Friday, February 12, 2010

Cultural Navigators

My thoughts on this topic in written form are well overdue, so here goes...

The quantity of media in our culture is expanding at an ever increasing rate. As communication technologies allow us not only to access content from further and more disparate sources (imagine how much more news you'll be able to read when automated translation services become really usable) but also allow an increasing number of people access to the tools to create and distribute content. So we're basically drowning in content, much not very good or personally relevant, and it's only going to get worse. For a culture junkie it's great, but also overwhelming. How is anyone going to find the content of value, both meaningful and entertaining, in this deluge? They need good cultural navigators to guide them.

Whatever topic I might be interested in, it is quite possible for me to spend all of my time trying to keep up with it - let alone should I be interested in more then one topic. So I find those people who know the topics I'm interested in, who keep up with them, and who have the similar tastes and values to me, and I allow them to point me towards the content I'll probably like. I'll let them do the leg work, that is what bloggers do. What critics do. What celebrities, or more often 'personalities' do. So it means that I don't have to try to watch every movie that's released, rather I can cut down the potential number of films I'll watch based on Margaret Pomeranz's opinions. Or David Stratton, or Roger Ebert. I don't have to read through all the gossip magazines and websites for my celebrity fix, I can just pick a few blogs with similar tastes and interests, perhaps with a style that I like, and let them point me to the good stuff. I don't have to try to figure out what it means to smell good, or what scents are 'in', I can just take Britney's word for it.

The cultural navigation function of bloggers is why that have risen in prominence so rapidly in the last decade. What they are doing isn't new, it's just that the medium in which they do it is particularly suited to cultural naviagtion. Critics in all fields have been doing it for years, but as the volume of content increases, so does their need to specialise. So we are moving away from 'book reviewer' to 'children's book reviewer' or 'sci-fi reviewer'. Previously, when cultural dissemination was more limited, when people had fewer choices for the content they consumed, the demand for cultural navigators was much smaller. Hence, with this proportionally smaller number of people offering their cultural guidance, they needed to offer guidance that appealed to a broader base (ie all music listeners, not just punk listeners) to be successful. This meant that cultural criticism/guidance aimed to be objective, impartial and therefore broad in it's appeal. As we move into a denser cultural, with a higher proportional need for cultural navigators, we are seeing that those that wear their values, tastes and bias on their sleeves become more successful - it differentiates them from the others. The other form cultural navigation has taken in the past is celebrity endorsement, and it works on the same principle. Whoopi Goldberg may be far from an expert on incontinence, yet her fan base trust her values and tastes because they like her (or maybe they like her because they trust her values and tastes?), and hence accept her guidance on a product they probably don't wish to spend a lot of time finding out about themselves.

There is so much more for me to say about the concept of Cultural Navigators; It's an important concept to consider and use in analysing our culture. There are overlaps with the worlds of cultural criticism, journalism, education, celebrity, with marketing concepts like 'Influencers' and of course new media and social media trends. I'm going to get to all that hopefully, and ultimately thinking about cultural navigators might just give us a powerful way to understand the dynamics of our culture. To survive and thrive in the ever increasing deluge of content that we face, we are going to have to rely on our Cultural Navigators.


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