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