The Web's Global Problem

Big Thinking Internet Culture Politics Reading

Why, in our web-connected age, do we still exist in information silos defined by nationality and language?

This is, for me, probably the greatest disappointment of the Internet era. (Okay, the fact that I didn't get to keep my million dollars of dot-com stock was my biggest personal disappointment, but that's a different kind of disappointment). An incredible technological unity has been established all over the world -- from my office computer to Africa and Asia and South America and everywhere on this planet, we all speak HTML and Unicode and TCP-IP and HTTP. So why isn't there more global cultural interchange going on?

The image above shows (via Google Analytics, a great free service) unique visitors to Litkicks in the past month. I'm quite happy with my US numbers -- 21,000+ uniques, not too shabby for a quirky literary site that publishes four posts a week. I also do just fine in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia and several Western European countries. And then it comes: the big dropoff.

Maybe I should be glad that this site manages to pick up even the sparse handfuls of international visitors it gets. And I'm intrigued and a little mystified by the fact that I'm not fully blocked in China, and that I have more readers in Saudi Arabia (or, for that matter, Iran) than in all of Central Africa combined. But, overall, let's be honest: these numbers are awful.

It's not just me. As a professional web developer, I've had the opportunity to study the metrics of countless USA-based websites. Their international graphs all look like mine. We're widely read in English-speaking countries, but we barely manage to show up anywhere else.

As an Internet reader, I am also stuck in a silo that I don't know how to get out of. Every single website I follow via RSS originates in an English-speaking country. My attempts to "internationalize" my web surfing have failed comically. I enjoy reading foreign books, watching foreign films ... as far as eating goes, I am the consummate international (wait -- do Taco Bell and the Indian place down the street count?). But my online reading habits are pathetically monolithic. And, I hate to say it, but I bet yours are too.

Given the language barrier around the world, how can the Web's global problem be solved? Is it really a problem at all, or am I misguided to think it is? What non-English-based websites do you read (either in translated form or in any other way)? (Or, if you are one of my few readers from around the world, what brings you here, and what keeps others away?) I'd love to hear from some of you out there about this question. I can't be the only one who thinks our powerful new Internet capabilities ought to be doing a better job of breaking down barriers than they currently are. Maybe we can brainstorm some breakout scenarios together.

18 Responses to "The Web's Global Problem"

by Lena on

There is an obvious barrier to international reading on the web. Leaving aside the question of whether readers want to read English websites, if they don't read English they are out of luck.

by Levi on

True indeed, Lena ... sorry if I seemed to suggest that there was a simple answer here. Maybe it's the language problem itself I'm trying to address with this question. What can an individual webmaster like me do to combat the isolating nature of monolingualism? Should we just stay in our silos and shut up? Doesn't sound right to me.

Modern browsers (like Google chrome, my default browser) offer automatic translation services for web pages. They are very easy to use, but I don't think automatic translation is enough of an answer (and I hate to imagine how the words I work so hard to compose here must be mangled by software-based auto-translation). This is one way to address the problem, though.

Maybe my real point here isn't that I expect anyone to have a great solution to the problem -- I just want to know if others agree with me that this *is* a problem.

by C. Godot on

Not a problem. The Internet/Web was never about the faux-liberal idea of "globalism" where a bunch of shiny happy people all get along famously and speak the same language (what a hell that would be anyway). If anything, in both history and design, it's an advanced method of communication, the primary purpose and function of which is to allow more effective communication among people who already share some common goal or trait. The first intended use of both the Internet and the WWW were to allow scientists (a separate culture and language from the mainstream) to communicate with each other; historically, universities (another separate culture from mainstream) were interconnected before businesses and the general public. A side-effect of this is that its intent to be ephemeral also allows for communication across certain cultural boundaries - we're all here in the same room, so to speak, gathered into our groups, many of which overlap, and talking amongst ourselves. We don't all speak the same language - if we absolutely have to speak, we can find a human translator or pick our way through the output of a computer translation.

Your "silo" analogy is decidedly inappropriate: no one is walled up and isolated on the InterWeb, unless they choose to be (and then by definition they are no longer on the Internet/Web), and the lack of non-Americans visiting your site probably has more to do with "search engine optimization" than any linguistic barrier, especially since a large percentage of Europeans (1) speak English and (2) are interested in the Beats (assuming that's how a majority of your new visitors are attracted). That would be my guess, at any rate; until you actually create a survey and gather more data, this random sampling doesn't suggest much definitively.

by Levi Asher on

Godot, why would it be "hell" if everyone on earth spoke the same language?

I think it would be a terrible loss if all but one language were to become extinct, but that's not what you said -- you said it would be hell if everyone spoke the same language. I don't understand what you mean at all.

Considering that people who speak different languages have shown clear tendencies to demonize, oppress, attack and kill each other (all the while, of course, claiming cultural superiority to the "aliens" whose words they don't understand) ... I think it's quite reasonable to think that we'd have a less violent and more just world if we could all communicate with our global neighbors. Or is that too shiny/happy faux-liberal for you? What is your gripe against shiny/happy faux liberals anyway?

(Also, just for the record, people don't come to Litkicks just to read about the Beats -- I managed to slough off that tired identity years ago. By looking at incoming Google queries, I'm glad to see I have a wide variety of search engine hits. But, yeah, sadly, mostly from USA.)

Levi,

I think it's just a simple language issue. I rarely try to read sites in French or Japanese simply because it's difficult to do. The Google translation buttons that have those little national flag icons work incredibly well and have given my own site a much higher readership overseas. The translations are actually quite good as far as I can tell from examining the results for English to French.

Over the years, I have found that what actually gains the most readers in other countries is articles, stories or games that help people in those countries teach people there how to speak English. So you gain wider readership by actually fostering monolingualism! I cannot tell you how many messages I receive from teachers in China and India telling me how a particular story helped some students in a class learn English. It's amazing really. You just have to consider the simplest little things every once in a while to get the attention of language learners or teachers.

Perhaps you could try making a few of your fascinating literature location games somehow language-based. I bet that would get a few non-English speakers very interested.

by Dan on

I agree with Allesandro - most people in these countries don't speak English; that stops them immediately. I cannot gain anything from a website published in Icelandic or Urdu, no matter what. Second, and less important, are cultural differences. We just aren't always interested in the same things.

by C. Godot on

Godot, why would it be "hell" if everyone on earth spoke the same language?

If one language came to dominate, it would likely mean the death of several languages and along with those languages the loss of distinct cultures. A monolinguistic monoculture would be, in my opinion, hellish.

Considering that people who speak different languages have shown clear tendencies to demonize,

As if people speaking the same language don't show these clear tendencies.

I think it's quite reasonable to think that we'd have a less violent and more just world if we could all communicate with our global neighbors.

It would be reasonable if things like the American Civil war had never happened, or if people speaking the same language didn't slaughter each other every day.

What is your gripe against shiny/happy faux liberals anyway?

The faux part mainly. Truly happy and truly liberal people don't bother me one bit.

by judih on

Litkicks is one of the few sites that offers content that is not strictly geared to American borders. Many sites are culture-specific in that they abound with in-jokes and assume basic ground-based familiarity. (uh - try that sentence in google translate...)

As was mentioned, I use google translate all the time in my own country to access the basic gist of what's being said in a language in which i'm not proficient.

As a service, it's very sketchy, but still it offers huge freedom to go exploring.

Strange, that you've got no stats for Israel. There must be people who are clicking into the kicks.

by Alex on

One of the many reasons I am not Christian is the tower of Babel story from Genesis. If it is true I cannot think of a single act that caused so much bloodshed and misunderstanding. Boy would I be disappointed if God did it because he didn't feel like he was getting enough attention.

I am sure that language is the driving force behind your site's demographics. I would guess that content would be the next culprit. Aside from other factors, the countries beyond the United States you show well in seem to recognize the Western Canon. I think Latin America and Asia have a very defined and proud literary tradition. The sample size and my dependence on the bullshit method of information gathering make this speculation on my part.

You showed well in Italy. Politics aside, what a great country to claim as a patron.

I completely agree. I hope for the day when nation states will have broken down and people will no longer be defined by their nationality. Culture, fine. But being limited as to where I can go and how long I can stay there and having people look down on me for my passport--I don't like that.

by TKG on

Look at it this way -- you actually get a lot of interest from Iceland.

You had ~ 20,000 visits from the US, population 309 million and five visits from Iceland, population 320,000. If Iceland were as populous as the US that would be more than four thousand visits from Iceland.

Not bad.

by Levi Asher on

That's a great point, TKG -- thanks! I didn't think of it that way, but you're absolutely right.

Thanks also to those who mentioned the "learning English" angle. I have a feeling this is a topic worth further examination. Planting some seeds of thought on this one ...

Alex, I agree. The Babel story makes no sense if taken literally. If God didn't like that tower they were building, he could have simply let them continue. The whole project would have fizzled at some point. Even in modern times, a structure's height is limited by forces of nature. It would have toppled before it got anywhere near the end of Earth's atmosphere, and for that matter, we've already gone way past that. God might live inside us, but he doesn't have a heavenly space station.

Levi, it's because they can't understand what you're saying.

by Subterranean Soul on

If you want a more international audience you are going to have to open up for more languages to published here and have options for your site to be read in more than one language. I spend most of my time in Hong Kong and most sites are tri-lingual (English, Traditional & Simplified Chinese). In the States, for example, perhaps you could have a section for Spanish and hope that cross pollination occurs.

by Alex on

I don't agree. Having participated in forum debates which feature people from all over the world - the internet certainly does allow the exchange of ideas across borders.

The forum allows members to ask and answer questions over the internet so I have managed to get a Greek chap's perspective on the economic collapseover there and had Americans give different perspectives upon the new Health care plans. Their views did not always reflect the views given to us in newspapers and so they were valuable in getting an understanding of what was actually happening.

It is also possible to read newspapers published in other countries, again to garner a different perspective upon a news story.

There has to be a reason for people to share something in common - so you will find fans of Michael Moorcoock on the Moorcock Miscellany site (an excellent example) or trainspotters on a train spotting site. I think you are in danger of taking the opportunity to cheaply and easily communicate with people from from around the world for granted. I think it probably happens more often that you think, it's just that in many cases the nationality of the respondants is not always the most important factor, but the common issue whether it be Kerouac, trains or Lego.

by Mariano on

Hi there, I'm one of the 68 argentinians. What brings me here is 1) I love literature, and have a special fondness for northamerican and english literature and 2) I speak english.
What keeps others away? Well, first not many people know english (i'm a bit bad myself at it). And second, as regards this site, and what worries me most, not many people are into literature, least of all northamerican literature. Do you know how hard is to get a Thomas Pynchon book here? I only met one person who knew who Pynchon was besides me. Barth, Barthelme, Gaddis, Gass, almost unknown here. Philip Roth maybe gets a little press, and Paul Auster.
The masses are not interested in literature. Even less are the non-speaking-english masses interested in a site runned by a lover of the Beat Generation. They don't even know who the Beats are in most of the cases.

I know, I'm not a positive person as regards culture. Nonetheless, this is a great awesome site. So keep it up.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the responses, Mariano and everybody ...!

by Anzam on

I think what's important is that the globalization of culture you describe as being desirable is, indeed, already happening, but in different media than simply the written word. Translation often fails or is difficult. But fashion, music, film, and visual culture are able to cut across social divides. This is especially important becaus e these cultural elements are those which most often are used to define identity and membership in cultural groups, because they're, well, immediately visible. It is curious to consider whether values and ideas also "tag along" as secondary consequences of these first-impact media.

Of course, what the global hipster monoculture would *do* if it were united ideologically and linguistically is another, more amusing question.

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