When the World Wide Web first went online in the late 1980s, it spoke only one language: English. And it remained predominantly Anglophone for quite sometime. Even today English is still the most widely used language on the Web—both in terms of share of users and published content.
While it didn’t take long for others to hop on the Internet bandwagon, most of those who first did were consumers of “international” (meaning English) content. Thus, they integrated themselves quickly and effortlessly into the mainstream cyber-community.
More recently, however, the influx of non-English speaking users onto the Web has spurred a massive demand for localized content. In most cases, filling this need involved little more than an exercise in translation. But sometimes this phenomenon has led to the emergence of cultural cyberspheres, that is online social spheres that are not only distinct and separate from but also obscure (and sometimes invisible) to the Anglophone Web community.
What are Cyberspheres?
Cyberspheres are bounded social groups represented by networks of related websites. Each cybersphere is characteristically different from others, not only in terms of language but also in terms of culture, political ideology, and history.
Having shared history, culture, and political beliefs facilitates social integration online. Having these similarities allows people, who may speak different languages and come from geographically distant places, to appreciate the same ideas and, thus, share web content. This reduces the demand for localized material, allowing web content developers to leverage scale by using a ubiquitous linguistic medium (usually English) on their websites.
To illustrate this point, consider the fact that Filipinos, having been exposed to a fair bit of American culture as part of their colonial history, are rabid consumers of American web content. Those who share less in common with the Americans—the mainland Chinese, for example—are not.
Therefore, the more distinct a group of people is—whether linguistically, culturally, or politically—the more likely they are to constitute a distinct cultural cybersphere.
A Chinese Web by 2012?
While there may be hundreds of sufficiently distinctive groups of people demanding localized content, not every demand is met. Web content development is driven by numbers. This means the emergence of cultural cyber- spheres depends on the growth of its user population.
Thus, the number of cyberspheres that exist is limited. There are only close to 10 that exist, with the Anglophone mainstream leading the pack and the Sinosphere (i.e., the Chinese cybersphere) its quickly rising runner-up.
Now this should come as no big surprise. After all, the Chinese online population is now the second largest in the world. As of May 2008, approximately 16.6% of all Web users are Chinese-speakers, compared with 30.4% for English (#1) and 8.7% for Spanish (#3).
While the Chinese 16.6% may not seem large in absolute terms, growth in the number of online Chinese is greater than both English and Spanish combined. And the potential for future growth is massive, because only 17% of all Chinese-speakers are currently wired compared, for example, with the Spanish 27%.
If the current growth rates sustain, by 2012, Chinese will surpass English as the language of the World Wide Web!
Note, however, that this feat to become the predominant cybersphere on the World Wide Web, whiledriven by numbers, is not a mere numbers race.
Consider India, for example, which has a huge physical population. Despite this large base, there exists no Indian cybersphere because most aﬄuent Indians are comfortably Anglophone. Clearly, what goes into a formidable cybersphere is not so simple.
So, what makes the Sinosphere a formidable social force online?
First, the cohesiveness of the Sinosphere facilitates rapid internal information transfer. The Spanish cybersphere, for example, while large, is held together loosely by shared language. Its constituents are geographically disparate and culturally diverse.
In contrast, the Sinosphere possesses unmatched political and historical unity, since most of its members are citizens of a single country. So when pro-Tibet protests broke out earlier this year, Chinese netizens took to the online “streets” quite quickly, mobilizing via the Sinosphere not only an online force but one “on the ground” as well.
Second, despite its size, the Sinosphere remains quite exclusive. This produces asymmetry in the flow of information between cyberspheres. While the online Chinese can easily access Anglophone content and find out what the Americans, for example, are saying about China, online Americans can’t do likewise. This is because more Chinese understand English than vice versa.
These three elements—size, cohesiveness, exclusivity—together have made the Sinosphere the major contender for the No. 1 spot for cyberspheres online.
print ed: 07/08