A normalized map of e-mail density between countries, where closer proximity indicates more e-mail. The colors correspond to Huntington's "civilizations." (Bogdan State et al)

The Internet was supposed to let us bridge continents and cultures like never before. But after analyzing more than 10 million e-mails from Yahoo! mail, a team of computer researchers noticed an interesting phenomenon: E-mails tend to flow much more frequently between countries with certain economic and cultural similarities.

Among the factors that matter are GDP, trade, language, non-Commonwealth colonial relations, and a couple of academic-sounding cultural metrics, like power-distance, individualism, masculinity and uncertainty. (More on those later.)

The findings were released in a paper titled "The Mesh of Civilizations and International Email Flows," written by researchers at Stanford, Cornell, Yahoo! and Qatar's Computational Research Institute.

Predictably, countries with measurable real-life ties -- like a border, a number of international flights or a serious trade relationship -- tend to e-mail more. But there are discrepancies, as well: Countries in the European Economic Area, for instance, e-mail far less than the research model predicted, and countries with colonial ties to the U.K. don't e-mail any more as a result.

Some of those anomalies could be attributed to cultural differences. The researchers analyzed culture using the "Hofstede measures," a set of attributes devised during a study of international IBM employees in the 1980s. Countries with similar levels of masculinity (distinct gender roles) and uncertainty avoidance (society-wide intolerance to uncertain situations) e-mailed more, the study found. Oddly, countries with similar levels of individualism e-mailed less.

If you zoom in, you'll notice the United States, for instance, falls closest to Israel, Switzerland and Italy. China logically falls closer to Japan and Thailand.

To this point, of course, the study amounts to little more than very interesting trivia. The real conclusion comes toward the end, when the researchers posit it as possible evidence for Samuel Huntington's controversial "Clash of Civilizations" theory. From the paper:

In this respect we cautiously assign a level of validity to Huntington’s contentions, with a few caveats. The first issue was already mentioned - overlap between civilizations and other factors contributing to countries’ level of association. Huntington’s thesis is clearly reflected in the graph presented in Figure 3, but some of these civilizational clusters are found to be explained by other factors in Table 5. The second limitation concerns the fact that we investigated a communication network. There is no necessary “clash” between countries that do not communicate, and Huntington’s thesis was concerned primarily with ethnic conflict.


Indeed, the validity of Huntington’s ideas with respect to ethnic conflict has come into controversy, and we limit ourselves to showing the validity – at least partial – of this division for communication networks.

"Come into controversy" seems like an understatement for Huntington's thesis, which argued that future global conflicts would be fought along cultural and religious lines between a set of eight civilizations he defined. A Post writer once called it "the most dangerous idea of our time"; elsewhere, scholars like Edward Said and Noam Chomsky have gone to lengths to shoot it down.

Don't jump to any conclusions, though -- even the authors aren't willing to assign their findings more significance quite yet.

"We consider these findings interesting puzzles," the paper says, for which "the advancement of an explanation is premature."