The year 2013 marked the twentieth that W3 Internet server technology has been freely available to the public.  Fittingly, I know that thanks to my Facebook news feed.
That this technology enables the efficient transmission of an increasingly rich web of information might be deemed nothing short of miraculous, but has our behavior caught up to its possibilities? Are we, as one meme so aptly expresses, using our ability to access the knowledge of humanity at our fingertips simply to argue with strangers and watch cat videos? We could be taking advantage of the Web to erect a marketplace of ideas on a scale that would make John Stuart Mill dance in his grave, but are we actually taking the time to avail ourselves of the gold inside this global treasure chest?
Whatever we might be using the Internet for, a lot of us are using it, and we’re certainly using it a lot. According to statistics published by the International Telecommunications Union and Royal Pingdom.com, in the last year the world had 2.7 billion Internet users, or 750 million households (41% of the world)  looking at about 630 million web sites. The number of Tumblr blogs reached nearly 90 million, and our old friend WordPress claimed almost 60 million sites worldwide. Reddit had 37 billion pageviews last year—that’s more than five pageviews per member of this planet—and Facebook supported about 5 petabytes—yeah, that’s a prefix we haven’t heard much of yet—of photo content a month and 2 billion “Likes” per day. This wealth of constantly updated information is hardly limited to the English-speaking world. The most active country on Facebook is reportedly Brazil, with more than 85,000 monthly posts-by-page, and Sina Weibo, mainland China’s Twitter mimic, saw a rate of more than 720,000 posts a minute during the transition from 2012 to 2013 .
With all that content and activity, we must certainly be learning from each other, right? Not necessarily. In fact, the Internet’s expansive educational landscape continues to be rent by linguistic, cultural, and political barriers that prevent the free flow of information in the directions we need it most. Even if we limit our discussion to the 35% of the world’s population estimated to use the Internet as of 2011 , a limitation that is itself admittedly problematic because a lot of culture—traditions, values, linguistic habits–is locked up in groups that may not have access to the Web, we can’t earnestly assert that the Internet is the orgy of promiscuously conjugating memes that we might hope it to be.
For one thing, not everyone uses, or is able to use, the Internet in the same language. According to Web Technology Surveys, as of today (October 19, 2014), just over half of the content available online is in English, with the rest split up among infinitesimally small pockets of various other tongues, from the far second German (6.1%) to the last-place tie among Hebrew, Lithuanian, Croatian, Ukrainian, Bokmal, Serbian, Slovenian, and Catalan (0.1%), in addition to more than a hundred other languages that make up even less . While English is widely hailed as the international language of business, science, and politics—as physicist Michio Kaku once put it, a step toward a “Level I civilization language,” —and a mostly-English Internet might thus be a step in the right direction, two facts stand in the way of a truly global Web.
First, that only about half of the Internet is rendered in this international language means that the other half is sectioned among (largely) mutually unvisitable linguistic islands of information exchange within smaller cultural groups. Of course, if I really wanted to see what was happening on islands to which foreign language experiences offer no bridge I could just hop on a machine-translation plane, but the view from the window isn’t always so clear, and securing a ticket requires an extra decision and some time, activation energy that becomes even higher in spaces of continuous two-way exchange, as in forum discussions.
Second, the first fact would not be such a big problem if every user of the other languages could also freely browse English sites and exchange ideas there (even if English speakers were unable to hop over to the other linguistic islands, emissaries from them would be sufficient for two-way information exchange), but not everyone can understand the language to the degree required for efficient high-level information processing and expression. According to 2000 estimates from the British Council, in 2010 about 2 billion people were learning English as a foreign language in addition to the world’s 400 million or so native speakers  , but “learning English” is far from equivalent to “able to use educated high-level English to proficiently understand and express complex thoughts.” Indeed, according to a 2012 study in business English proficiency by English First, the average score among twenty-one countries with non-native English-speaking populations was only about 54/100 (though I, too, wonder what the United States might have scored). I don’t know about you, but in my family a 54% test grade was nothing to boast about in a public statistics database, so knowing that, for example, Egypt’s BEI index came out to 45.92 sort of puts its reported 80,000,000 strong “English-speaking population” in a new light in deciding how influential a website like NYTimes Online might be in fostering dialogue among its citizens .
In addition to the more obvious language difficulties, the Internet is also divided by social and cultural barriers that affect our proclivity for certain types of websites. The influences of these factors, which are still often drawn along linguistic, geographic, and/or ethnic lines, are perhaps most readily apparent in the social networks that we choose to use. While Facebook, the largest social networking site in the world, was poised to achieve a billion users in 2013, its international penetration rates are uneven, from 50% in its nation of origin the United States and 52% geographically and culturally proximate Canada . Penetration statistics similarly hover around 50% for Anglophone and Northern Europe: England, Ireland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark. Australia and southern South America—Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile have also jumped onto the Facebook bandwagon with numbers similar to the country of its founder, and, as already mentioned, Brazil allegedly sees the most page posting activity.
But the story changes when we step a bit outside of the Anglo-American culture zone. Russia, for example, has a Facebook use rate of only 5%, while 78% of Russians have profiles on local SNS Vkontakte . But how many Kenyans, Canadians, or French people have even heard of Vkontakte, let alone use it to engage in cultural exchange with Russians? Similarly, Korean and Japanese users still seem to prefer Cyworld (30%)  and Mixi (21 million active users or about 16% in 2011) , respectively, to Facebook (17.06% in Korea, 11% in Japan), two closed systems traditionally difficult for non-residents of those countries to access. And even nations where English is an official language, like South Africa (11%) and India (5%), factors other than language differences are presumably keeping people from connecting with others through the most international SNS currently available to us.
Even though these figures seem to be spiraling in the right direction as the growth of Facebook in countries like Japan is finally starting to engender user numbers surpassing home-grown giants like Mixi and formerly closed local social networks services like Cyworld have started to offering global services in a desperate effort to stave off the looming Facebook storm , the fact remains that even when language might not be an issue—Facebook offers interfaces in thirty-seven different languages—we still tend to separate ourselves online into different social groups along lines that seem to have some degree of correlation with culture.
Of course, there do exist some exceptions to this rule, thanks to a few online communities built by enterprising individuals working hard to purposefully increase inter-cultural virtual contact across the world. For example, CultureMesh.com seeks to establish geographically diffuse social networks based explicitly around particular linguistic and cultural interests, but unlike those grown organically around local platforms like Vkontake or Cyworld, these networks are open and accessible to anyone interested in joining. And our own website, of course, is a growing hodgepodge of discussions on cultural issues addressed by people displaced all over the world. We can only hope that more online communities shy away from strictly local comfort zones and join this trend of explicit cultural mixing.
Finally, not only are we continuing to naturally divide our online communities along linguistic and cultural lines, but we are also even actively erecting our own geographic and political barriers around them. Politically based firewalls cutting down the content available to people in China, Iran, and North Korea notwithstanding, even countries in the so-called free world erect firewalls justified by copyright laws that prevent the international dissemination of certain multimedia content. I can’t sit down to enjoy a free streaming of The Big Bang Theory on a number of websites unless the servers think I’m in America; similarly, in order to watch a Mandarin-dubbed Korean drama or download music from locations indexed in Baidu I need to first log onto a mainland Chinese proxy server. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we turn the Internet into an intellectual property free-for-all, but for the sake of argument (and evidentiary triads of data), it’s interesting to note how these actions suggest our greater valuation of economic and political gain than, perhaps, free exchange and intellectual advancement as a species. As also argued by economist Pankaj Ghemawhat for slightly different reasons than those which I have presented here , the world is not quite as flat as book titles by Thomas Friedman may suggest, and an Internet sectioned across geographic, linguistic, and cultural barriers is part and parcel of this phenomenon.
So maybe we’re not using the Internet to pick each other’s brains as freely as we should be. But maybe that’s because we don’t need to. We’re already saturated with too much data, right? Why should we add novel ideas from and experiences with other cultures to the mix, especially given that they’re very probably even harder to relate to and assimilate than the homegrown information deluge in which we’re already drowning? Stay tuned for Part II, on why we should be even be worried that we’re not engaging in as much cultural exchange as we could be.
桑凯丽 is a graduate student in Seoul researching the relationship between traumatic brain injury and addiction and exploring possible evidence-based applications of traditional Korean medicine to the treatment of affective disorders. She believes that a thorough understanding of the brain requires as much knowledge of culture as a thorough understanding of culture requires of the brain.
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