Off the map: The death of context

Content creators and cocreators working alongside principal writers, artists and project managers are keenly aware of the importance of context when generating content that will be consumed on a global basis. I think especially in the cases of localization and culturalization professionals, context is so critically important to our work because so much depends on conveying the right information across linguistic and cultural barriers. Without all the proper contextual cues and metadata, our jobs become extremely challenging — if not even impossible in some cases. 

Before I go further into that discussion, I think it would be useful to better define what I mean by “context.” Many experts have long discussed the nature of context, especially from a cultural perspective and probably most notable among them is Edward Hall and his concepts of high and low context. This refers to the differences in cultures based on communication styles. High context cultures require a lot of local linguistic cues that help frame the message, without which the message can be very difficult to discern. By contrast, in low context cultures, messages can be communicated without as many cues, thus the message has the potential for greater understanding outside its original locale or culture. 

Hall’s framework can be helpful in understanding at least one fundamental difference in how messages are perceived across a variety of cultures. While he was focused primarily on written and verbal communication, another critically important aspect is visual communication and what cues trigger what kind of reaction to the recipient. In culturalization work, many of the issues that arise are related to visual communication — the perception of a symbol’s placement, the shape of an icon, the use of a flag, the representation of a map and so forth.

Most people who work in the content industries have some awareness of cultural cause and effect, realizing that an action made in one context can lead to either positive or negative reactions in another context. Some of these reactions are quite predictable, while others may seem completely irrational. The way that local consumers will react to the content has much to do with the context in which they personally exist, such as their faith, their ethnicity, their language, their location and so forth. Also consider the other contexts in which the consumer operates — their social connections, their economic status, their educational background, the political environment and so on. Thus there are a lot of underlying reasons for why people in a specific culture react to certain content. It’s important to keep this in mind when thinking about a local culture’s reaction to content; not everyone is reacting the same way and for the same reasons.

In a simplified way, we can look at any specific culture as a combined set of “content assets” that clearly define the look, feel, sound, taste and general nature of the culture. Along with those assets come expectations for what will or will not fit within the norms of that culture. 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 fits in the content assets of a specific culture. So if the product contains a piece of content that doesn’t fit with the culture’s expectations or is noticeable enough to shock the consumer of the product’s intended focus (such as a word processor, a spreadsheet or a video game), then a potential problem may arise.

Fortunately, most experienced information consumers know the difference between a product’s context and their own cultural origins. Because they interact frequently within a variety of information sources, they are less likely to react negatively to a piece of content that might not normally fit with their expectations.

In the course of performing culturalization reviews, the awareness of the context of a specific content element is absolutely fundamental to discerning potential risks and opportunities for a specific market, especially for anything that is meant to act as a visual cue. And this applies not only to the context within the product or web page, but also the context within the culture into which the product is being distributed. On top of that, there’s the always-critical issue of discoverability, or how easy it is for a consumer to find the content element. So culturalization becomes a constant exercise in weighing the potential viability of a product in a target locale on the basis of contextual appropriateness. Typically, the biggest geopolitical and cultural mistakes I’ve seen in various digital products occur when content intended for specific contextual targets (a language, culture or locale) is exposed to unintended targets.

The unintended targets, whether an entire market or consumers, are typically the people who don’t use information products regularly, who don’t understand the content-context relationship between the information and real world, and who often have a negative predisposition toward digital media. While the digital-savvy consumer might see something offensive in a product and shrug it off, others may become outraged at what they see without taking the time to understand why it’s in the product and what role it plays.

Over time, I’ve always expected the unintended audience to slowly decrease and fade away, as more and more people become digital natives and more people (assumedly) understand the nature of the context of the information with which they’re interacting. However, what’s been interesting in recent years has been two emerging trends among content consumers: the cross-cultural, global appropriation of strongly local contextual issues, and an apparent diminished ability (or desire?) to discern contextual cues and origins.

On the first point about appropriation, much has been written and studied on the topic as it relates to cultural anthropology and the transfer of pieces of culture from one to another. It’s been the case for the course of human history, and we’re only seeing it greatly accelerate now due to the hyper-compressed space and time distances enabled by the ever-growing connectivity of individuals to the internet. While we see more and more people and cultures empowered by internet access, we see more previously local contextual cues either purposefully or accidentally adopted by others across a wide range of locales, and suddenly a once-obscure name, gesture or expression becomes the latest internet meme.

In regard to the second point about an apparent inability to critically examine context, I admit this is somewhat anecdotal in nature, but it’s become more obvious and I’m hearing more professionals in digital content reporting similar observations. In short, with the vast increase in global connectivity and information consumption, there seems to be a growing knee-jerk response to anything that may even remotely be considered offensive.

Here’s a simple case in point. One of the examples I often use in my lectures about culturalization involves two images: one of a human hand in an open palm gesture with the fingers splayed outward, and the other is the Nazi-style swastika as seen during World War II (a right-facing swastika at a 45 degree angle in a white circle surrounded by a red background). The hand gesture is the Greek moutza, which is locally considered to be as offensive as flipping the middle finger in the United States. My point in juxtaposing these images is to ask the audience which image is more context independent (low context); in other words, both images are offensive but one of them (the moutza) requires more context for meaning, while the other is very much self-explanatory — it’s an image that is so universally identifiable that regardless of the context, it will be recognized and be a potential problem.

Despite using this example for instructional purposes, I’ve heard more and more people express concerns that using a swastika in any context, even in education, is simply wrong (it doesn’t help when I explain to them that their reaction is actually helping reinforce the point I’m trying to make). I’ve seen this particularly from younger consumers and students, which makes me ponder if there’s a connection with digital natives and their typically voracious social media consumption. As we’ve seen in the past year or so, social media has an incredible ability to completely negate context and foment emotions purely on the basis of what one sees in the moment.

While I realize I may sound like an old veteran ranting about the disruptive youth culture, it’s merely expressing a strong and growing concern that when we lose our ability to discern and appreciate context, we lose our ability to learn, to seek wisdom and to gain perspective from other people, times and cultures — all of which are foundational aspects to our roles in localization and culturalization.