Social Networks and Multicultural Societies

On: September 26, 2010
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About Marte Lindstrom
I am born and raised in Oslo, Norway. I have been studying at the University of Bergen in Norway, and I finished my bachelor degree in Media Studies in 2006. I have also been so lucky to be an Erasmus- exchange student in Rome, where I took courses in political science and European history. I have been working for some years, mainly as a consumer consultant. I recently decided it was time to learn some new tricks, so I went back to school.


After the web crash in the 90’s a new way of thinking about the internet arose. This lead to a brand new composition of the internet, often referred to as web 2.0. The term does not refer to any particular technical development, but a new way of thinking about the user when developing software. Media theorist David Gauntlett sums it up nicely in the book Mashup Cultures:

“Web 2.0 is about the web enabling everyday users to share their ideas and creativity, and collaborate on easy to use platforms which become better the more people are using them ” (p.65)

The focus is on openness and easy access for potential contribution. As a result there is more user-generated content on the web. In addition to this there has been a dramatic rise in the number of social network services online.

The rise of online social networks

Social networks are user-friendly and most of them are open to all. There are no requirements for extra hardware or knowledge, just open an account. This can be one explanation for why so many people feel confident about taking part in social networks online. In just a few years, Facebook has become the second most visited web page in the world, with over 500 million unique users worldwide. In theory this means that a large part of the world’s population is within your reach. All you have to do is open a Facebook account, click away, and you can have a conversation with someone from the other side of the globe. The potential for information exchange is enormous. Could this be the reason for the popularity of social networks? According to Jan van Dijk, professor of communication science, this is hardly the case. In his book The Network Society: social aspect of new media he claims that:

“…the Internet does not replace existing communication modes but supplements them. The internet adds new forms of social capital to the traditional ones… “(p.169).

Elaborating on this he explains that everyone in the world belongs to an organic community. This is your surrounding environment, where you are bound to other people by time and place, and communication is mostly based on face-to-face interaction. If you also take part in social networks online, you are part of a virtual community. In a virtual community place and physical circumstances are irrelevant, and communication is not necessarily dependant on sharing the same time zone. Hypothetically you can be a member of one or more virtual communities completely disconnected from your organic community. But Van Dijk points out that this is rare. Participation in virtual communities is in large part determined by your reality in the organic community. Your virtual friends on Facebook are people you have had face-to-face interaction with in your organic community.

Multicultural societies and international migration

It is not only information that now crosses international borders in the blink of an eye. International migration is also at its peak. According to The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), more than 200 million people crossed the border of their homeland and settled in another country in 2009. This includes both voluntary and forced movement and legal and illegal migration. What all these people have in common is that they are moving from their native organic community and are settling in another. As a new member of an organic community you are expected to take part in and contribute to the host community. The term melting pot represents the ideal for a multicultural society, where natives and migrants live side by side and interact on equal terms. In reality this can be a great challenge, often because of cultural and language barriers. A common situation is that migrants form their own organic communities, in large part disconnected from the native organic community. In addition to this one can also take part in ones own native organic community through a virtual community on the internet.

In an organic community you are often confronted with people you do not know or do not want to talk to. In a virtual community you have more control over who you interact with. If someone is not a part of your immediate organic community you would not include them in your virtual community. Then we should consider if the act of not including is the same as excluding. If different groups in an organic community create their own virtual community, or one group excludes another from the virtual community how will this affect the organic community? If you chose to only surround yourself with people and phenomena that are familiar to you in the virtual community how will you react when you encounter it in the organic community?

Over the course of a day, we are all in contact with other people, family, friends, colleagues, or even random people. Analyses of these social networks that we engage in have been used in modern sociology to understand how a society works. With the rise of online social networks we might have to take these into consideration when we look at how communication and interaction affect society. It could be useful to see how or if the virtual community influences the organic community and vice versa.


Van Dijk, Jan (2006), The Network Society: Social Aspects of New media, London: Sage Publications

Sonvilla- Weiss, Stefan (edt.) (2010), Mashup Cultures, Wien: Springer Verlag

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