Cultural immersion in 9 Steps For Social Media Tourists

by Shannon Paul on November 29, 2008


Lately, I’ve tried to stop thinking like a marketer, or a PR professional, and I’ve started thinking more like an anthropologist when it comes to reaching out to people in social networks.

I haven’t completely done away with my marketer/PR hat and I’m not recommending you do away with yours either, since you’ll likely need it to speak in terms of ROI and objectives with your boss and/or clients.

However, any good wardrobe needs variety, and I think when it comes to approaching people, we need to borrow some good tactics from those who study what it means to be human: anthropologists.

I’ve always been resistant to shiny object syndrome, the phrase a lot of us use to describe a sole focus on particular social media tools, platforms or networks. Instead, I’m in favor of a more people-centric approach.

In my last post, I put forth my belief that social media is changing our culture by changing the way we communicate with one another socially and in business. I believe this is due to a focus on what Chris Brogan referred to recently as Cafe-Shaped Conversations that focus on intimacy and relationship building as opposed to transactions and institution building.

Like a lot of college students, I took anthropology 101 a number of years ago. Even though I’ve probably forgotten most of the course work, what managed to stick with me was the anthropologist’s commitment to cultural relativism as a means of avoiding cultural bias and judgments based on differences in culture.

Judgment impedes empathy; and to understand people as they are, empathy is key.

Cultural relativism defined

An anthropologist tries to understand other cultures from the perspective of an insider—that is, as someone living within the culture. This technique, known as cultural relativism, helps anthropologists to understand why people in different cultures live as they do. Anthropologists work from the assumption that a culture is effective and adaptive for the people who live in it. In other words, a culture structures and gives meaning to the lives of its members and allows them to work and prosper.

-From the MSN Encarta Encyclopedia

With cultural relativism in mind, many cultural anthropologists go out into the field to study a particular group of people through what is referred to as cultural immersion.

I’ve come to believe that although listening is an important first step, it’s not enough in most cases to understand the flavor of the locals within social networks. Marketers need relationships and trusted guides to get a thorough understanding of the subtle nuances of the culture within a given social media community.

Um, remember colonial imperialism?
Right. Imperialist colonialism was neither a proud nor pretty part of human history, but a lot of marketers who think they know how mass culture is supposed to receive company/product messaging run into major problems when they enter into social networks broadcasting old-school messages.

This happens because they think in terms of how people should interpret things according to historical and empirical data. Their approach is more akin to an attempt to colonize a particular online community than having any sort of cafe-shaped conversation. Colonialism ended rather badly. Do I really need to explain why this is not the best approach?

To build relationships, we need to first admit that we are not the experts and then look to immerse ourselves in the culture we’ve identified if we ever expect to be able to craft and deliver a message to those within the community and have it received as we intend.

Tourism as a metaphor
When I went out looking for tips on successful cultural immersion, I found a great travel article called, “Cultural Immersion: How to Blend in Like a Local When Traveling,” with tips on cultural immersion for tourists. For my purposes, I decided to use their headings, but instead apply them to immersion in social networks.

1. Eat Locally
Search for people in your own local area. Often these are the people you are going to be able to form the best relationships with first since they’re right in your own backyard.

Okay, I know this doesn’t translate directly to food, but if you meet people in your local area, you can always offer to buy them lunch. Then, you can eat together while discussing the details of their involvement within this particular social network.

People within local areas on Twitter often have Tweetups (Twitter + Meetups) where they get together from time to time to network and hang out; sometimes they even gather for a specific social cause. Many cities also have regular Social Media Breakfasts. Facebook lets you search for people within your geographic region, and Twellow is a great way to find people in your area on a particular network.

2. Read Up
Do a Google or Yahoo! news search for the social network you’re interested in and see what’s being said about it on blogs and in mainstream media. Read about the activity within the social network from insiders’ and outsiders’ perspectives.

3. Investigate
Find people who appear to be very active and savvy within the network. Reach out to them specifically, ask for their advice or see if they would be willing to point you in the right direction.

There’s almost always a means of contacting someone within a social network whether it be through messaging or emailing them directly. I keep all of my contact information on my blog and I usually respond quickly to message on Twitter and Facebook.

The more active someone is within that particular network, the more likely  you’ll get a quick response.

4. Choose Lodgings That Make You Feel at Home
Whether you’re looking to engage people on Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, MySpace or LinkedIn, make sure to go in and create your own profile. Make yourself at home and make sure to customize your own profile. Don’t just leave things blank. Make it reflect who you are as a person, but skip the elevator pitch.

It’s okay to let people know what you do, just don’t let what you do eclipse who you are on a social network, unless we’re talking about LinkedIn, or any other networks that focus on professional experience. The irony with this approach is that you’ll likely only make friends with others who just want to give you their business card, too, and if everyone’s selling, who’s buying?

5. Embrace Public Transit
In other words, don’t worry about being inconvenienced or taking in a little noise. Social networks are full of intellectual noise in the form of chatter and irrelevant conversations. You’ll never get good at navigating the activity on the network if you’re too sensitive to the noise or the inconvenience that participation brings in the beginning.

Super users on any social network have extremely adept mental filters that let them see a lot of irrelevant noise on a particular network.

6. Consult with Friends
You actually might be surprised what some of your friends know. Put out a call to see how many of them are involved in the social networks you’re interested in learning about. I was very surprised to find out someone who used to babysit me as a child was active on Facebook. I’ve also discovered four former high school classmates on Twitter — you just never know.

7. Eye the Clientele
Don’t be afraid to check out people on social networks. If I post information, it’s information I’m glad to share. If we’re friends on Facebook, you can see who my friends are, what I do for a living, what I write on my blog, photos of me from my wedding or last month’s tweetup.

If you find me on Twitter, you can click on my blog directly from my profile. From there my blog contains direct links to my profiles on Flickr and LinkedIn. If I know you from one of these other places and I receive a friend request from you on Facebook with a brief note explaining the other ways we’re connected, I’ll likely accept your request. Everybody’s different in this manner, but one connection can often lead to another. Don’t be afraid to do a little investigating before you reach out.

8. Get Lost
I love getting lost — especially when it comes to learning about people and discovering new content. Don’t be afraid to let yourself wander, clicking on link after intriguing link. Let yourself play a little before getting down to the business of networking and learning. Social networks are supposed to be fun, too.

9. Dress the Part
There’s nothing wrong with being new, or making a few mistakes when you first start trying to participate within online communities. We’re all human. However, if you do a little research and listening to conversations ahead of time, you can save yourself a lot of grief.

It’s really not about conforming to a sort of etiquette, it’s just learning to get the outside in order so it doesn’t communicate something you don’t necessarily intend, or act as an impediment to your ability to build relationships.

The power of good metaphors
Since so much of the activity inside social networks seems so abstract to others, I’m on the constant lookout for good metaphors. Does this work for you? I’m of the frame of mind that suggests listening is only a good first step, meaningful participation comes next. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself.

Does this work for you? Or, is this idea of cultural immersion simply asking too much?

Photo by Mallix

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

November 29, 2008 Ed 1

“I haven’t completely done away with my marketer/PR hat and I’m not recommending you do away with yours either, since you’ll likely need it to speak in terms of ROI and objectives with your boss and/or clients.”

Yep. Until they really get it, you smile
and put it in terms they can understand, (and show results). Something like “…building real relationships…”. should suffice.
If not maybe they aren’t going to get it?


November 29, 2008 Dan Perry 2

Wow, very strong article, and well thought out. Love the public transit line. Living in Chicago (although from MI therefore a Red Wings fan for life), one can learn a lot from public transit!


November 29, 2008 TarotByArwen 3

This so worked for me as a metaphor. This is a new community not just communication that we are building. I see it as a collective. You’ve given some good pointers on how to leverage Twitter.


November 29, 2008 Robert Fraser 4

Great read, I love traveling as well as social media and the way you blended them was delightful. Keep up the great writing!


November 29, 2008 Marcel 5

Great post. More people need to really act as observers and learn the culture before they start spreading their message everywhere. Thanks.


November 29, 2008 Julie Walraven 6

Excellent article, loved the anthropologist cultural immersion concept which lets me not feel guilty for doing just that for the last month or so. Thank @chrisbrogan for leading me here.


November 29, 2008 Lucretia Pruitt 7

Fabulous article and a great metaphor.

One thing I would add to it? If you really aren’t getting it? Don’t be afraid to hire a tour guide or local to help you get around.
The reason so many Social Media consultants are out there is that sometimes, time is of the essence, and you don’t have the time it would take to ‘culturally immerse’ yourself or your company in order to utilize the tools to reach the community.

It’s perfectly okay to hire someone to help you navigate until you get a feel for the place.

But other than that? I’m totally adding this to my ‘bookmark for people to read when I need them to understand something’ file! :)


November 29, 2008 Iris Carter 8

Great observations and synthesis of information. Social media is an entity with it’s own culture and as such, will be in need of defining and re-defining elements as it grows. You’ve created a wonderful guide for newbies!


November 29, 2008 Amanda 9

It’s amazing how much we tend to over-think things as adults. This paring down of what it is to be involved in social media was great. You just got another Twitter follower in me.


November 29, 2008 Rufus 10

Wow! Thank you for the clarity of thought in the cultural immersion metaphor. I work with clients who want to jump from getting a blog, Twitter account, Facebook to blasting out “Buy our crap!” messages without bothering to engage.

Still not entirely convinced that all this Web 2.0 is the most efficient way to get to a bottom line, but it sure is the most scenic route!


November 29, 2008 Mark Harai 11

This was a very comprehensive piece on how to effectively use social media.

I appreciate your efforts and insight,



November 29, 2008 Gary Branger 12

Great stuff Shannon. Great guide for someone like myself trying to figure out how to navigate in this world. Have spent a lot of time initially finding out who lives in my own community in Milwaukee. So I guess I am starting correctly. (Thanks Chris Brogan for retweeting.)


November 29, 2008 Máire Clements 13


As a relative newbie, just about 2 months on Twitter and Facebook, I found your cultural immersion steps to be a fantastic guide to being a tourist in social media.

I loved Anthropology and specifically Cultural Anthro in school. Caught one of last lectures by Margaret Mead before she passed on :) Perspective learned in those classes has informed many of my life experiences.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. You brilliantly set up your metaphors with your anthropological overview.

I like how your mind works. Launching from that travel article was genius as one does truly feel a bit like a tourist alone in a foreign land entering into the vast social media pool. Same muscles in play. Interest (active listening) and participation shape the experience be it in Tokyo or on Twitter!


November 29, 2008 Stacy Lukas 14

Great post. I’ve always tried to explain it the same way to people who ask me about all this “social media stuff,” but of course, my lack of patience usually gets the best of me and I’m not nearly as thorough as you in this post. I’m going to keep this one in mind and probably read it a couple times over the next few days just so I’ll have an easier time explaining to people so that I don’t turn into Donald Duck in a hissy fit, which sadly, happens more often than not.



November 29, 2008 Tawny Press 15

Great article Shannon.

I am glad you covered “noise” in Embrace Public Transit. When did people in our communities become “noise”? I don’t view it as an inconvenience; some of what others “view” as noise actually helps me better understand and relate to people.

Small things, connect people, people represent your networks. When my dog had cancer, there were many supportive dog lovers on Twitter, which quickly turned into friends. Not surprising, several have become great business resources, exchanging help, tips and even leads to prospective business.

Twitter peeps who bonded over commonalities, strengthens your community. What is noise to some is music to others.

I also enjoyed “Get Lost”, which I had presumed would be more about how “not to be that guy”, but pleasantly surprised. I enjoy getting lost. It is like a treasure hunt every time. I always find something unexpected, usually nothing like I was original seeking, usually more valuable.

I enjoyed the comparison to colonial imperialism too. Thanks for the great post.


November 29, 2008 Rob Caldwell 16

Wow. Great post. I really like how you use the metaphors to describe how to get involved and be a part of social media. A simple but strong way to explain “how to”. :)


November 29, 2008 Richard Reeve 17

Your approach here very refreshing and I think you quite are helping to broaden the dialogue that tends to be either tech or marketing-centric. What’s of interest is the sense of being an anthropologist of one’s own activity. I recall reading an interesting book year’s ago by a sociologist titled “Blue Collar Aristocats” which examined the social mores in a bar. Thanks for helping me better understand what I’ve been reaching for and what I’ve been doing.


November 29, 2008 shannonpaul 18

@Ed – I think it’s important to focus on the business case even when they *do* really get it. The reality is most people don’t really get it, but I think the temptation to shrug off those who don’t is dangerous and counterproductive.

@Dan – I agree, as you know that’s one thing we sorely lack in the Detroit area — always glad to hear from a Wings fan. :-)

@TarotbyArwen @Robert @Marcel – Thanks for stopping by; I’m so glad you liked the post. :)

@Julie – I think you touched on something important. We’re taught that this kind of discovery and exploration is a waste of time… I hear things like, “isn’t there a class I can take, or a book I can read…?” all the time. And, while the answer is “yes,” there are *several* great books, workshops, classes and webinars, I don’t think you can learn about what it’s like inside a culture without learning, or friending someone on the inside. Please don’t feel guilty for taking the time to immerse yourself. Just please trust that it will all eventually pay off, because I promise you, it will.

@Lucretia – I’m thrilled that you like this post and I’ve been a long-time admirer of your work. I guess it’s about time I get around to commenting… I thought I touched on finding an expert in the third step,”Investigating,” but I might not have been as explicit as I should have. I was trying to cover a lot of territory. :-) Thanks for the insight!

@Iris @Amanda – Thanks for the comment, I really appreciate your reading the post and I’m glad you found something useful here.

@Rufus – If by “efficient” you mean *quickest*, you’re probably right. But, if you mean efficient as in sustainable and effective, web 2.0 is definitely the way to go. It’s not going to provide the fastest bang for your buck, but loyalty and relationships tend to provide exponential returns over the long haul.

@Mark @Gary Thanks for the positive feedback — I really appreciate that. :)

@Maire – I wish I could say that I wasn’t jealous that you were able to attend one of Margaret Mead’s last lectures. That must have been such a great experience! I also really love your closing line, “Interest (active listening) and participation shape the experience be it in Tokyo or on Twitter!” What a brilliant observation you’ve shared here. Thanks so much. :)

@Stacy – I’m really glad you found this helpful. I wish I could say it gets easier, but in my experience, the explanations and the challenges only get bigger. That’s why there are so many people who constantly try to re-examine this stuff from so many different angles.

@Tawny – I see what you mean about the noise thing, but I’m a person who realizes that I can be quite noisy sometimes (especially on Twitter). I carry on a lot of conversations that aren’t always relevant to a lot of people. I know other people don’t have to follow me if they’re looking for a certain kind of conversation and that’s okay. I can also tolerate a lot of noisy people talking to other people about things I don’t understand.

Other people can’t always do that for one reason or another. However, I think to get good at navigating social networks for marketing and PR purposes, it makes sense to cultivate a good mental filter. From what I know about you, I think you have a good one in place, but not everyone does.

@Rob I’m glad the metaphor was useful. I’m always on the lookout for good metaphors that help people grasp this stuff. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, I know.

@Richard – Thanks so much! I agree, it’s often beneficial to look outside your discipline for inspiration. I’m so glad you found the post helpful. Thanks for reaching out. :)


November 29, 2008 Gina Kay Landis 19

As a social media evangelist, I put on my soc/psy and faith hats and try to imagine how/when/why people actually want to connect. If it’s purely for business and no socialization whatsoever, then those folks don’t understand networking, never mind social media. If it’s purely for social reasons and business is eschewed, then there are some mediums more appropriate than others. If one is social, doesn’t mind interacting with business people and a pitch now and again, even, then there are venues for that as well.

Cultural immersion is key – there is a bit of different lingo in each venue, different unwritten social rules, and different levels of irritation people feel when someone enters the specific social media venue’s culture. I say specific because each product, if you will, has its own culture – the same as IM’s, chat rooms, and php BB’s had/have their own culture. And the same as bars, cocktail parties and audiences large or small have theirs.

Audiences – there are some people who lurk on social media (what was it I heard recently? There are 4+ lurkers for every active social media type?). So are they a part of the culture, or are they not, since they are not interacting? They are a part, by their very presence and very, very occasional comment or question.

As all cultures do, social media culture(s) will change. Adaptation is key or one could be left behind, forced by their own inaction or inability to meld to find another venue, or simply stop interacting.


November 29, 2008 frank 20

@Shannon … thanks for the insightful post. It really made me think beyond things that I normally hear out there when it comes to getting involved in social media.

I’ve heard all about listening … and all about being active in participating … and adding value … and … well … you get the point.

This particular statement is what made me think most … and, by chance, parallels my experience pretty well:

“Anthropologists go out into the field to study a particular group of people through what is referred to as cultural immersion.”

It’s SO important to immerse one self into the social media world to really understand it. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine or even co-workers that just don’t get it – even in the slightest :)

I also appreciated the concept of: “having a guide” …

Beyond listening (the 1st key to it all) having a guide make a ton of sense – I guess the trick is finding the right guide. When i 1st got on Twitter someone helped me out for a day … letting me know a few things about putting together my bio, personal info, avatar, ect …


November 29, 2008 kathryn 21

It all boils down to listening, and really engaging, to people – the real person – not what we want or expect but the real deal. Anthropology is a great context. I come from a Sociology background and find the whole experience of social media and what that entails to be so similar to many things I studied and the frameworks from which I did so.
This is great – thanks!


November 29, 2008 Barb Chamberlain 22

Great piece. I’d add paying attention to the scenery, and listening to the speech of those around you even when you don’t fully understand it.

I majored in linguistics, which has a heavy dose of anthropology, so I’m also fascinated by the emergency of specific dialects for the various social media spaces.

In the terminology of linguistics, we all have ideolects: specific speech patterns and jargon that we use with our various circles. You talk with your mother differently than you talk with your friend, with your boss or co-workers differently than with the members of your _________ (insert club/social group/faith orientation here).

I’m actually a bit concerned that tweetspeak is creeping unnecessarily into my other communication spaces, although I’m certainly one who benefits from enforced brevity :D.



November 29, 2008 Fayza 23

Seriously? That was a brilliant analogy. I am a huge advocate of boiling “social media” down to what it really is – people interacting with people in a new way, yet still being, for lack of a better way of describing it, people – and you’ve made it so deliciously digestible that I might print this and tack it to my cubicle wall. And of course, send it out to the entire company on Monday. I can’t wait to read it AGAIN!


November 30, 2008 Dan Thornton 24

Nice post – I started thinking about the anthropological angle after being inspired by the work of Michael Wesch – Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State, and responsible for some incredible videos on the anthropology of web 2.0, Youtube etc, such as the classic: The Machine is Us/ing Us which became hugely popular…


November 30, 2008 riceater 25

Interesting, this makes me want to take Anthro 101 next semester. The part about eating together is very true. People tend to be less guarded when they eat and really let their true selves come out, that’s when you can learn the most from people.


November 30, 2008 shannonpaul 26

@Gina – Thanks for your insight. You’re right to point out that each social network has its own unspoken rules of engagement just like different offline settings. I would even take that further to note that there are usually subgroups, or pockets of communities that are closely connected for a variety of reasons.

@frank – I think a lot of us had people who helped us get started in social networks — especially Twitter. I’ve helped a lot of other people get started with varying results. I’d be interested to know what your guide did to inspire you to become an active participant.

@kathryn I’m sure your sociology background is a great help to understanding all of this — and gives you a unique perspective. Thank you.

@Barb – Great point about the linguistics — I’ve noticed that people can be rather literal with their interpretation of things I’ve intended to be ironic or figurative. Very interesting — you’ve got me thinking…

@fayza – Thanks so much for the compliment! I’m glad the analogy works for you.

@Dan – Yes! That is a great video — I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me to share it here, but I’m glad you did. Thank you.

@riceater – Anthropology is fascinating — especially cultural anthropology. Enjoy!


November 30, 2008 Dave 27


Anthropology works to better explain the last man standing or (CBS Reality TV) Survivor mentality I run into.

I am not the best communicator so I am going to keep this short.

I have used many different ways to try to explain not only social media to others but my own use(s). For direction – water flow & roads worked well to give an overview of how people tap into the delivery of a message or the exchange of information. For my main intent, Cooperation – soup ingredients, because it is the mixture of many things (variety) to end up with the final result … a simple Onion Soup, or a little more complex Chicken & Vegetable.


November 30, 2008 Bryan Person 28

What a great list, Shannon, and thanks for including the Social Media Breakfast (SMB) series among suggested activities!

I agree that in-person events like the SMBs, tweetups, and unconferences like BarCamp and PodCamp are a great way for folks like traditional marketers to begin the “cultural immersion” process into social media/social networking. I’ve always found that people farther along the social networking continuum are more than willing — they’re quite eager, in fact — to share best practices and resources and make introductions to newcomers.

So if you’re for the immersion, come on out to an event and make sure to ask plenty of questions!

Bryan Person | @BryanPerson
Social Media Breakfast founder


November 30, 2008 David H. 29

Great piece, Shannon. And I thought I remembered you from Anthro 101 ;) See you at the cafe.


December 1, 2008 Erin Kreeger 30

Yep! I have been thinking of it as similar to cross-cultural prep for expat managers. Lots of cultural parallels as we’re creating new norms around things like relationship building, scheduling, who owns info etc. Fun stuff :)



December 5, 2008 Beth Harte 31

Hi Shannon, sorry to be late to the party here! This is an amazing post. I really love it…maybe because culture is one my “things” and mixing it with social media just makes it that much better! :)

This reminds me of what was drilled into my head in grad school (MS International Marketing)…we lived and breathed Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions ( in every class regardless of the topic. When cultural dimensions are learned and excepted, it makes it that much easier to be open-minded about new ways to do business once you’ve accepted that others might have a better way of doing it.

Culture and social media are definitely a new dimension.


December 10, 2008 Jenni Lewis 32

This is a great post!

People think that with new ideals and new technologies must come new tricks to the trade, but not so much. Just like you cater to a traditional journalists the way they want. You make sure you know their beat and their editorial calendar…and in some cases what their favorite restaurant is. You must do the same with influencers in the social media world.

It is interesting how you took the basics in understanding people and made it relevant for our profession.

P.S. I love your blog. ;-)


{ 6 trackbacks }

  • 'Cultural Immersion in 9 Steps For Social Media Tourists' | Perpetual Motion November 29, 2008
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