Reimagining the Internet as a mosaic of regional cultures

Angela Xiao Wu, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Harsh Taneja, University of Missouri-Columbia

Most online maps of the Internet are architectural plans, engineering blueprints, anatomical drawings or statistical graphics. For example, the Internet has been represented as millions of devices connected to each other by 300 “[c]ables lying on the seafloor” with its center in a huge hotel in Manhattan.

The Internet can also be viewed as a network of hyperlinks between world languages used to produce online content or represented through Wikipedia as a map of human knowledge.

Yet we learn from historians of cartography that maps reflect the preexisting interests, desires and preconceptions of the society from which they emerge. The same goes with how the vast virtual territory is mapped.

Consistent with the rhetoric emphasizing technical connectivity led by US-based transnational corporations, the prevalent maps of the Internet privilege technical features – such as hyperlinks, content of Web pages, Internet infrastructures and service providers. In these maps, the Web tends to center on the West with the rest of the world at its “peripheries.” These, together with other representations of the global digital divide, highlight the dominance of the West.

Such views limit the public’s ability to envision the Internet as a globally inhabited cyberspace.

We mapped usage of the Internet, as distinct from its technical features. Viewed this way, the Internet is much less West-centric, and rapidly diversifying as the world’s populations engage with it in their own ways.

Mapping global Internet usage

Actual traffic patterns on the Internet differ from its technical architecture. Reimagining the Internet according to global usage, our research reveals a fairly decentralized Web with significant participation from the global South. Our mapping makes visible, on an unprecedented scale, aspects of Internet use that remain “largely invisible” when “viewed from the perspective of network centers.”

We analyzed traffic to the world’s most popular 1,000 websites – which consistently account for 99 percent of global Web traffic – during the month of September in 2009, 2011 and 2013, respectively. These data come from comScore, a world leader in Web audience measurement.

For each of the possible pairs of those 1,000 websites – more than half a million pairs in total – we looked at the traffic shared by its two constituent websites. For example, for the pair comprising The New York Times and Google USA, we looked at how many people visited both sites.

We viewed website pairs as connected if they had traffic overlaps greater than would be expected by random chance, as with the Times-Google pair above, or the pair comprising the Times of India and Google India. Examined in this way, pairs of websites serving users from different cultural backgrounds – such as the Times of India and Yahoo Japan – tend not to be connected.

The Internet as Global Usage: 2009 (left), 2011, 2013 (right).
The dots are websites and the lines represent the existence of significant traffic overlap between them. These show that global Web usage clusters itself into many communities of websites based on shared traffic. What the member websites of these clusters have in common with each other allows us to identify them as expressions of online regional cultures (see legend).

Analyzing online regional cultures

Mapping sites based on how much traffic they share with each other revealed interconnected clusters or communities of shared Web use. These corresponded well with major geo-linguistic regions, and we called them “online regional cultures.“ In addition, there are a few online cultures that span geographic regions; they tend to include either user-generated or adult content.

To conduct our analysis, we borrow the anthropological concept of ethnology, a scholarly tradition that characterizes relationships between cultures based on common traits in beliefs, emotions or practices. To examine these regional cultures comparatively and historically, we calculated how distinctly a regional cultural community stands out on the Web, and the strength of its online activities.

In general, we find that geographical regions where people speak languages not widely spoken elsewhere (such as Japan and Korea) are the most distinct online cultures; regions with geographically dispersed languages (such as Spanish or Russian) or those of multilingual geographies (such as India) less so.

Our study suggests that the Web, when mapped based on its usage, does not have its core in the West, but is a mosaic of online regional cultures that associate with physical places.

In such maps, the Internet is becoming more decentralized, or to be more precise, de-Westernizing, as more users from disparate cultures are taking over its topography by bringing in their own cultural identities. Between 2009 and 2013 the Web witnessed a gradual process of “de-Americanization”; the cluster corresponding to the U.S. has separated from the “global” websites such as Twitter and Instagram – primarily user-generated websites, which are neither centered in North America nor on the English language.

In this process, the American sites have taken their own “corner” of the Web, just like other online regional cultures. Simultaneously, non-Western online cultures have strengthened, especially those linked to Brazil, Russia, China and India. Unsurprisingly, in these places, local Internet industries are thriving and domestic content is flourishing.

Compared to the prevalent technological Internet maps, our user-centric maps from 2009 to 2013 challenge, rather than reinforce, the existing concept of an Internet anchored by Western knowledge, norms and activities. They encourage the (Anglophone, especially) general public to confront the narrow online world with which it is familiar. Further, the trend captured by our maps may encourage Westerners to refresh their own preconceptions by exploring the vastly heterogeneous cyberspace.

These user-centric maps also inform policymakers about how better to empower the global South. Technical connectivity alone is not enough. For online regional cultures around the globe to strengthen, users must be able to build and shape the content they find appealing. For this to happen, local governments need to introduce civic, economic and social opportunities with new technologies. Left to a market dominated by West-based transnational corporations, the global South may not achieve healthy domestic Internet landscapes and online cultures.

The Conversation

Angela Xiao Wu, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Communication, Chinese University of Hong Kong and Harsh Taneja, Assistant Professor of Media and Communication, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Free Basics would impact online user behavior because “walled gardens” have lasting influence

(with Himanshu Gupta, @halfrebel

India has been fervently debating Free Basics, a restricted Internet services bundle that is managed by Facebook and provided for free on Reliance Telecom’s mobile network.

Indian civil society and academia are enraged as Free Basics goes against the basic tenets of net neutrality. It takes away people’s right to choose what they want to access, exposes them to a very limited set of web content and apps decided by Facebook, and potentially threatens the privacy of their personal data.

Facebook on the contrary argues that something is better than nothing, and sees Free Basics as a magic bullet for connecting the uninitiated to the world’s information superhighway. Besides promoting it as a philanthropic endeavour, Facebook claims that customers enrolled onto Free Basics eventually upgrade to the full Internet when they see how wonderful it is to be connected to the Internet. According to Facebook’s data, 40% of its Free Basics users so far have done so, which is primarily the reason why Reliance Telecom is funding the free data in the first place.

Even if we were to believe Facebook that people would migrate to the (paid) open access Internet, we believe Free Basics, in its current form, is a poor way of offering Internet access to India’s unconnected billion, with undesirable consequences.

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गयी भैंस पानी में…. : दाराब फ़ारूक़ी

इतने दिनों के बाद एक अति उत्तम हास्य व्यंग शैली में हिंदी लेख से मुलाकात हुई – ज़रूर पढ़े और फैलाएं !

KAFILA - 10 years of a common journey

Guest post by DARAB FAROOQUI

जी हाँ मैं भैंस हूँ और करीब 5000 साल से लगातार पानी में जा रही हूँ. जब भी किसी का कुछ भी बुरा हो रहा होता है तो हमेशा मुझे ही पानी में जाना पड़ता है. ना उस वक़्त मेरे नहाने की इच्छा होती और ना तैरने का मन. पर मुझे ना चाहते हुवे भी पानी में जाना पड़ता है.

तुम लोग कभी उस सफ़ेदमूही गाय को पानी में क्यों नहीं भेजते हो. और वैसे भी हम अल्पसंख्य हैं, हमसे कहीं ज्यादा गायें हैं भारत में. और शायद तुम्हे याद न हो, हमारे संविधान में सब बराबर हैं. पर इतना सब कुछ करने के बाद भी तुम लोगों ने हमें कभी अपना नहीं समझा. हमने क्या नहीं किया तुम्हारे लिये, तुम्हे अपने बच्चों का दूध दिया, तुम्हारे खेत जोते, तुम्हारे चूल्हे जलाये. कितने बलिदान दिए हमने पर तुम्हारे तो कान पर भैंस तक नहीं रेंगी.

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Here’s how not to capture India in a day

Ridley Scott is asking Indians to capture What they did on October 10 to create a reel of “India in a Day”. Scroll talks about it here . The article shows two Youtube videos. The first one is a concept explication. The second one (scroll down a bit) is “what exactly do they want!”.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/ed0HwXuRfGk“>

Will he able to?

I say this project will yield a very skewed slice of the country . The “urban, left liberal, yuppie anglophone” India. I say this because: See the videos explaining the concept and the example video where the implementing director (some American Desi) is asking people in his very American accent on what he wants them to do.

Watch here:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/EhXqMrqw0BU“>

I am all for people satisfying their creative pursuits. However, I would have appreciated some localization of this effort. Some attempt to make the request a better cultural fit with a wider cross-section of India.

The current video wont appeal to large masses of Indians with bilingual English proficiency. Because they train in English, not in “American”, and at least an American Desi should understand that, if not Ridley Scott.

Let’s wait to see what this turns out into.

The Interpretation of Gender and Unfair Advantages In Sport

Reflecting on how some female athletes are banned from competitive sport because of gender issues, the piece casts a larger question on what physical characteristics should be considered as creating unfair advantage in sport?

If you follow Indian Athletics, you would be familiar the name Duttee Chand, a promising sprinter, in the last couple of years swiftly rose into prominence to become the country’s best prospect in 100m and 200m. However this journey has been cut short as suspicion was raised on her gender. After a battery of tests it was found that she has more male hormones than is permissible to compete as a female. She needs further tests and possibly medical or surgical intervention before she can return to run. This is not the first time a female athlete in India has gone through this. Shanti Soundarajan (2006) and Pinki Pramanik (2012) are at least two other cases in the recent past.

Duttee is still a teenager and as this piece by Shivani Naik in Indian Express suggests, a huge pall of uncertainty glooms over her promising career.For instance, currently she is banned from International contests and is not competing in the ongoing Asiad, where she was expected to make her first big splash on the international scene. That was not be.

These cases raise a larger question. Why do we have such deterministic standards (based on physical characteristics) of what constitutes gender in sport? The manifestation of Gender as a neat dichotomous construct (Male or Female) is more of a social construction (Duttee or any of the other athletes I mentioned earlier were raised as females) than a scientific one. The latter is perhaps more fuzzy.

A further question is that of what constitutes unfair advantage in Sport? For instance height clearly signals an advantage in basketball and volleyball. Yet both these sports do not organize competition by height categories. Hence teams from “taller” [sic] nations have historically fared better.Yet, there are other sports that recognize the import of these advantages. Boxing and wrestling are clearly organized by weight categories. But perhaps all these respective sports look more spectacular because of this organization. We wouldn’t enjoy a basketball or volleyball game as much with shorter players.

Similarly, if women born with certain characteristics can run faster/better, why do we hold that as an unfair advantage? Is it different from being taller than others which lets one pocket more baskets than the rest or be better spikers?

Mumbai Metro Fare Row: Government Should Foster innovation, relinquish control

The Mumbai Metro from Versova to Ghatkpoar, the first 11 km leg of  Bombay’s much needed Metro began yesterday. The reports are impressive, both in media, social media and on this remarkable infrastructure discussion forum .  A quibble remains.

Reliance, the company response for building and operating the metro has notified the fares to be Rs 10, 20, 30 and 40. The Government wants the metro to be priced much lower at Rs 9, 11 and 13. Legally, Reliance, being the majority stakeholder is free to set the fares. Perturbed, the Government has moved the court.

On the surface the Reliance metro fare seems very high. Especially the latter two slabs (Rs 30 for 8 ams, and Rs 40 for 10 kms) seem rather unaffordable. Yet, I am not convinced that the fares need to be drastically reduced or regulated by the government.

Currently Reliance has announced a flat (anywhere to anywhere) promotional fare of Rs 10 , which will prevail for a month.A  smart move.  In that time, they would announce monthly and other season (quarterly) and tourist (weekly, three day and one day) passes , which would presumably work out to much lower than the existing Rs 40 for a single ride, for a medium to heavy user. Further they could introduce lower weekend rates or differentiate between peak/off-peak rates. In other words, there are ways in which Reliance cold make the metro affordable for a regular user but keep the charges high for an occasional user. This is how most systems in the world operate.(For instance in Chicago you pay $2.5 for a single ride on the subway, but $10 for unlimited rides a day, $28 for a week and $100 for a month.)

In sum, I believe that Reliance needs to keep an innovative fare structure that lets the occasional commuter subsidize the regular user. The fares proposed by the Government could make it difficult to maintain the system, and would dissuade the operator from running the service with the needed efficiency and upkeep.

For now, the Government needs to step back, relax and watch if Metro become a long overdue  comfortable means of transit for a section of Bombay. And expedite lines 2 and 3!

Why Capitalism could fail under Narendra Modi?

Bulk of the rhetoric about Narendra Modi’s becoming the PM of India has centered around the Gujarat Riots and whether he is culpable or not. Or related, the incorporation of Hindu Hardliners into the mainstream under his governance.

His proponents argue that he should be supported because his approach to governance fosters “development”.  By enabling a favorable business environment (getting speedy clearances, shortening the red tape etc. ).  And this they argue is reason enough to give him a change to replicate for the country , the wonders he has done to Gujarat.

Now two articles by very illustrious economists hint at why the development argument for Modi may not play out as expected.

First in this piece Mihir Shah, a member of the planning commission explains why the argument that capitalism initially creates wealth disparity but slowly reduces this disparity is flawed. It is flawed because the conditions for that to happen (honest relationships and transactions between business, focus on state provision of education, healthcare) are not met.

How does Mihir’s piece this apply to Narendra Modi? Fair question. Read  SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN ‘s excellent piece to find out exactly why? Basically he argues that Modi in pursuing his pro-development capitalist agenda, violates the exact conditions under which capitalism fails to provide inclusive growth. 

Still want to vote for Mr Modi? Of course depends on what your idea of prosperity is.