Looking for needed bridging ties online

A new book argues the Internet doesn’t connect people like it could do and part of the issue has to do with bridging ties:

The Chinese activist and journalist Xiao Qiang and I started using the term “bridging” to describe the work bloggers were doing in translating and contextualizing ideas from one culture into another. Shortly afterward, the Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan gave a memorable talk at the Berkman Center as part of the Global Voices inaugural meeting. Hossein explained that, in 2004, blogs in Iran acted as windows, bridges, and cafés, offering opportunities to catch a glimpse of another life, to make a connection to another person, or to convene and converse in a public space. I’ve been using the term “bridgeblogger” ever since for people building connections between different cultures by means of online media, and “bridge figures” to describe people engaged in the larger process of cultural translation, brokering connections and building understanding between people from different nations.

To understand what’s going on in another part of the world often requires a guide. The best guides have a deep understanding of both the culture they’re encountering and the culture they’re rooted in. This understanding usually comes from living for long periods in close contact with different cultures. Sometimes this is a function of physical relocation—an African student who pursues higher education in Europe, an American Peace Corps volunteer who settles into life in Niger semipermanently. It can also be a function of the job you do. A professional tour guide who spends her days leading travelers through Dogon country may end up knowing more about the peculiarities of American and Australian culture than a Malian who lives in New York City or Sydney but interacts primarily with fellow immigrants…

Merely being bicultural isn’t sufficient to qualify you as a bridge figure. Motivation matters as well. Bridge figures care passionately about one of their cultures and want to celebrate it to a wide audience. One of the profound surprises for me in working on Global Voices has been discovering that many of our community members are motivated not by a sense of postnationalist, hand-holding “Kumbaya”-singing, small-world globalism but by a form of nationalism. Behind their work on Global Voices often lies a passion for explaining their home cultures to the people they’re now living and working with. As with Erik’s celebration of Kenyan engineering creativity, and Rosenthal’s passion for the complexity and beauty of South African music, the best bridge figures are not just interpreters but also advocates for the creative richness of other cultures…

It’s not simply the number of acquaintances that represent power, as Gladwell posits. It’s also their quality as bridges between different social networks. Lots of friends who have access to the same information and opportunities are less helpful than a few friends who can connect you to people and ideas outside your ordinary orbit.

Without trying to be too pessimistic about the Internet and social media, it has tended to reproduce existing kinds of social relationships: limited public spaces, domination by corporations (particularly the nascent tech industry), creating echo chambers where people only find the content and people who agree with them, and not always having the open and fair-minded dialogue that might help bring people together. Yet, I’d be curious to know if there are workable and effective solutions to creating lasting online bridging ties. In my own social media use, I rely on a number of Facebook friends who consistently discuss or post regarding topics further from my own personal orbit.

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