Despite the many affordances the digital world can provide us, nothing can be a substitute for firsthand knowledge. As some wax poetic about how digital communication can obliterate geographic divides, I can't help but get out my salt shaker to add a grain or two. Because, much as seeing communication cross borders excites me, we cannot delude ourselves for even a moment into believing that online communication is some sort of wholly homogenizing force...nor should we want to.
I had a good friend of mine tell me once that, in five years, everyone in the U.S. would have WiFi and access to their own archive space "in the cloud" wherever they go. At the time (in 2006), I knew a good many people clamoring for high-speed wired Internet who couldn't yet receive it at their home, and this wasn't even in extremely rural areas. Needless to say that, while the five-year deadline is almost up, the thought that all U.S. citizens would have anytime-access to such a cloud is still fairly "blue sky" thinking. However, that disconnect is one of many examples of geographically skewed thinking. The gentleman who said that to me, while we were at a retreat on MIT's campus, was clouded by his surroundings. He had the blinders on (to throw in a Kentucky horse reference) regarding where he was from and how his experience did (or didn't) apply to others.
Let me give you another example. A good friend of mine from New York City once started talking basketball with me. I was talking about the enthusiasm for basketball in some city or other when he said, "Is basketball a big deal anymore? Seems like no one's been talking about basketball around here since the Knicks aren't having such a great season. I figure that, if people in NYC aren't talking basketball, than it must not be as popular in the U.S." As ridiculous as that might sound to people outside the Big Apple and as much as that plays into stereotypes many have about the mentality of major cities, it's a mindset we all invariably find ourselves adopting: "It isn't that way around here, so it must not be that way."
I've talked with a fair number of jetsetters who believe they have their finger more squarely on the pulse of the culture because they travel frequently. But this too seems a proposition that should raise our guard of skepticism, since the view one sees from the airports and towncar rides from one meeting to the next across the country doesn't necessarily give culture the chance to rub off. I know from firsthand experience that I've "seen" many cities from such an angle, and to claim that I really know much of anything about those places would be a farce.
That's why I have always admired people like Grant McCracken. Like all of us, Grant has his biases—but he tries to remain self-aware of them, and he encourages us to be as best prepared to combat our preconceived notions as possible. Grant likes to walk from meeting to meeting as often as he can, forgoing the taxi to perhaps see something surprising. If he can, he even seems to allow himself enough time to get a little lost. Some of that spirit is what inspired his book Chief Culture Officer, which argues that understanding culture has a lot less to do with "trendspotting" or "coolhunting" and, often, a lot more to do with understanding not just what "influencers" seem to be doing in one specific "cultural hotspot" but rather the trends of "slow culture" that pops up in sometimes surprising places.
One of the first people who got me thinking this way was Bruce Leichtman. Bruce is a media researcher who I have seen excel with a sometimes contrarian point of view. And that perspective is fueled, in part, by Bruce's being located squarely outside of the major U.S. media hubs. In an interview I conducted with Bruce back in 2007, he said:
One of the nice things about living here in New Hampshire is that life is a little more "normal." In New York or L.A., people are in a cocoon, and they think that everyone else is like them, but they are not. You often hear executives talking about themselves or their families as examples, but they don't realize how out of the mainstream they are. People just don't get that. Whether you are the president of a company or the reporter at a paper, everyone thinks they are mainstream, but no one IS the mainstream. That's why you do research.
Bruce's words were quite inspirational to me, since I'd seen this "focus group of one" a little too often; and, as a qualitative researcher, I have often found myself falling prey to the mindset as well. However, I wouldn't limit this sort of mentality to New York or Los Angeles: I think that those of us who live in New Hampshire in Bruce's case or Kentucky in mine have to beware of the same trap.
For several years, I published an article in the small weekly newspaper in Hartford, Kentucky—The Ohio County Times-News—called "From Beaver Dam to Boston" (and, later, "From Beaver Dam to the Big Apple"). I wrote about differences in life on the East Coast versus life back in The Bluegrass State, where I was from. In the process, I documented many of the cultural biases I saw from one direction or the other. People in Boston thought I was from Texas because of an accent they coded as "southern" and were surprised when I explained to them that a visit to San Antonio was, at the time, the depth of my Texas experience and that where I was from was about as close to Boston as it was to San Antonio. I heard some New Yorkers talk of "flyover states" and "middle America." And I heard from my Kentucky readers, some of whom asked questions like, "Are there any churches on the East Coast?" or "Do neighbors even talk to one another?"
As Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercom Strategic Communications, I'm fortunate to now be situated back home in Kentucky. My work in digital communication is strengthened by being based here in Bowling Green, where the Hill of Western Kentucky University overlooks the city, where the Corvette is produced, where people are protecting the culture of bluegrass music, and where cornhole has been the summer party rage. I can bring a unique perspective to the questions I'm tackling with clients and our teams because, as Bruce said, my location helps me escape the tunnel vision many "social media guru" types find themselves in when they are all in the same few media hubs.
However, it would be comparatively easy to end up with the same biases from Kentucky, for me to suppose that what I see here is necessarily indicative of other places in the country or else that it's "more authentic" or "less mediated" than what we might see from a media hub like L.A. That mindset would be just as harmful. Rather, as I talk with my fellow Peppercommers in our New York, San Francisco, and London offices—or other satellite locations like mine—our goal must be to pay attention to the cultures of where we're from and where we travel to, to check and rethink our assumptions, and to bring that cultural knowledge to bear on the work that we do and the ways in which we understand our audiences.
I've found it immensely helpful to take these questions under consideration as I build out a professional network, as I figure who to follow on Twitter, and as I constantly try to expand my cultural purview. The "focus group of one" Bruce Leichtman talks about is a dangerous proposition that all marketers and researchers can fall victim to. I don't say that to suggest that we should ignore what we see and experience, that we should shun the qualitative and sacrifice it at the altar of quantitative research. Quite the contrary. Rather, I'm saying that we have to be honest with ourselves about the limitations of our perspectives and seek people who may provide us with alternate insights, who bring different cultural assumptions to the table. It's that diversity of perspectives that can drive us to interesting and compelling insights. And it's something we can't strive to do alone.
Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy for Peppercom, a PR agency, and a research affiliate with MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium. Ford was previously the Consortium's project manager and part of the team who launched the project in 2005. He has also worked as a professional journalist, winning a Kentucky Press Association award for his work. He also blogs for Peppercom's PepperDigital. Ford is co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington and co-author of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.