Inclusion in Cyberspace?

I am pleased to present you a very interesting guest blog post written by John Gieryn, about inclusion and intercultural competence in online communities.

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The internet was a promise of open access and global inclusion, but has this been realized? You have most likely felt or heard hints of the web’s democratizing potential. You might have also sensed that the internet isn’t living up to this potential, and that barriers to global access and equity are yet to be bridged. The internet was born in a time before 4G access and smartphones. The current design of our web no longer supports the progress of society and is in need of a major remodel to ensure it supports inclusion, and a social cohesion that fosters both cultural and individual diversity. I write this post as a call to action. My hope is to spark discourse, the sharing of challenges and examples, lessons learned, and practical ways towards self- and group-improvement in the arenas of open source design, participatory organization and online collaboration.

I’m a digital native, having communed and convened through the web since I was young. For the last nine months, the majority of my social and professional interactions have occurred online. Engaging with what I’d consider progressive and impressively democratic networks, I’ve seen and heard surprisingly little in open source design communities on intercultural competence seeking.

My interest in such competence began from a painful yet most valuable experience. For six years I have been working primarily as a community organizer, within the framework of social change. At the end of my first year, I had the opportunity to learn in a personal and powerful way what my privilege meant. A long story short: myself and two other males had been dominating the conversation in a non-hierarchical, direct-action collective, in the midst of the biggest protest movement Wisconsin has ever seen, and several women of color felt unable to bring their issues up for a period of months. The outtake was a dramatic pair of sessions, six hours each, that were necessary to reestablish the balance and harmony of our group.

I’m cis, white, and male, from the lower-middle class. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much easier I can move through my world than others who don’t have these same privilege-granting characteristics. It was just easier, more comfortable, for me to speak than for people whose experiences differed vastly from my own. This balancing lesson taught me how to authentically collaborate through the lens of power with instead of power over, and it continues to shape my work and increase its effectiveness.

In my current work online, the lessons I learned about balancing power have become harder to apply, because 1) I can’t always tell who is in a virtual room, 2) it’s harder to determine what privileges are held by those present, and 3) asynchronous communication lacks many of the visual cues that are so helpful in facilitating safe(r) spaces and recognizing when someone is in discomfort or shut down. With the loss of visual cues and physical presence, new tactics are required for safeguarding groups from imbalances and reversing disparities when they occur (e.g. asking someone for a quick face-to-face after an online meeting can feel very different than it might in a face-to-face meeting).

Why Intercultural Competence Matters
Cultural competence is defined as “a complex, psychosocial and socio-cultural process of cultural awareness, content knowledge, and applied or practice skills. It is as an active, developmental, and ongoing process, one that is aspirational rather than achieved,” (. It is the awareness of cultures, the distinctions of their context, their sense-making, and their values and norms and the applied practice of interacting with them through communication and other collaborative processes in appropriate and competent ways. Beyond being a fair or just concept, intercultural competence is just plain effective, as it can activate and sustain collective action in many ways, especially through Social Capital. Cultural Detective, since it helps people develop intercultural competence, can thus play a role in activating social capital.

Beyond being a fair or just concept, intercultural competence is just plain effective, as it can activate and sustain collective action in many ways, especially through Social Capital.

Benefits of Social Capital
Social Capital is a concept used to identify resources that are neither human nor financial, but interpersonal. It’s important to note that the phrase “social capital” is problematic, as “capital” has represented a relationship of domination and oppression for half a millennium or more. I use the term (without intending these connotations) as it is widely used in the literature I cite, and is useful until a better naming emerges. The resources found in “cross-cutting personal relationships…provide the basis for trust, cooperation, and collective action in such communities,” write Nahapiet & Ghoshal (1998). In that same paper, they found it useful to identify three dimensions of social capital— structural, cognitive, and relational— though they admit there is much interrelation between each.

The structural dimension refers to the makeup of the network, who relates to whom and how strongly. The cognitive dimension refers to the self-rated expertise and tenure one might have; self-efficacy, or control belief (the belief that my actions will yield the intended results) has a significant effect on whether one will intend to do anything, let alone participate in an online community.

The relational dimension has the largest potential impact, in my opinion, for the way online communities organize. Relational Capital can be further broken down into four aspects.

Rela Capital.png

In a group that has high amounts of Relational Capital, it’d be likely that:

  • A member has confidence in the other group members
  • Members identify with the group
  • Members feel a sense of obligation to participate in the group; I’ve renamed this interdependence above, since it is a primary cause of this commitment
  • Members understand and abide by group norms. This may be reinforced through sanctions

Intercultural Competence for Collective Action
Relational Capital is where intercultural competence can be effectively leveraged in order to build collective action and increase knowledge sharing in online communities. Intercultural competence, as I explained above, means being able to understand someone’s cultural context, communicate in ways that are appropriate, and take actions that are mutually understood. I’d also describe it as being fully present with someone. Such competence is required to build confidence, create shared identity, communicate and form norms, and enable commitment. Intercultural competence strengthens all of the components of Relational Capital.

Another leg of the stool for collective action, that I’ve depicted below, is reciprocity. Studies, “consistently found that reciprocity is critical for sustaining supportive relationships and collective action” (Chechen 2013). Intercultural competence is key to reciprocity because, in any exchange, understanding the context of someone’s culture and the ways that they send & receive signals is critical. How can you return the favor if you don’t know what you’ve received? How can you pay it forward if you don’t know what you gave, in the eyes of the other person? This is why online communities need intercultural competence.

In future articles I hope to write more about some of the other concepts depicted in this Collective Action Hypothesis, above. The dotted lines are my personal understandings, and the solid lines are backed up with formal academic research.

Call To Action

If we are to reach the admirable, attainable goals of the internet—to bring democracy, inclusion, and access to people everyone around the globe—then intercultural competence must be on the agenda. The Open Source movement, as well as participatory organizations and any online collaboration, have much to gain from prioritizing dialogue and resource sharing on intercultural best practices, as cultural competence is a key component of open access to tech.

I invite people to share any resources, comments, or quotes by making a suggestion here. I also hope that you will spark these sorts of conversations, and share these types of resources, with your community. Continuous learning and diverse lenses have the capacity to transform our world into a more sustainable, flourishing home. So please— stay curious.

Resources + Examples

  • The World Value Survey created this very interesting cultural map depicting traditional values versus secular-rational values and survival values versus self-expression values
  • “The Challenges of Managing Cross-Cultural Virtual Project Teams” research paper on the challenge of leadership, virtual aspects of communications and developing trustMany of the online resources I found were proprietary. However, this
  • 6 Levels of Culture diagram was helpful; the DIE assessment is a freely accessible & widely used method to teach cognitive flexibility, frame of reference shifting and curiosity
  • Short videos, like this one on New Zealand & German cultural differences, can be helpful


  • Carroll, Doris Wright. “A Model of Cultural Competence in Open Source Systems.” Safari. IGI Global, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.
  • Chechen Liao Pui-Lai To Fang-Chih Hsu , (2013),”Exploring knowledge sharing in virtual communities”, Online Information Review, Vol. 37 Iss 6 pp. 891 – 909.
  • Faraj, Molly Mclure Wasko; Samer, and Wasko. “Why Should I Share? Examining Social Capital and Knowledge Contribution in Virtual Communities” (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
  • Nahapiet, Janine, and Sumantra Ghoshel. “Social Capital, Intellectual Capital, and the Organizational Advantage.” Academy of Management Review 23.2 (1998): 119-57. Web.

john gieryn | @coopchange | john(at) Licensed  CC BY-SA 4.0

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