Volume 12 Numbers 3 & 4, 2002
Alexander E. Voiskounsky
The Internet is obviously international and transnational. Since it first came into life in the USA, the majority of the Internet "aborigines" - beginning with the times of ARPANet - reside in North America. Moreover, the great majority of the WWW content information is located on the US/Canadian web-servers; userful data are often mirrored elsewhere. The cyberculture - whatever that means - originated in the USA. The majority of surfers and site-visitors, e-consumers, Listserv and Usenet subscribers, online chatters and players, fans of club-like web activities, discussants at webforums, etc. used to also belong to the North American culture. Overseas native English speakers - including mostly Australians and UK citizens - enriched the newborn culture, too. Non-native English speakers have made a later start. The newly emerged global influential Cyberculture used to be strongly dependent on a good command of English language, and on the willingness to share cultural norms established by native English speakers.
Parallel to a global view on evolving virtual communities, a culture-specific approach seems to be no less needed. "The Internet and local cultures both determine each other" (Hongladarom, 1998, p. 200). The dialectic idea of interdependence between a global cyberculture and local (ethnic, professional, adolescents, fans etc.) network subcultures is principal and worth discussing (Voiskounsky, 1999). Since the global influence is quite obvious, it is time to stress the impact of local cultures on the evolving world-wide Internet culture. At first, we might restrict ourselves to purely ethnic subcultures - Far Eastern, Latin American, Eastern/Central European, Southern/Central/Western/Northern African, Southern Asian, etc. At the moment, some of them can hardly be called influential, but times change.
The advance of the new millennium marked the time period when the proportion of North Americans and native English speakers on the Net decreased to only less than the half of the global Internet population. By the end of 2000 "the US share of global Internet users dropped from 40 percent to 36 percent ... while 12 percent live in the world's other English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, South Africa and the UK)" reports the May 14, 2001 Public Release, IPSOS-REID (http://www.ipsosreid.com/media/). Thus, the total proportion of native English speakers decreased to less than 50 per cent: even if we add New Zealand, the same would be true now in 2002.
This news is sort of a challenge for the Internet aborigines. The same source stresses that "in every global region where English in not the main language spoken, nine-in-ten Internet users prefer to get local information in their local language". Of no less importance are customers' orientations: "Web users are up to four times more likely to purchase from a site that communicates in the customer's language" (htttp://www.idc.com). Are the North American high-tech producing, consulting, and/or trading companies going to save their once-privileged positions in the rapidly changing market? If local markets are important, the companies' CEOs should pay special attention to multinational communication, to advertisements, to precise and culturally adequate translation of news, products and services presented on websites. Meanwhile, the April 2001 survey held by WorldLingo showed that as much as "91% of Fortune 500 and Forbes international 800 companies cannot respond correctly to a foreign language email" (http://www.worldlingo.com/resources/language_statistics.html).
Thus, the Internet is now multilingual and multifocused. Taking into consideration non-English-speaking language-specific ethnic groups, one should mention that some of them have developed web sources that look attractive for both residents and foreigners. The volume of content based on the use of the Spanish language seems to be quite sufficient not to bother with English-based web content. Even for bilinguals familiar with the English language, non-English web-based chats and information sources oppose or substitute the global Internet. Some countries pursue protective policies towards the integrity of national culture and ethnic language in Cyberspace, for example France or China. Sometimes ethnic segments of the Internet originated from abroad. The initial Arabian newsgroups and listservs, for example, were organized by emigrants from different Arabian states (Anderson, 1996). More often representatives of diaspora communities participated in web activities initiated in metropolias.
This is highly characteristic for the USA. The report Global Internet Statistics: Sources and References (2001), estimated that "there are some 16 million Americans who are more likely to access the Internet at home in their own language, rather than in English", while in the office they are more likely to access the Internet in English. Not all of them, though: "[w]e estimate 5 M cannot read English in the U.S." (Global Internet Statistics, 2001). The leading languages opposing English in the USA as a medium of home use of the Internet are, in descending order, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, German, Korean, Polish, Japanese, Portugal, and Greek. The real numbers are, at most, estimates or qualified guesses. Besides, the real numbers reflect both the proportion of native speakers of these languages residing in the USA, and the level of attractiveness of the Internet segment referring to their mother tongue. As a comparison, in (1997). Polish and Greek were not listed among the leading languages to access the Internet by USA residents (see March 9, 1998 issue, http://www.euromktg.com/globstats/). We might venture to suppose that now, in 2002, the idea of accessing the Internet in a mother tongue does not seem too attractive to old or new emigrants from Vietnam or Indonesia who reside in the USA, even if some of them might have problems mastering English.
Thus, the local segment of the Internet is called "attractive" if it really attracts visitors from outside the local community. To simplify the definion, we might call "local" every non-English-based segment of the Internet, however large the proportion is of the world population. Probably not all of these segments are attractive, as we tried to show earlier.
Of course, each website, and/or group of closely connected websites, is designed to attract outsiders, and the number of hits, clicks, visits, sessions, or the target audience reached, are very important measures. But the segments based on ethnic languages usually include every type of website which advertises itself, and yet the segment itself has or lacks qualities that might make it attractive. Thus we save the term "attractiveness" for the most broad - based on ethnic languages other than English - segments of the Internet.
The Russian Internet in Russia and Outside Russia
Among the ethnic language communities on the Internet that manage to generate content tending to attract surfers and subscribers from abroad, is the Russian-speaking community, which will be in the focus of this paper. We call it, metaphorically, a "cluster of attractiveness" since the Web content and relevant users' activities seem to fetch more and more Internet users throughout the world.
The Internet related culture in Russia is very young, it has been developing since 1990 - the year when the Russian computer network established a connection with Western European (and of course globe-wide) networks (Press, 1991). The Internet population in Russia is not numerous and the WWW content is modest in its quantity. Chronologically, the first published estimates of the number of networkers in Russia were made by an American and refer to 1994 (McHenry, 1994). Globally, actual approximations (in some cases, no exact or valid data are available) of the Russian Internet population and the WWW content are as follows.
About 5,000,000 high-quality PCs with modern software are in service in Russia. About the same number of older PCs are in service and are not likely to be connected to the Internet. The Russian segment of the Internet includes (as of Summer, 2001) approximately 700,000 connected computers and more than 350,000 unique IP-addresses. The computers with access to the Internet are rather innumerous; that is, users most often access from office/school/university, and less often from home. Sociological data confirm that this is true. Statistics of web traffic suggests that weekend traffic is less tense than work-time traffic. This might be partly shadowed by the fact that there are so many time zones in Russia due to its huge area.
There are more than 140,000 domains in Russia, and among those there are more than 75,000 second-level domains. One should take into account that, usually, only .RU and .SU domains are counted. It is known that some Russian sites belong to .ORG, .NET or .COM, but they are probably innumerous, and webcrawlers can hardly identify them. At the same time, some servers within the .RU or .SU area are physically located outside Russia.
Statistics from Winter 2001/2002 suggest that about 400,000 unique web-servers
(hosts) are catalogued at Yandex (http://www.yandex.ru). Its statistical data are
among the major sources (http://www.yandex.ru/chisla),
along with Rambler (http://www.rambler.ru).
Rambler supports and develops the special statistical service (http://www.rumetrika.rambler.ru). Useful
data are also registered in the List.ru (http://www.list.ru)
catalogue. Several hundred Internet providers operate in Russia, with 80 major
providers giving 90% of the service.
Hundreds of Russian-language newsgroups (called teleconferences)
are active; FIDONet users participate in over 2,000 moderated echo-conferences.
The most universally used search engines are Rambler and Yandex
which were originally Russian productions. Lycos (http://www.lycos.ru) started business in Russia
in 2001 and organized its Russian service. Major world-wide search engines,
such as Google and AltaVista, operate with Cyrillics (the
former is extremely popular in Russia). One need not know Russian or read
Cyrillic to search through Russian web content using originally Russian search
engines, since the queries are automatically translated. A complicated morphology
of the Russian language is handled and sentence parsing is performed. All
the advanced products support major alternative Cyrillic charsets (usually
five of them).
Economically and politically, the Internet means a lot to all those who identify themselves with the Russian segment of the Internet. The previous tense links between the residents of the newly independent states that have formed after the collapse of the USSR, show a tendency to be called, at best, virtual (Voiskounsky & Hilton, 1995). Personal contacts are severely reduced both in quantity and quality due to ever-increasing travel, phone and postal tariffs, customs emerging at previously transparent frontiers, decrease in the exchange of TV programs and in the circulation of newspapers, problems with the exchange of the unequally "weak" national currencies, acts of brutality and/or expectations of hostility towards the representatives of minority ethnic groups, etc. In addition to inefficient personal contacts, and in many ways due to the same reasons, economical and industrial ties have reduced too.
Only political extremists and/or marginal nationalists would deny that the huge territory - one sixth part of the globe surface (with the exception of oceans and seas) - is possibly open for re-establishing traditional forms of links and for maintaining those working and personal contacts that have happily survived - on the new information technologies basis. Global telecommunications seem to emerge just in time to mediate processes of filling in the "inefficient communication" gap. Telecommunications are heavily used on an organization-to-organization level. But this is not enough. The Internet, mobile phones, videoconferencing systems, etc. bring a new potential to solve the problem of keeping contacts among people (relatives, close friends, mates, colleagues, etc.) who were born and got to know each other in their common country, lived there a life-long period of time, spent leisure time together and paid visits, but recently found themselves residing in diverse states and facing severe problems when they make attempts to engage personal or social contacts.
For the purposes of mediation in establishing contacts and in the formation of distant communities the WWW content is of special importance. The tendency is that Russian web content is widely used by members of Russian language communities outside Russia. Non-residents of Russia are very active in newsgroups, including both ethnic Russians and ethnic non-Russians. The latter (for example, ethnic Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Armenians, etc.) speak Russian fluently, they are often born and bred within the Russian culture and usually are educated in Russia and/or in the Russian language. The majority of this special Internet community population found themselves outside Russia when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. They now reside in the former Soviet republics - now independent states.
A minority of the community members are permanent or temporary residents of diverse countries (usually, but not exclusively, Germany, the USA, and Israel), and they feel themselves closely connected with the Russian culture. For example, Global Internet Statistics (by Language) estimates the number of Americans who regularly access the Russian segment of the Internet is 100,000 (see http://www.euromktg.com/globstats/refs.html or http://www.glreach.com/eng/ - the data refers to 15 December 2001). The migrants represent what is often called the Russian diaspora: they continue to speak Russian, and they support websites with the content devoted exclusively to Russian culture. One of the most important web sites of this type is Little Russia in San Antonio, Texas (http://mars.uthsca.edu/Russia) - it has already attracted interests of communication researchers (Sapienza, 1999). The diaspora consists mostly of "new" (post-Soviet) migrants, and partly of "old" emigrants from Russia, including those who were born abroad. One should take into account that in the twentieth century there were at least four periods of massive migration from Russia to the West and/or East, and respectively four waves of migrants can be differentiated depending on the time of their escape from the Soviet regime.
A piece of the author's empirical data might be of use. It is inferred from the results of surveys of computer network users that are administered by the researchers at Moscow Lomonosov State University, headed by the author (Arestova et al., 1999). The aim of this survey research project is to monitor the changes in the Russian (and even broader post-Soviet) Internet population. Psychological, social, and demographic parameters are being monitored. Surveys have been administered since 1992 on a self-selection basis. At first the questionnaires were published in the most popular Russian-language newsgroups. From 1996, an additional direct distribution (i.e., e-mailing) of the questionnaires has been administered, too and from 1999 a web survey has been administered. The number of respondents varied from about 500 to about 3,000. The sample of self-selected respondents includes about one third Ukrainians; residents of all the other states, including the post-Soviet states, with the single exception of the Ukraine, are less numerous (jointly, 5-8%). Thus, among the visitors of popular Russian web-sites and/or subscribers to popular Russian-language newsgroups there is a considerable number of foreigners. Although the proportion of non-Russian residents in the Russian language chat-rooms and among the subscribers to Fidonet echo-conferences might differ, some experts believe this proportion is fairly large (perhaps up to 20%); web-surfers from the Ukraine and the other post-Soviet states seem to be rather numerous, according to a random-order analysis of guestbooks at popular web-sites in Russia.
The other source is the webservice SpyLog (http://www.spylog.ru) which traces most of the navigation within the Russian segment of the Internet. The SpyLog tracker presents data that approximately 40% of navigations are systematically made from outside Russia. Among the visitors from abroad there are native Russian speakers and those who speak Russian fluently, as well as foreigners meeting certain problems when they read Russian sources. The browser interfaces are in Russian for the majority of navigators from the former Soviet states, with the exception of representatives of the three Baltic States, who use browsers with English or local language interfaces. Almost all visitors from Western Europe, Israel, or the USA use the browsers with an interface in the local language. Thus, browsers give some hint about visitors to the Russian Internet segment and the degree of their closeness towards the Russian Internet culture.
Reasons for Joining the Russian Internet Community
The reasons have been deduced from discussions (face-to-face or mediated) with colleagues, personal friends, or acquaintances residing outside Russia. These discussions have been held over several years, beginning approximately in 1994. The discussions have never taken place in a laboratory setting, and have never taken the status of a formal interview. No formal procedure of handling the results was used, but for classification. More sophisticated procedures would require discussions to be recorded (which was not the case). The number of respondents are approximately 70 non-Russian residents.
The above-mentioned statements should prove that Russian content on the Internet, though incomparable to the English-based content in quantity and quality, is nevertheless one of the attractions of the Net for non-residents. It is noteworthy that modern residents of Russia are about 60% of the overall population of the former USSR. The reasons for former Soviets from outside Russia being attracted with Russian-based content are mainly (but not exclusively) as follows:
These are some of seemingly important reasons which partly explain the attractiveness of the Russian segment of the Internet for the Russian speaking foreigners.
The modes of Internet usage are largely dependent on the level of command of English and on the competence in behavioral patterns peculiar to North American culture. Like many other activities, especially those dependent on the technologies' usage, Internet-based communication and cognition relies on a heavy use of English. Few ethnic languages claim to be attractive for foreigners participating in online discussions and/or visiting websites. It is stated that the Russian segment of the Internet is such a cluster of attraction.
The qualitative and quantitative parameters of the Russian segment of the Internet are described briefly and give evidence that these parameters are developing rapidly. Some probable reasons that might explain the foreigners' interest to Russian-language web sites, discussion lists, or web-forums are proposed. These foreigners are partly ethnic Russians residing in the former Soviet states outside Russia, and partly non-Russians (former Soviets) who feel themselves connected to the Russian culture; a much smaller but influential part constitute former Soviets (both ethnic Russians and non-Russians) who have emigrated to the Western/Eastern states outside the borders of the former Soviet Union.
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