Skip main navigation

The online vs offline narrative

Can we really learn what people think by observing their actions online? In this article, we explore the limitations of this approach.
A hooded man in a Guy Fawkes mask, sits on a disused metal pipe, with one foot resting on his other knee, casually reading a flaming newspaper.
© Photo by Ashutosh Sonwani on Pexels

The narrative online is not the same as offline. This gets proven time and time again when generalised expectations don’t live up to reality.

When people enter the ballot box, you don’t know their vote, no matter what they say in private.

When people laugh along at certain jokes, you don’t know if they’re laughing because they find it funny or want to be liked.

Internet-based companies purposely segregate people into social groups to better target them with advertising.

Multiple studies either confirm or deny the existence of ‘filter bubbles’, and there’s no general consensus on the causative factors that result in partisan beliefs. [1] [2] [3]

There is currently no concrete way of grasping a concise understanding of generalised viewpoints within whole societies. There is absolutely no way for individuals to achieve this.

This extends to moral and ethical classifications and justifications.

We can only contextualise other people’s opinions on appropriation through our personal understanding, gained through physical and digital networks. How then can we be sure that understanding represents reality?

Without deep reflection, how can we be sure that the beliefs we express even align with those we hold?

We can’t compare our views to society at large because we can’t know them.

We can gain a greater understanding of cultural appropriation through our personal ethical framework.

To do that, we need to separate our culturally gained beliefs from an evidence-based understanding.

When we make a statement of belief about cultural appropriation, we should question the source of that belief.

  • ‘Why do I believe this?’
  • ‘What informed my opinion?’
  • ‘What informed the things that have informed my opinion?’

This is not only relevant to those who don’t believe in cultural appropriation. It pertains to absolutely everyone. If you cannot justify your arguments, why should anyone accept them?

When we look at cultural appropriation through this evidence-based lens, it’s hard to deny:

a. Its existence
b. Its negative effects on social cohesion
c. Its negative effect on creative output

It is also difficult to support:

a. Its necessity
b. Its ethical neutrality
c. Its promotion of cultural diffusion

It doesn’t matter if you think cultural appropriation is nonsense, an insidious injustice or something else. We can achieve great things when we open up the conversation online and offline, with nonpartisan intent.

If we approach a debate in good faith, we’ll better understand everyone’s viewpoint and fully develop our own.


Kearney, M., 2019. Analyzing change in network polarization. New Media & Society, [online] 21(6), pp.1380-1402. Available at: SagePub

Kitchens, B., Johnson, S. and Gray, P., 2020. Understanding Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: The Impact of Social Media on Diversification and Partisan Shifts in News Consumption. MIS Quarterly, [online] 44(4), pp.1619-1649. Available at: MIS Quarterly

Marozzo, F. and Bessi, A., 2017. Analyzing polarization of social media users and news sites during political campaigns. Social Network Analysis and Mining, [online] 8(1). Available at: Social Network Analysis and Mining

This article is from the free online

Cultural Appropriation vs Cultural Appreciation

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now