I was tinkering with some statistics last night, considering that strange idea of the Insularity of the Chinese Internet that we’ve been discussing lately. The expression itself is odd, because “internet” and “insularity” form an oxymoron, but you hardly notice these things when you live here. It’s normal routine in the land of socialist market economy.
Whatever we make of the phrase, the fact is that it comes up every time, whether we are speaking of language, media or politics, all seems to point in that direction. The pictures below are my attempt to draw a World Map of the Internet to illustrate this insularity, using the data from the site Internet World Stats.
Here is the first idea I had: I got the statistics of all countries with more than 10 Million internet users, that makes 32 in total, from China to Morocco. Then I did an Excel chart where each bubble has an area proportional to the internet users of the country, and crucially, I filled the bubbles with code from the Matrix. Result: the World Map of the Matrix:
The World Map of the Internet Matrix
One interesting thing in the map above is that Asia is already the largest internet area in the World. Amazing—but not really, after all, it has by far the largest population. And this is nothing compared to what is coming: with the growth of India and China the internet is going to be an Asian joint in the next few years. No hit will be really global on the net without them. Up to now, most people on the net were from developed countries, from now on the majority will be from developing ones. The close contact between our societies will have important consequences online and off. That is, supposing we really manage to connect.
But when we speak of the internet, it doesn’t make much sense to look at political boundaries. There is no such a thing as border controls online, what really unites or divides the peoples is culture. An in particular, the most important parameter is language: regardless of your national origin, what defines you as an user is the language you surf in. That is the reason why my browsing habits look more like this blogger’s than like anyone in my country: ESWN and I have completely different backgrounds, but we have in common our surfing languages.
So I looked up the statistics of the 10 most used languages on the internet, from English to Korean. This time I coloured the bubbles with flags, and I placed them roughly on the center of gravity of their community of speakers. The result is the map of Surfing Languages:
The World Map of the Surfing Languages
Still, the map is not great. Many of the speakers in the massive English bubble are actually Indians, Spanish should be both in America and in Europe, and Australia is completely out of the picture. Physical distance has no meaning on the net, even less than political boundaries. It becomes clear that geography is of little use for my purpose, so we might as well dump Gmaps and stick to the bubbles.
My new diagram looks like this, where all the major internet communities are represented together in a Cloud. We are all interconnected, and the only solid differentiator is language. Two people might share a hobby, like soccer , but they don’t go to the same websites if they surf in different languages. Most of the media and resources on the internet are not translated into other languages, but rather re-written and re-interpreted by native bloggers/journalists, who function as border control among the communities.
Improved World Map of the Internet: the Cloud
One of the things we see on the Cloud is that all the communities are touching each other. But I’m afraid this is not a very precise picture. Normally Russians don’t translate Japanese content, neither do Portuguese translate Arabic. The English language has a crucial role on the internet today, because in most cases it is through English that the rest of the languages communicate: Most content is translated first to English and from there to the other communities. The English bubble, including users from all over the World, is the Center of the Internet.
Another problem with the Cloud is that it shows all the communities equally interconnected, which is not very realistic. Users who speak European languages are much more likely to read English. The Spanish community, for example, includes many Americans who surf English sites as much as their own language. Actually, most of the language bubbles share a significant part of their pixels with the English bubble, so we can represent the Map as a sort of Venn diagram:
Second Iteration: the Venn Diagram Map
We see the new Map is very different from the previous one. Now there is a cluster of Western languages that share a lot of content with English, two more languages that share a bit, Russian and Arabic, and then the three languages that form the core of the Asian internet today: Chinese, Korean and Japanese. And you may have noticed that I have drawn Chinese at a distance from the rest.
For various reasons that we will see, Chinese don’t use Facebook, or Twitter, or Youtube, or MySpace, or eBay. They don’t read Boing Boing or the Huffington post, and they chat in their own QQ chatrooms. They rarely receive the viral emails that we receive, and instead they get others like this one. They have all the things that we have and some more, but they built them in parallel in their separate parcel of the internet.
Whereas the sizes of the bubbles above are based on quantitative data collected by a respected source, the positions are only decided by semi-informed feeling. Any reader could argue that China should not be so far right. There is Hong Kong, Chinese-Americans, even mainland Chinese who do surf in English. And I will be forced to admit that the Venn Map is flawed, because it fails to show this.
But in such a fast changing World like the Internet, position really means nothing. What holds today may be different tomorrow. What is really significant is the dynamics: which direction is China going, and how will the internet look in 10 years? Everybody agrees that China’s internet community is growing very fast, and that is natural. The worrying part is that it might also be moving away from the rest.
Third iteration: The Dynamic Map
Because in Western countries internet penetration is already very high and India is still lagging behind, in the next 10 years the Chinese internet will become almost as big as all the rest together. If it continues to diverge, it may grow into a parallel network, like a dark side of the moon, a vast, self-sufficient island that the government can cut out at any moment and most people inside it don’t even notice the difference. This defeats the whole idea of the www.
Whatever the real magnitude of the problem, it is clear to most observers that there is a disconnect between China and the rest of the Internet, and there are powerful forces pulling them further apart. Fortunately, there are also forces working to balance this, and the results in the coming years will very much depend on how those factors play against each other. Here is how my new map looks now:
The Forces of the Internet
As we saw before in this blog, some of the main factors that keep China separate from the World are the following, shown in red in the chart:
- Linguistic, as we saw in this post, where we proved that Chinese language is beautiful and unique in many ways, but it makes it very difficult for Chinese and foreigners to connect.
- Cultural, in the broad sense of the word, meaning that the communities have so different views and values that they cannot understand each other. This includes the problems with the Media.
- Political, the deliberate actions of the CCP in multiple forms, including Nannies, the Great Firewall of China (GFW) and directly arresting people, as we saw here.
And in green the main factors that go in the opposite direction. Here they are in detail, for the optimists to rejoice:
- The growing number of bridge bloggers and other internet uses that work to connect the two communities. These include not only the English language Chinablogs, but mainly Chinese people who translate foreign media and other content on the Chinese internet. From this humble blog I also did my bit against the GFW.
- The post 90s and 80s generations that already dominate the Chinese internet. Their personal tastes in arts, music or cinema will probably be more international, and push them to connect with the World. This point is object of debate though, and some Westerners are very skeptical of the post 80s.
- Business is one of most important factors that link China to the World. Since the construction of the EU, it is no secret that commerce can achieve the most ambitious goals in World Peace, so whatever your take is on those business minded Chinese, they are probably the main force that is still keeping the Chinese Island connected and holding the World Wide Web together.
What do you think? 你有什么想法？
Do you think I am exaggerating? Or is the problem even worse than this? Any factor I missed in the Internet Maps? Internet friends: you are the pixels inside the coloured bubbles, you know all about this World because it is your home: comment and help me improve my Map!