by Bevil Wooding
Developing Content for the Indigenous Internet
One of the many attractions of the Internet is that it offers so much, to so many. The global system of interconnected computer networks now serves over a billion users across the planet. However, for the vast majority of those users, the technology enabling the Internet is invisible and irrelevant. This is exactly as it should be. For the millions who connect every day, the value of the Internet lies in the content and services it makes globally accessible.
The Internet and in particular the World Wide Web, can be viewed in terms of content producers and content consumers. We can think of content producers as those individuals, groups or organisations that post or publish material online. That material, or content, can take the form of text, multimedia (audio or video), photographs, software applications and services. Content consumers, on the other hand, are those who access material or services available online. Of course on the Internet there are far more content consumers than content producers. Still, the beauty of the Internet is the unprecedented efficiency with which it serves the appetites of content consumers across the world.
However, even though any individual can now potentially reach a global audience, the internet landscape remains unevenly dominated by the cultural and economic powerhouses of the world. A scan of the top most visited websites underscores this point. The websites in the top 1000 speak to the reality of generic human interests that stand alongside a range of diverse cultural preferences. We see news, research and business ranking beside social networking, entertainment and shopping. This tells us that the Internet, ultimately, is a delivery mechanism that facilitates the fulfillment of universal human needs — the need for knowledge, entertainment, service, information, social interaction, and empowerment.
As the Internet grows, those countries and societies with mature systems of content development, innovation and entrepreneurism will continue to be better positioned to meet these needs. At the same time, such countries are also better positioned to take advantage of the efficiency, and capacity of the Internet to amplify and extend their cultural reach and economic capacity. The implication of this amplification and extension of cultural reach and economic capacity from developed markets, is that it can drown out indigenous content and restrict local economic opportunities in developing and under-developed markets.
This imbalance of content (like an imbalance in trade) can come at a heavy and deleterious socio-economic price to affected countries and regions. It changes appetites, it adjusts expectations, it affects values, and ultimately it modifies behavior in a manner that is often not in the best interest of national development or cultural preservation and can disrupt tradition indigenous social norms.
The Internet: Local is Global
As more countries in the developing world implement strategies to get their populations online, we must now raise the questions ‘whose Internet will these new users be connecting to?’and ‘into whose Cloud will they be Computing?’
Will the next billion Internet users be able to access indigenous literature, art or news? Will they find perspectives and values that are familiar? Will they be able to access services, to easily buy and sell goods — in their currency, fulfilled by their financial institutions, covered by their laws?
Many countries are now realising that they do not have satisfactory responses to these questions. They are also recognizing that urgent action is needed to address this issue.
From Cloud Consumers to Cloud Producers
The concept that local access to the internet gives users global reach is well understood. This consumer paradigm is in fact most prevalent, as users routinely go to the internet to get something from a foreign source. The notion that satisfying ‘local’ needs can create global opportunities is, however, less prevalent. The producer paradigm, where users in a jurisdiction leverage the Internet as a platform for publishing content and deploying services, needs to become more reflexive. Content contributed from as many sources and on as many subjects as possible is a necessary approach if the Internet to be truly reflective of the many cultures and societies it touches.
For local users Internet access should firstly be a portal to a domestic network that gives access to local content, enabling local transactions, reinforcing local values, empowering local communities and developing the local economy. This is something Internet users in the developed world take for granted.
A user in New York expects to easily find a list of the best coffee shops in his neighbourhood. A user in London expects to be able to go online to get the latest bus schedule. A user in Berlin expects to go online to get near real-time news on what’s happening in the city. In each case the user expects to go on the global internet to satisfy a local need. This should be no different for users in the developing world. In other words, the global Internet can be viewed as an aggregation of local networks.
These local networks focus on delivering information and services that are primarily focused on serving local needs and demands. This is not an unfamiliar concept. It can be observed with radio stations and local television channels and local press. These services focus on meeting local content demands while also connecting to and giving access to larger external networks.
A radio station, for example, may play music or syndicated content from around the world. However, its news, advertisements and public service announcements will always be tailored to the local market it serves. The same model applies to local television stations. This gives domestic users a resource that connects them to their immediate (local) world, while also give them access to an external (global) world.
This model scales perfectly to the internet, with the added advantage that the web, as a content delivery platform, is also interactive and transactional. Still, this advantage has to be transformed from potential into reality. It is this transformation that seems to elude many developing countries. In the race to connect communities to the Internet, it seems many proceed without the benefit of a roadmap.
Any structured plan to produce local content will require coordination, but not necessarily centralization. This is where creative local resources produce relevant local content, riding on local infrastructure, governed by local legislative and regulatory frameworks to meet local needs.
This is the ‘Local Internet’. This builds the global Internet.