Off the map: Culture is content

As localization or culturalization professionals, thinking about the external aspects of content are an everyday part of our job. We regularly focus on how we can adapt our content both linguistically and culturally to other locales in order to maximize exposure and revenues.

Most people who work in the various industries that develop and distribute digital content have some awareness of cultural cause and effect, realizing that an action in one context can lead to either positive or negative reactions in another context. Some of these reactions from a local market are predictable, while others may seem completely irrational. The way that local consumers will react to a piece of content has a lot to do with the context in which they personally exist, such as their religion, their ethnicity, their language, their country, their region within that country and so forth. Also consider the other contexts in which consumers operate — their social connections, their economic status, their educational background, the political environment and so on.

In other words, there are a lot of underlying reasons for why people in a specific culture react to certain content in one way or another. It’s important to keep this in mind when thinking about a local market’s reaction to digital content, whether it’s a website, a video game, a software package or whatever; not everyone is going to react in the same way and for the same reasons. Striving to overcome broad assumptions about a specific culture remains a real challenge. Oftentimes a cultural information vacuum exists, or in other words, content creators are not sufficiently aware of the target market’s nuances. When this is the case, they often “fill in the blanks” with whatever information they might possess, and unfortunately that’s often stereotypical information. This isn’t done with ill intent; it’s just an innate by-product of creating the content within a specific cultural context.

The fundamental issue in content distribution is that the products and services need to pass in and through various diverse cultures throughout the world, each with their own unique contexts. In my experience, many content creators struggle when it comes to proactively addressing these cultural complexities. This is primarily due to the very broad notion of “culture” — it’s almost as if many content creators, developers and designers opt to look past the culture issue because it’s just too immense to consider in its fullness, especially when you’re under strict deadlines. However, what if instead of trying to adapt our understanding of content development to world cultures, which is by any measurement an arduous and complex task, we turn it around and adapt the notion of culture to the practice of content development? In that light, what does culture mean in the terminology of those who create and manage digital content? Let’s first review these two definitions:
Content is: any information created for the purpose of perpetuation and dissemination; in the digital realm, it’s basically anything a consumer will see, hear or read (and maybe someday also taste, smell and feel).
Context is: the circumstances or events that form a unique environment in space and time, within which information is created and managed.

Although these definitions are rather simplified, their core meanings remain intact. If we put these concepts together, but then consider them from a geographic and anthropological perspective, we can yield the following new characterization of culture: Culture is the accumulated, managed content of a specific context.
Let me step back for just a moment. For any given information product, the accumulated content assets are what define the product. For example, the product may contain visual components, text elements, audio enhancements and so on. In a simplified way, we can likewise break down any specific culture as a combined set of “content assets” which clearly define the look, feel, sound, taste and general nature of that culture. If you consider any distinct culture, such as the first one that might come to mind right now as you read this, think about the various content assets that make it unique and identifiable.
In order to illustrate this a bit further, I’ll leverage my own Scottish heritage. When you think of Scotland, your brain automatically accesses all those content assets that establish the uniqueness of Scotland for you personally based on your knowledge and experience. Many rely on more obvious assets, such as the Highland bagpipes, colorful kilts, Highland dancing, haggis (a much-discussed Scottish sausage/pudding), soaring vistas in the Highlands and so on. With the help of popular media, they might include historical figures such as William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy and Robert Burns, not to mention some famous mysteries like the Loch Ness Monster. None of these things necessarily reflect the on-the-ground reality of Scotland today, as that would require additional exposure and insights, but they reflect a body of content assets that clearly define Scottish culture to much of the world.

Those specific things we think about in regard to a specific culture can be viewed as the “expectations” for that specific group of content assets. These expectations have been directed and managed throughout local history and sociology to become the unique set we know today. Thus, along with any set of content assets, whether a product or a culture, come a set of expectations for what may or may not fit within what’s considered to be normal, definitive behavior. 

If we think about culture in this way, it’s often easier to perceive how the content assets of a product might conflict with the expectations for what is considered acceptable for inclusion in the content assets of a specific culture. So if the developed content contains a specific element that doesn’t fit with the culture’s expectations or is noticeable enough to shock the consumer out of the intended product experience, then a potential problem arises. Consumers are forced to implicitly, even subconsciously, defend their own cultural context. By breaking down both the product and culture into their content assets, it makes it easier to discern the biases, assumptions and expectations between the distinct entities.

Hence the inherent reality of our information-based society and the notion that culture can be viewed as content. Content carries culture; it’s a reflection of the culture in which it was created and it evokes a reaction from the cultures to which it’s distributed. Given this, it’s often difficult for a content creator in one locale to be fully aware of and account for the issues that could cause problems in another locale. 

Some may argue that the interface between two or more cultural content assets might be less and less relevant as we’re increasingly living in a growing global culture. I would argue, however, that as widespread as the idea has been, the daily on-the-ground reality for the great majority of the world’s citizens remains an existence within a well-defined, unique culture. For those who work in global businesses and particularly those of us who are in the realm of information technology, the notion of global culture is less tied to a specific place and time and more so to a specific activity or process. For example, the privileges of technology have begun to congeal in a set of content assets that define people who work in this space, such as being able to travel internationally, use the latest type of smartphone or laptop, or be wirelessly connected at all times. But we can’t deny the changes at work; consider online social networks and how they’re quickly defining new “cultures” and entirely new forms of human interaction that transcend our traditional definitions.

As content creators, managers and distributors existing in a new world of dynamic media, we have to be ready to adapt. Cultures and technologies will continue to intertwine and evolve together, thus we’re forced to think about cultures in new ways and transform from the long-standing anthropological roots from a couple centuries ago. This includes shedding any assumptions about any existing cultural content assets and being ready to navigate a dynamic landscape ahead.  M