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Article from ejc/rec The Internet: Clusters of Attractiveness
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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 12 Numbers 3 & 4, 2002


 

INTERNET:
Clusters of Attractiveness

Alexander E. Voiskounsky
Moscow Lomonosov State University


Abstract. The world-wide Internet is becoming multiethnic and multilingual. The recently formed Russian Internet culture (the Russian segment of the world-wide Internet culture) is analyzed. This segment - though not too impressive in amount and diversity - is called a cluster of attractiveness, since it attracts visitors (subscribers, content providers, surfers, etc.) from outside Russia. The motivations for being attracted to the Russian segment of the Internet are described. 

Introduction

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.

The annual increase of Russian-language content is over 200% (http://www.rocit.ru/). In January, 2002, it contained about 60,000,000 indexed documents, which are well rubricated and fully searchable. The global volume of information is estimated as close to 1Tb, and an average web-server contains as much as 2.5Mb information (http://www.yandex.ru/chisla).

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).

Estimates of the number of Internet users in Russia are being made by several sociological agencies. The agencies are mostly Russian, but agencies from abroad are active as well. Research data has been available since 1996, when the first representative research was performed (http://www.comcon-2.com; see also reports at http://www.rocit.ru/). Sadly, since that time, the number of Internet users in Russia has been the subject of strong disagreement among the few agencies that are systematically carrying out fieldwork in the area (http://www.comcon-2.com; http://www.monitoring.ru; http://www.gallup.ru; http://www.gallup.spb.ru; http://www.gfk.ru, etc.). The resulting data published by these agencies differ a lot so international sources (e.g., http://www.nua.com) have no alternative but to choose this or that seemingly reliable source.


The newest reliable data have been presented by the Public Opinion Foundation (http://www.fom.ru). The fieldwork was administered at the very end of (2000). and the report is fully available (http://internet.strana.ru). >From the report, it is evident that the data are representing the urban population of Russia, with the exception of Chechnya which stays formally a Russian province (but fieldwork in this area is too dangerous to be administered). In fact, at the moment no agency cares for the rural population, since it is widely believed that rural Internet users are extremely innumerous. About 70,000 respondents were surveyed. The number of actual Internet users in Russia were 3,300,000 (3.6% of adult population), of whom 60% are men and 40% are female, more than 20% are teenagers, 40% are aged between 20 and 29, about 20% are aged between 30 and 39, and only 6% of Internet users in Russia are over 50 years of age. These data refer to November, 2000. Since that time no reliable data have been published, and it is only reasonable to assume that the number of users have increased and exceed 4,000,000. The Russian Ministry of Communications estimates the number of permanent Internet users as 2,500,000 to 3,000,000 and the number of casual users as about 5,000,000. Residents of Russia comprise approximately 1% of the world-wide Internet population.

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:

  1. Lack or shortage of attractive web site content in their ethnic languages. The majority of post-Soviet states (with the single exception, perhaps, of Estonia) are far behind Russia in the rate of people's access to the Internet and in the number of web sites.
  2. Poor (if any) command of official ethnic languages of post-Soviet states by ethnic Russians residing there.
  3. Poor literacy skills in their mother-tongues of numerous non-Russians in the post-Soviet states. Often they speak their ethnic languages fluently but have problems with writing and reading, i.e. with composition and comprehension of scholarly texts due to the fact that when acquiring formal education they used Russian solely.
  4. Political and/or religious leaders of some ethnic groups who used Arabic or Mongolian alphabets in the pre-Soviet period feel pressure to return to cultural origins. It seems only natural for some of them to cease using the now-actual alphabetical systems that are based mostly on a slightly modified Cyrillic and to make a change to the historically proven way of writing and reading. These decisions result in a peculiar sociolinguistic situation when different generations speaking the same language might soon have no common literacy (written language) to exchange written texts, including private letters. Happily this process is slow and the situation of cross-generational misunderstanding is perhaps a futurist one.
  5. In less populated countries it is impractical to originate and support newsgroups and to compose valuable websites content in ethnic languages, except for purely official information and for data of exclusively local interest. Even if ethnic language newsgroups and websites are available, more diverse views are expressed and more valuable information displayed might be found in Russian-based newsgroups and websites. Usually, in post-Soviet states, educated people have some command of English, but their command of Russian is in most cases much better. This fact explains, at least partly, the reasons for their attraction to the Russian language segment of the Internet.
  6. Individuals might feel nostalgia towards older times when all the citizens of newly independent states stayed closely united in the USSR; they maintain interest in news from the former parent state and in contacts with former compatriots.
  7. Media in some post-Soviet states are less independent compared to the Russian media (the latter are not fully independent as well). Residents of these countries may find it convenient and reasonable to get access to less censured news via login to the network versions of Russian news agencies. Usually they would try to know more about internal/external politics in their own states - this is a continuation of an old tradition of Soviet times to learn internal news through media from abroad.
  8. Politically-minded people from the former USSR - both within and outside Russia - tend to keep group discussions of numerous political issues; some of them blame the former communist regime, and some of them blame the modern ones.
  9. Some representatives of Russian-speaking diaspora residing outside the territory of the former USSR (both ethnic Russians and non-Russians) find it attractive to take part in newsgroups and/or to originate/construct/support websites in the Russian language. Their motivations differ: they give consultations on diverse aspects of foreign life; being competent in web-related issues they share knowledge with subscribers to Russian newsgroups; they consult and support originators of network-related projects (electronic commerce, for example) in Russia; they try to find people they used to know earlier (school/college/university mates and teachers, mates of the military service period, colleagues and/or neighbours, etc.) in order to keep personal contacts; they try to find ways to share their hobbies with those speaking their mother tongue; they originate and support websites containing diverse collections (for example, verbal jokes, folk or avant-garde music, historical information about their place of birth/residence, etc.).
  10. Creative persons (usually of postmodernist orientation) from outside Russia prefer to present their pieces to a wider audience compared to what is available in post-Soviet states with relatively small populations. Needing a larger native-language community they originate network projects and/or forums to discuss their ideas, and maybe to join their projects, and in general to form a wide enough audience.
  11. Russian Internet experts are often believed to be more advanced, experienced and competent than their colleagues from many other post-Soviet states. The outside-Russia networkers, trying to enlarge their competence in the information technology related news and to follow discussions of the principal hard/software decisions, find it worthy to subscribe to the Russian language newsgroups and to surf the updated reviews published on Russian web-sites. Usually they find in this way much more valuable information compared to the quantity and quality of information available in the ethnic languages of the states in which they reside.

These are some of seemingly important reasons which partly explain the attractiveness of the Russian segment of the Internet for the Russian speaking foreigners.

Conclusions

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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