This is the article I wrote for the BBC on 4 October 2012.
When the internet was first conceived, it was to English-speaking parents.
Its nascent language, HTML, was programmed by an Englishman, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and the first computers to be shipped across the world used the Roman alphabet.
It was a colonialism of sorts, albeit a predominantly benign one – an online reality to which we have since become unusually accustomed.
However, as is often the case, this kind of blanket adoption can lead to complacency. Until now it’s been all too easy simply to launch a platform or website according to Western standards and hope for the best.
The fact that Google Translate is used hundreds of millions of times a week, in more than 52 different languages, is a great justification for the hordes of us hoping to reach global audiences by creating one-size-fits-all solutions.
It’s become the get-out clause for those of us too lazy or cash-strapped to consider the end users’ needs, whether they’re accessing our site from the co-working space round the corner or from a start-up business on the other side of the world.
In recent years we’ve witnessed a loosening of this anglicised grip, with Mandarin and Spanish thrashing it out as linguistic heavyweights, fiercely contending for the top spot.
Although the picture is not entirely representative (many online users claim English as their second language), this shift from an English-speaking, Western monopoly hints at a future in which personalised online experiences will become increasingly tailored to cultural sensitivities.
A future that is already taking hold at grass roots level.
Contrary to initial doom and gloom predictions – that the Western web would assimilate non-Western users in an act of cultural cannibalism – many online communities have, instead, co-opted online standards and adapted them to meet their needs – an effect known as “glocalisation”.
What’s fascinating is that in many cases these adaptations have not been made at a conscious level.
For instance internet users in China over the age of 25 tend to scan the width and breadth of a website’s page in a manner that Western users would find indiscriminate and overwhelming.
Yet their younger peers (16-25) exhibit an adaptation of this behaviour, scanning in the same eye-gaze pattern but only above the fold of the page.
It’s a small difference, but one that points towards the gradual, quiet cultural shifts that are starting to shape the future of our online world(s).
It’s not only the end users who are doing the adapting, either. All global platforms – whether a Fortune 500 website, social network, or blog – exist simultaneously within a complex spectrum of different cultural contexts.
Those businesses smart enough to understand this fact are already capitalising on it to drive engagement and, subsequently, their bottom line.
Take Coca-Cola for instance. If you want an example of conscious glocalisation in action, go look at the following websites and do a simple compare and contrast: cocacola.co.za (South Africa), coca-cola.com.cn (China), coca-cola.de (Germany).
Far from diluting their brand, Coca-Cola’s ability to incorporate their trademark design (that fabulous red and curvy typographic style) within the cultural, aesthetic sensibilities of their customers not only allows them to retain their impact, but to actively enhance it.
And all because they have taken the time to research their customers to produce a glocalised, culturally-adapted site designed specifically for that audience. It’s genius.
But more than that, when it comes to online success, it’s vital.
There are many ways in which we can adapt our online platforms for better engagement – from researching our audience’s age and gender, to their social group, country of origin and level of digital literacy.
But one thing is certain: if we are serious about reaching out to a global community, whether as customers, businesses or peers, we have to start responding to the cultural contexts in which we relate and engage online.
If you don’t, you’ll be left behind.
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