘real’. Our vocabulary also tends to reify clear distinctions between the ‘virtual’ (or online) and ‘offline’: terms such as ‘cyberspace’ and ‘meatspace’ have appeared to draw these distinctions while our experience is of both simultaneously. However, for instance in discussions regarding online bullying, it has been suggested that the specific kind of presence (distant, with lack of face-to-face contact; also called ‘telepresence’) enabled by digital technologies makes the threshold for people to abuse others lower. Virtual worlds and virtual reality also allow for a type of experience called simulation – immersive experience brought about by the creation of a model of a world, sometimes imitating the offline world. Second Life is an example of a hugely successful virtual world. Virtual experiences, as was the case with e.g. Second Life, are sometimes dismissively discussed through the familiar distinction between representation and simulation. The latter is here seen as somehow less authentic or real, pulling participants away from the ‘real’ reality. Video games are another example of a digital cultural medium that can produce immersive experience. (Miller 2011, 30-41)
Digital culture and new types of research
Understanding digital culture requires novel, innovative forms of research, and new approaches such as the broad field of digital humanities, digital hermeneutics, and digital ethnography have emerged to advance our understanding of culture shaped by digitalisation.
Miller, Vincent 2011. Understanding digital culture. London: Sage.