Making culture for the internets

About a month ago as I’m writing this, Netflix released House of Cards, one of the first HBO-quality shows to be produced expressly for the internet. Much attention has been paid to the price tag (a hundred million bucks) and the release strategy (all the episodes together in one great binge-able bundle); not as much has been paid to the geography.

But the geography is a big deal. Netflix released this show to a huge — possibly unprecedented? — swath of the world all at once, with subtitles available in every language from Spanish to Swedish.

Movies have already mastered the globe: The Avengers came out basically everywhere on the same day. TV, or something like TV, is getting better at being every­where. Books move more slowly, but they do make their way around the world — and more on that in a moment.

For once, it’s us, the internet culture makers, who are behind.

I know it doesn’t seem that way. I mean, the internet has conquered geography, right? These words right here are at this moment available to everyone, every­where!

Well — not really.

This is a huge blind spot for internet culture makers. I’ll offer myself as an example. In 2009, I self-published a book using Kick­starter. Getting it done in English seemed like enough of a stretch on its own; never once did I contem­plate a translation into German or Italian or Chinese. Even if I had, I’m not sure how I would have accom­plished it. It would have been expensive — and how would I have verified that the trans­la­tions were any good?

Really, though, the reason I didn’t even contem­plate trans­la­tion was that I had an allergic reaction to anything that smelled like geography. I believe so deeply in the new model, in which you create a bit of culture and publish it once, for everyone, every­where. No DRM. No regional restrictions. Just the power and beauty of a plain PDF, a simple MP4.

Because we’ve all seen the same disap­pointing message on a streaming service at some point, right? This content is not licensed for your region. Infuriating. Down with disappointment! Up with universal access!

And yes: the new model works tech­ni­cally. Technically, it’s beautiful. But — I have learned this, and if it seems like something a person shouldn’t have to learn, well, you’re wiser than I was — it turns out culture needs to work in other ways, too. You can’t consume something you don’t understand, no matter how elegantly it’s presented. Further, you won’t even get the oppor­tu­nity to consume it unless you hear about it from someone who speaks your language.

People ridiculed George W. Bush when he called them “the internets” but he had it right. Technically, the internet is one huge inter­con­nected network. Linguis­ti­cally and socially, it is many networks, and they are very distinct.

For example: there are 40 million Brazilians on Twitter. Do you follow any Brazil­ians? This is a signif­i­cant fraction of a service that many of us consider our internet front porch — and yet, unless you speak Portuguese, it’s invisible. It might as well be a different service entirely.

(Yes, I realize there are a few Brazilians reading this. To you I say: olá!)

Eric Fischer’s map of the languages being used on Twitter tells the tale:

Here, where language is concerned, the internet has not conquered geography. It has repeated it.

Sure, many people in those countries speak English … but many don’t. Many speak English well enough to do business, but not well enough to read a book. Or if they’re going to read a book, they’d rather read it in German or Italian or Chinese.

China, of course, adds technical road­blocks to some already-signif­i­cant linguistic and social borders. Behind all those walls, there are 500 million internet users … talking mostly to themselves.

They read books, too.

None of this occurred to me in 2009. I did ship a few copies of my book to people in places like Germany and Italy: English speakers who had found the Kick­starter project somehow. So I wasn’t completely parochial. I was only like … 85 percent parochial.

Now, fast forward to 2013. The novel that I produced inside the tradi­tional publishing system is being trans­lated into German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Turkish, Korean, Chinese, and many more. With the news of every new translation, my eyes widen another degree: of course. There’s a whole audience there. And of course, each trans­la­tion belongs to a publisher that’s going to tell potential readers about the book — and they’re going to do it in German, Italian, Portuguese … 

This is bananas.

It’s not the only way to get things trans­lated. There’s community infrastructure, too; a site like Open Subtitles is a triumph of peer production. But that approach seems to work best for block­buster movies and popular TV shows, for which there are fewer words to translate; for which the fidelity of the trans­la­tion matters less; and for which, most importantly, there’s an audience waiting. Disney and Marvel spent a hundred million bucks telling the entire world about The Avengers; as a result, if you spend a week crafting subtitles in your native language, somebody is going to appre­ciate that effort.

But what about bits of culture that don’t come with a marketing budget? What about bits of culture that are propelled not by studios and publishers, but by their makers alone?

Consider a webcomic like xkcd. It’s a touch­stone of internet culture, and yet it’s presented only in English. (There are a handful of unof­fi­cial trans­la­tion sites, but they seem to be spotty at best, abandoned at worst.) You could argue that xkcd’s core audience of programmers, scientists, and students all speak English, wherever they are … but I don’t know. I think there must be a few hundred thousand internet users out of China’s half-billion who would absolutely love the comic — who would feel, as so many xkcd readers do, that it’s somehow speaking to them directly — but whose English isn’t up to snuff. What a thing that would be, to make this bit of culture available to them!

We, the internet culture makers: we don’t translate enough. We don’t push hard enough against these linguistic and social borders. Instead, we pat each other on the back for our elegant file-format choices. Instead, we talk mostly to ourselves.

There are things that would help. For starters: a service of reason­able quality and cost through which a culture maker could get her book or her webcomic or even her tweets trans­lated into the internet’s top ten languages. Maybe something like a cross between Open Subtitles and Mechan­ical Turk. Or maybe this service is actually just Kick­starter; maybe there ought to be more trans­la­tion projects.

What we really need are more scouts stationed at the borders between these distinct internets: watching for bits of culture on both sides, slinging them back and forth. On their own, trans­la­tions are inert. To become meaningful, they require attention, and in the absence of marketing budgets, a pretty reliable way to generate attention is through good curation.

For example, I find chinaSMACK mesmerizing, and I wish it showed Chinese books, comics, movies, and TV shows alongside its bread-and-butter news memes. It’s unreason­able to expect the site to translate whole works, but how about the first page of the most popular novel in China right now? How about one subtitled scene from a Chinese procedural drama? (Are there Chinese proce­dural dramas?)

I am so hungry for this sort of thing. I can’t be the only one.

And of course the reverse is true: people around the world are hungry for bits of English-language culture. Right now, they get The Avengers. Soon, they’ll get Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore—which is, again, bananas. But they should get xkcd, too. They should get Ross Andersen’s cosmic interviews. They should get Ze Frank! They should get the best of Medium.

Right now, if you make bits of culture and you want them to be available to the entire world — truly linguis­ti­cally and socially available, not just tech­ni­cally accessible — your best bet is to work with movie studios; with book publishers; with Netflix. My own expe­ri­ence with publishers has been revelatory, and it’s made some of my solo projects feel, in retrospect, quite parochial indeed.

But there should be better options for inde­pen­dent internet culture makers. Whether we’re writing in English or German or Italian or Chinese, we should have the tools to reach the entire world at once.

We thought we already did; we thought it was the internet.

But they have been the internets all along.

February 2013, Berkeley