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The Online Community Is Inexorably Global: Are You?

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Humans are provincial; Americans doubly so. In fact, we online human-Americans oftentimes can’t think past our sweat pants, ironic T, and bunny slippers when it comes to being online.

The Online Community Is Inexorably Global: Are You?

Berlin Reichstag

Provincialism has been a boon for Michael Fertik, the gang at, and the Online Reputation Management industry; however, our tendency to freak out when we realize that someone besides our Nana has been reading our Tumblr is just the beginning. Spoiler alert: The Internet is mostly global and with the default lingua franca of American English. Not only can that creeper from work look too deeply into your holiday in Aruba last week (or seven years ago when you were in high school) but so can all the creepers in your village, city, state, continent, as well as any country that has open access to the free Internet and an interest in you, for whatever reason. Please believe me when I say that even people with noble aims feel like creepers when you’re not used to it, especially when that person hails from well outside of your personal sphere of influence — and maybe someplace exotic with English as a second language.

Okay, if you’ve gotten this far, you passed my test for Jingoism. If you have the stomach and the stones to accept creepers and foreigners gladly, then I can speak openly with you, between us girls. I am assuming you’re pretty good at trivia, can find out past wars on a globe, and maybe studied abroad or went backpacking or for a stout walk-about. Good. We’re on the same page. Let’s continue.

Point one: The Internet itself is a culture we all have in common, and there is indeed an online culture all its own.

Berlin-TempelhofIf you’re traveling the world and run into folks anywhere in the world who have access to the Internet, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you’ll already have kittens, Facebook, and Google in common. You’ll be able to talk spam and hackers and phishing and Twitter — or the local variant. While you may not know much at all about Orkut, Weibo, or Yandex, you’ll both know about creeping, running into old lovers, loading times, malware, and even things like iPhones, Blackberries, and Android. And, since we’re all fellow human beings and not all radicalized terrorists, this is always a great way to break the ice: things in common. And, while those things in common used to be limited to episodes of Baywatch, you’ll now probably have YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, and Buzzfeed in common, too.

But don’t allow yourself to be wooed into a false sense of security. At this point, the world is your oyster, right? Because the entire world knows about your world and is willing to write to you in pretty brilliant English all about it. It’s like love-at-first-sight: wow! However, they say that, aside from money-problems, it’s a lack of common heritage, culture, religion, language, and history.

How deep is your love? I really need to learn, ‘cause we're living in a world of fools, breaking us down, when they all should let us be... okay, sorry about that, I had a Bee Gees moment. But, it’s pretty novel early on; however, if you’re interested in taking it further, putting down roots, or doing any business — or you’re perceived as taking more than you give or just outstay your welcome — then your new friends will grow tired of you and you need to become more willing to meet your new Internet penpals more than halfway.

Point two: While most sophisticated Internet users know English, they’ll always be more receptive to their own tongue.

I lived in Berlin for a while. When I first arrived, everyone spoke English — everyone. All the time. I was novel, amusing, and even entertaining. After about 18 months (and it would have been more like three to six months were I not so bloody entertaining), people grew tired of keeping up appearances. People started to “forget” to invite me to dinner parties because nobody wants to enforce an English-only dinner party when everyone’s native German and drinking a lot of good wine while relaxing with friends. While I learned a lot about the culture of Germany and the culture of Berlin during that year-and-a-half, I lacked the biggest missing piece: I lacked German. Even more, I lacked native German — in fact, I lacked the German of Berlin itself and the German of a certain cross-section and class.

We know it’s true: We readily identify (and often judge) each other based on regional dialects and accents. Southerners, folks from Pittsburgh, Calif., “dude,”; the nasal twang of “you betcha” Minnesota. In German, the same thing is true: Ossis (Easties) versus Wessis (Westies); Northern Germans versus Bavaria; and, of course, modern slang and pronunciations versus the harder German tongue sometimes still maintained from long ago now.

The Internet, when you dig down, is very provincial. Not in a jingoistic sort of way but more of a Shibboleth sort of way. Wikipedia defines ‘shibboleth’:

“A shibboleth is a word, sound, or custom that a person unfamiliar with its significance may not pronounce or perform correctly relative to those who are familiar with it. It is used to identify foreigners or those who do not belong to a particular class or group of people. It also refers to features of language, and particularly to a word or phrase whose pronunciation identifies a speaker as belonging to a particular group.”

But this sort of thing isn’t conspiratorial or even malicious but it generally results in the universal response of “you ain’t from around here, pardner.”

Point three: The language, region, and country of online denizens do not necessarily reflect their culture.

ReichstagThanks to international trade and cheap access to commercial airlines, we’re a cultural moveable feast. Just in D.C., you’ll go to places that are cowboys bars full of Texans and bars where Michiganders collect densely and passionately outside of their own hometowns. The same goes for immigrants. Self-organized and oftentimes ad hoc communities that are alien to and unlike the dominant culture.

For example, if you’re marketing online in the U.S. and you’re focused on the Spanish-speaking market, are you interested in Salvadorians? Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians, Guatemalans — you see what I mean? Folks from Canada remain Canadian but folks from Central and South America as well as the Caribbean tend to be lumped into Hispanic and Chicano and Latino, which is based only on Spanish-speaking if I’m being generous.

But because most messaging to Spanish-speakers tends to appeal to the lowest common denominator, the message might come across as tone-deaf to the majority of the people it reaches. Because even outside of each home country, even in the melting pot known as the U.S., we’re all tribal, feeling filial respect towards our own ethnicity and national origin — and often for generations if not thousands of years.

And then there are two more points: There really is a digital divide, both a cultural and a financial one. Not everyone with money, believe it or not, prioritizes being online. There are indeed many other things to spend money on than computers, mobile devices, smartphones, bandwidth, and Internet access; it’s not simply and only a digital divide based on poverty or illiteracy.

Seriously. I promise you.

Point four: Just because you know Spanish fluently doesn’t mean you’ll be understood or appreciated.

As I have shared above, just because you speak Spanish fluently doesn’t mean you have the skeleton key/passingkey to everyone’s hearts or minds. Knowing a language is awesome because it does mean that you can parse what’s going on in Spanish around you, but it’s no cultural panacea, though you do have two-out-of-three or four sorted out, right?

The shared culture of the Internet and the shared culture of a shared language.

However, it’s super-complicated when it comes to the Spanish-speaking world: Everything everyone says in once country’s dialect seems to mean something either sexually-explicit, morally-offensive, clueless, or naive in another’s Spanish — plus, everyone else’s Spanish comes across as either snobby or ignorant to every other Spanish-speaking nation — and it drills down all the way to regions and cities within countries as well — same thing I told you about Germany.

So, even if you were trained in Spanish at Middlebury College and then spent years in one city, there’s a chance that you’ll never quite acquire the same personal experiences, shared historical perspective, same TV shows you watched, what it was like to be in primary and secondary school, or the sort of deep-seated resentments to geographic neighbors — all the sort of amazing and intense “other stuff” that goes along with being local, being native, and being true blue.

Point five: Always consider class, poverty, conflict, religion, history, and their take on wealth, capitalism, and your own country

BerlinAnd so it goes. I did this amazing blogger outreach campaign on behalf of an online ads company back in the day. The message was “come check out what two awesome entrepreneurs did with their company — now they’re successful men — and you’re welcome to interview them, in all their success, on your blog — let me know.” This pitch worked all over the U.S., where self-made men are worshiped and universally-admire; however when we reached out to some bloggers in Central and South America, where being rich is associated with stealing from others (I got my bread from taking your bread away), this was a very unsuccessful angle-of-attack!

Ultimately, I needed to re-tune my message in order to appeal to the sense and sensibility of the folks I intended to appeal. In this case, I could pitch the company and I could pitch the partners but not as self-made millionaires but rather as brother bloggers. And, instead of offering an interview, I offered a conversation — a connection. That seemed to work. There was an expectation of equality, of fellowship, and of brotherhood.

It was one of the best learning moments I’ve had when it came down to internationalization and the unique nature of global neighborhoods and how the unique quirks, color, and tone of real places on the map on the face of the earth show through one way or another, sometimes it’s transparency and other times it’s translucent — either way, it matters.

Point six: When it doubt, hire someone who is as local as possible to where you’re messaging — always hire a village, city or regional native instead of a brilliantly-trained polyglot. You can’t fake it. You can’t emulate it. Maybe you can manage it if you speak the lingua franca of your target market, but you won’t be able to maintain the relationship for very long. Worse yet, you might not be able to accurately or effectively, over time, be able to get the real true pulse of your market. When it comes to delivering your message, always make sure your translator understands both the game as well as its “English” — knows the rules and when and how to break them. Understands both the official protocol that State teaches its diplomatic corps but you’ll also need to know its shadow as well. What people say isn’t always what they mean — and you’ll often get a different price, response, and menu if you’re obviously from “not around here.”

Why am I telling this all to you? Well, because I don’t know how deeply or how carefully people think this all through. People tend to commoditize markets a little too completely; and, it’s even more prevalent when you have the sort of anonymous, unrestrained, unfettered and untaxed access to just about anyone and anywhere and I daresay maybe folks aren’t nearly careful, gentle, or attentive enough to expectations in customization, localization, and enculturation.

At best, you’ll be ignored; at worst, you’ll be tarred and feathered and drummed out of the corps.

What do you think? What are your experiences? Am I barking up the right tree?

Jul 03, 2013 12:00 AM