Navigating the Unknown Risks Within the Content We Create and Consume
Kate Edwards/Geogrify LLC

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

When a cartographer builds a new map, they employ standard processes of selection, generalization, and symbolization while they are ever-cognizant that there are facts, variables and aspects of the representation that remain relatively unknown. This geographic uncertainty is not at all unlike the age-old notion of terra incognita (unknown territory) found on antique maps during the Age of Exploration, visibly noting where geographic knowledge was limited and where much uncertainty existed off the map edges. Certainly, the romance of such a historical connection was one strong appeal for my own study of cartography (besides also an ongoing love affair with J.R.R. Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth). But in today’s world where the physical geography has all been thoroughly mapped, remapped and digitized to incredible detail, the notion of terra incognita becomes less relevant and replaced perhaps by a more appropriate, broader concept of periculum incognita, or rather, unknown risks.

In the modern context of global business, product creation and community interaction across boundaries, the idea of periculum incognita is directly relevant as there certainly exist many unseen challenges and complications to globalization and culturalization practices. Many large-scale business risks have been well-identified and explained ad infinitum – such as economic conditions, local regulatory policies, market research on consumer preferences, and so forth. But the risks of which I’m particularly concerned are those emerging from the deep-level geopolitical and cultural aspects of a local market: the qualities of a culture that are highly meaningful to local consumers yet typically very difficult for an outsider to discern. Such subtle business risks often escalate in a direct relationship to the depth at which a local culture is offended by an issue. In other words, the greater the local consumer’s devotion to their deep cultural values and practices, the greater the potential for content to cause an unintended reaction (i.e., usually a negative response).

How does a content creator begin to map out the unknown risks of a local culture? While this space is insufficient to go into all the required detail, I can at least offer these three basic steps:

1. Be aware: Comprehension of the reality of geopolitical and cultural risks in content is often 50% of the challenge in starting to address them. The majority of professionals with whom I work are mostly unaware of the implications of their creative choices. And that makes sense – they’re focused on creation of great games, etc. and not worrying about how their vision impacts any particular group. And yet, their decisions can and will have repercussions on a cultural level so at least being mindful of the possibility can be empowering.

2. Be proactive: Many businesses realize, and my own experience with cultural issues confirms, that it is far less expensive and disruptive to find and resolve a potentially problematic content issue as early as possible during production than to deal with it far downstream. So stepping back from the creative process once in a while and asking the hard questions about potential cultural compatibility can save a tremendous about of time and money.

3. Be committed: Ultimately, the key to long-term success in managing the geopolitical and cultural issues is to make the commitment to invest in resources, training and processes that are necessary to stay aware and proactive.

Over the years, one comment I’ve often heard in response to my admonitions and advice about such culturalization issues goes something like this: “This geopolitical and cultural stuff is all very fascinating but it’s not very applicable to my creative work.” Well, when we consider the wide range of businesses, there are some that are clearly more susceptible to unknown geopolitical and cultural content risks. Content-intensive products and information services (such as games, movies, television, web sites, reference works, educational/training materials, marketing/PR materials) are especially vulnerable by their very nature, which includes heavy use of text, icons, clip art, maps, flags, photos, videos, and so forth. By this broad definition, virtually any content that must communicate to local customers carries potential risk.

If you still harbor doubts about the pervasiveness of these issues, consider how a single, specific geopolitical issue can impact such a diverse group of content and products in the following example.

Jammu and Kashmir

Jammu and Kashmir

Known to cartographers for decades as a very problematic issue, the region of Jammu and Kashmir in Central Asia has proven very complex for businesses which produce and/or deploy maps of the region as part of or in association with their products. Unknown to many companies that do business in India, the local government has regulations against the use of an “unapproved” map; i.e., if the region of Jammu and Kashmir is not represented wholly as an Indian state (which is the assertion of the Indian government’s geopolitical imagination), then government and consumer backlash are certain outcomes, such as the following examples:

News Media: CNN was accused of doctoring a web-based map to remove Jammu and Kashmir as Indian territory, which yielded much backlash from Indian customers. Fox News made a similar error in January of 2001.

Food Products: The Cadbury company produced advertising for their Temptations chocolate bar in India which compared the confection to the Kashmir dispute, complete with a map of Kashmir in their marketing that stated: “I’m good. I’m tempting. I’m too good to share. What am I? — Cadbury’s Temptations or Kashmir?”

Cadbury Ad

Cadbury Ad

Software: Microsoft first discovered this issue when a time zone control panel feature in the Windows 95 operating system was incorrect from the Indian perspective, resulting in a costly recall, fix and reissue of the software.

© Microsoft Corp.

Microsoft Error

Educational Toys: An educational toy globe with electronic features, the Quantum Leap Explorer Globe, mistakenly showed Jammu and Kashmir as an independent country distinct from India and Pakistan and resulted in public backlash within India.

Controversial Educational Toy

Controversial Educational Toy

If one considers that Jammu and Kashmir is but one of many, many possible geopolitical and cultural issues and that maps are just one type of content that could potentially hinder the intent of creative content in a locale, it becomes clear that no particular type of enterprise is truly immune from the effects of an unforeseen, potentially damaging content issue.

Proactive measures can be taken to avert a loss of revenue and perhaps worse, a loss of public image, if the creative forces involved are committed to take proper steps and make minimal investments in being mindful of this dynamic. With even a modest amount of awareness around the potential risks, coupled with a desire to strive to deliver positive experiences for local consumers, it’s entirely possible to maintain one’s core creative vision while thinking more geostrategically. And in turn, you just might take some of the incognita out of the periculum.

Image Credits:
1. Jammu and Kashmir
2. Jammu and Kashmir
3. Cadbury Ad
4. Microsoft Error: (author’s screen grab)
5. Controversial Educational Toy

Please feel free to comment.

The Death of Context
Kate Edwards / Geogrify

High-context culture vs. low-context culture

As content creators and/or co-creators working alongside the principal writers, artists and project managers, we are keenly aware of the importance of context when generating content that will be consumed on a global basis. I think especially in the cases of localization and culturalization professionals, context is so critically important to our work because so much depends on conveying the right information across linguistic and cultural barriers. Without all the proper contextual cues and metadata, our jobs become extremely challenging – if not even impossible in some cases.

Many experts have long-discussed the nature of context, especially from a cultural perspective and probably most notable among them is Dr. Edward Hall and his concepts of high and low context (see diagram). This refers to the differences in cultures based on communication styles, so that high context cultures require a lot of local linguistic cues that help frame the message. By contrast, in low context cultures, messages can be communicated without as many cues, thus the message has the potential for greater understanding outside its original locale/culture. This brief video (from Tero Trainers) provides a good explanation of the core differences between high-context and low-context cultures.

Dr. Hall’s framework helps us understand some of the fundamental differences in how messages are perceived across a variety of cultures. Most people who work in the content industries have some awareness of cultural cause and effect, realizing that an action made in one context can lead to either positive or negative reactions in another context. Some of these reactions are quite predictable while others may seem completely irrational. The way that a local consumer will react to the content has much to do with the context in which they personally exist, such as their faith, their ethnicity, their language, their location, and so forth. Also consider the other contexts in which the consumer operates – their social connections, their economic status, their educational background, the political environment, and so on. Thus, there are a lot of underlying reasons for why people in a specific culture react to certain content in one way or another, so it’s important to avoid making knee-jerk assumptions about how people respond.

In a simplified way, we can look at any specific culture as a combined set of “content assets” that clearly define the look, feel, sound, taste and general nature of the culture. Along with those assets come expectations for what will or will not fit within the norms of that culture. If we think about culture in this way, it’s easier to perceive how the content assets of an information product might conflict with the content expectations for what fits within a specific culture. Therefore, if the product contains a piece of content that doesn’t fit with the culture’s expectations or is noticeable enough to shock the consumer out of product’s intended focus (e.g., a word processor, a spreadsheet, a video game, etc.), then a potential problem may arise.

Culturalization is essentially an exercise in constantly evaluating the potential viability of a product in a target locale on the basis of contextual appropriateness, towards the goal of identifying potential risks and opportunities for a specific market. This applies not only to the context within the product, web page, etc. but also the context within the culture into which the product is being distributed. And part of that evaluation is the always-critical issue of discoverability, i.e., how easy is it for the information consumer to find the content element? Mostly typically, the biggest geopolitical and cultural mistakes occur when content intended for specific contextual audience (a language, culture, locale, etc.) is exposed to an unintended audience.

Over time, I’ve expected the unintended audience proportion to slowly decrease, as more people become digital natives and (assumedly) understand the nature of the context of the information with which they’re interacting. However, what’s been interesting in recent years has been two emerging trends among content consumers: 1) the cross-cultural, global appropriation of strongly local contextual issues, and 2) an apparent diminished ability (or desire?) to discern contextual cues and origins.

On the first point, much has been written and studied on appropriation as it relates to cultural anthropology and the transfer of pieces of culture from one to another. It’s been the case for the course of human history, and we’re only seeing it greatly accelerate now due to the hyper-compressed space and time distances, enabled by the ever-growing connectivity of individuals to the internet. While we see more and more people and cultures empowered by internet access, we see more previously local contextual cues either purposefully or accidentally adopted by others across a wide range of locales, and suddenly a once-obscure name, gesture, expression, etc. becomes the latest internet meme.

In regard to the second point about an inability to critically examine context, more content professionals have been reporting similar observations with the communities in which they work. In short, with the vast increase in global connectivity and information consumption, there seems to be growing knee-jerk response to anything that may even remotely be considered “offensive.” One potential cause is the stripping away of contextual cues and metadata around a piece of content, so that we experience an avalanche of online content without context – without which it’s almost impossible to perceive the original intent, which is a critical aspect of any communication.

Here’s a simple case in point. One example I often use in lectures involves two images: a human hand in an open palm gesture, and the other is the Nazi-style swastika as seen during World War II – both as seen below. The Greek “mountza” gesture is locally considered to be as offensive as flipping the middle finger in the U.S. I introduce these images by asking the audience: “Both of these are very negative symbols, but which one is more context-independent?” The juxtaposition of these images is meant to emphasize that context is critical to meaning. In this case, both images are offensive but the mountza requires more cultural context to obtain its specific meaning (i.e., high-context) while this particular swastika is self-explanatory (i.e., low-context); it’s an image that is so universally identifiable that regardless of the cultural context, it will likely be recognized.

Greek mountza vs. swastika

Despite using this example for educational purposes, I’ve heard increasingly more people express concerns that using a swastika in any context, even a Buddhist swastika (such as the Japanese manji symbol), is intolerable. This feedback has arisen particularly from younger consumers and students, which makes me ponder if there’s a connection with digital natives and their typically voracious social media consumption and in turn, an implicit familiarity with perceiving content without context.

As we’ve seen in recent years, social media has the ability to completely negate context and foment emotions purely based on what one sees in a punctuated moment without considering the metadata around why the content is being displayed. Indeed, exploiting this core dynamic of social media – the emotional knee-jerk – is at the center of current allegations around Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, as well as information warfare in other countries.

While I realize this may make me sound like an old veteran ranting about a disruptive youth culture, that’s not the intent. As someone who’s entire career has been built around discerning and analyzing the context of information, I have growing concerns that when we lose our ability to understand and appreciate the context of the information we consume, we lose our ability to learn, to seek wisdom, and to gain perspective from other people, times, and cultures. All of these are fundamental aspects to how we as human beings and as a society build upon and advance our collective knowledge and progress.

The next time you see something in social media or elsewhere that triggers that immediate, knee-jerk rage based purely on what you’re perceiving, take a moment to step back and try to discern the intent and context around that content before taking a course of action.

Image Credits:

1. High-context culture vs. low-context culture.
2. Greek mountza vs. swastika.

Please feel free to comment.

How Adapting Content to Cultural Expectations Intersects with the Practice of Censorship
Kate Edwards / Geogrify


Censorship is a contentious political issue.

“Censorship” – it’s considered such a strong, polarizing word in the English language and particularly in the United States where the concept of “freedom of speech” is one of the highest held principles and enshrined in the nation’s Constitution. Censorship is typically defined as the suppression of information which could be perceived as offensive, sensitive, politically incorrect or potentially harmful. This determination is most often made by the institutions that govern a particular locale, such as governments, media, and other local institutions such as the faith system and/or citizens’ groups.

Most of us clearly understand the notion of censorship and would likely all agree that it’s an unwelcome part of any society, especially in today’s plethora of virtual spaces where the flow of information is not only expected but is being perceived as a fundamental human right. Yet over the course of history, institutions have long wielded their power to censor – which essentially means to suppress, alter or enhance information in ways meant to protect the institution’s existence and/or continue to reinforce a particular reality or worldview that is considered most beneficial to the populace.

Censorship usually implies intention, in that certain pieces of information are being enhanced or suppressed for a specific purpose. Whereas propaganda is focused on emphasizing a specific message in order to influence opinion in a desired direction, censorship is almost the opposite: removing a specific piece of content to avoid influencing perception in a certain negative direction.

Cultures have leveraged both censorship and propaganda in their own ways and for various reasons throughout their histories. But one key factor we need to recognize is the difference between censorship and cultural expectations. Censorship most often does connote negativity in purpose but the adaptation of content to cultural expectations can occur for many reasons, some of which may seem like censorship or even propaganda when in fact it’s serving what we construe to be the majority opinion about a fact in a specific locale.

When the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication complained about the PC-based game Age of Empires and its version of history, and requested a change in order to allow the game to be distributed, was this censorship or just meeting cultural expectation? In the game, the Choson Empire on the Korean peninsula had to fend off the invading Yamato forces from Japan and were overwhelmed, which is essentially what the historical record tells us. The South Korean government strongly disagreed with this “interpretation” of their history, claiming that the Choson people were never overpowered to the degree shown in the game. As a result, a special patch for the South Korean version had to be created that changed history for South Korean players to the degree that the Choson Empire invaded the Yamatos in southern Japan.

Age of Empires

The invasion of the Choson Empire by Yamatos in Age of Empires.

For most forms of popular media, governments now maintain some form of ratings board to flag issues that they feel might be particularly problematic along specific categories. Most typically this means reviewing content for the “big three”: sex, violence and profanity, but the cultural sensitivity to each of these areas varies widely from locale to locale. For example, South Korea’s Game Ratings Board (GRB) didn’t exist when the Age of Empires issue occurred but today it’s known to be particularly attuned to the “big three” as well as any political and cultural nuances that may portray South Korea in a negative light. In the U.S., there’s the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB), and for Germany the Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK), the Pan European Game Information (PEGI) system for Europe, and the Video Standards Council (VSC) in the U.K. – just to name a few. For film, there’s a wide variety of ratings bodies, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in the U.S. and the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the U.K.

ESRB Ratings

The ratings assigned to games in the U.S. by the ESRB.

Some would argue that the role of these bodies is to effectively act as censors, working to extract content from creative works that may be deemed harmful or sensitive to consumers and/or otherwise negatively reflect the local culture (such as the use of blatant cultural stereotypes). From the viewpoint of the ratings boards, it’s a matter of tailoring content to local expectation. However, it’s critical to highlight the fine line between careful tailoring and blatant suppression. Culturalization is focused on preserving the core intent of creative content and simply ensuring it’s compatible with local customs and expectations. Censorship takes another turn towards an active suppression of facts that may remain relevant to a culture but for various reasons, the central authority may want to ignore those facts for their own purposes.

One of the more controversial examples has been the ongoing tendency of the Japanese government to rewrite their history textbooks to modify certain aspects of their imperialistic past, particularly as related to World War II. In Japan, textbooks go through a rigorous process of review by the Ministry of Education to ensure that it meets specific standards and guidelines. In recent years, the government has faced increased criticism around their supposedly objective review process, wherein textbooks which negatively portray Imperial Japan and its aggression during World War II are rejected, partially under pressure from the more conservative government. In 2000, a group of right-wing scholars produced the “New History Textbook” which put a positive spin on Imperial Japan’s actions and drew considerable backlash from inside Japan and beyond. In June 2007, over 100,000 people protested in Okinawa after the Ministry of Education suggested that the Japanese military’s role in forced suicides in 1945 on Okinawa be deemphasized for the history books. And the controversies around revisionist history in Japan have persisted since. This type of revisionist move by Japan evokes calls of censorship as well as generates backlash not only from Japanese citizens who desire a truthful rendition of history but also from countries that were affected by Imperial Japan’s actions, most notably China and South Korea.


Newsweek cover story on Japan’s revisionist history.

Is the historical revision of Japan’s role in World War II a case of cultural tailoring or blatant censorship? Based on the reactions even within Japan, it could be concluded as a clear case of factual suppression. This then calls attention to the issue of how one gauges “majority” opinion and what constitutes a case of censorship. In most of the cases I’ve ever dealt with in creative content, it was an issue of very specific, surgical tailoring to ensure that a single content element doesn’t set off a wave of local backlash. And in most of these cases, it was related to deeper cultural sensitivities such as religious faith, ethnicity and cultural stereotyping.

However, some types of content lend themselves quite easily to censorship, mainly because they are so closely tied to government messaging and/or perception of government control. Probably the best example of this would be the use of maps in information products. Sometimes the map must be tailored to meet the widely-accepted local expectations, but more often the maps are revised for local consumption due to a government’s strict policy on how their territory must be displayed. If you ship a product to India that doesn’t show all of the disputed Kashmir region as Indian territory, it will be censored. If you ship a map to China that doesn’t show Taiwan as part of greater China, it will be quickly censored. Part of the impetus depends on how tightly the government desires to control the message of the content, and with the visual nature of maps and the government’s desire to reinforce their perception of territorial sovereignty (what I call their “geopolitical imagination”), blatant suppression is the only way they see to limiting exposure to an alternative viewpoint.


Depictions of Kashmir region in Google Maps.

For those of us who create content, and especially those responsible for global distribution, we need to remain very cognizant of our decision-making and strategy – whether we are carefully tailoring to positively meet expectations or if we are serving the cause of local censorship because of government restrictions. This is a core dilemma for many multinational businesses; at which point will a business decide to not cross a line, effectively the “moral compass” of the company? There is no easy answer to this question and it varies from company to company.

Image Credits:
1. Censorship is a contentious political issue.
2. The invasion of the Choson Empire by Yamatos in Age of Empires. (author’s screen grab)
3. The ratings assigned to games in the U.S. by the ESRB.
4. Newsweek cover story on Japan’s revisionist history.
5. Depictions of Kashmir region in Google Maps. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.