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03.09.2003

Alek Tarkowski

Some time ago I wrote about the strange one-way mirror effect of our English-language internet. Most of us aren't aware of websites and weblogs outside our own language, while foreign-language bloggers (even if they don't speak English) are well aware of what goes on over here. Their English-speaking compatriots pick things up and disseminate them along.

As flattering as it is to have the whole world paying attention, it's a bad position for us American bloggers to be in, especially in these dicey times. I would like to know what people think in faraway places, without having to rely on media outlets and the official press, which I sometimes suspect of biased coverage. But as an English-language blogger, I'm limited in what I can find, and far more likely to have my own material read by non-anglophone bloggers than I am to find interesting things they have written, especially if I don't speak their language.

I put up a hand-wringing post along these lines in December, and immmediately received a brilliant email from a Polish blogger named Alek Tarkowski, who wrote all about the center and the periphery, and how the asymmetrical relationship between the two is becoming a permanent feature of the Internet. Think of those power law distributions we were all talking about not so long ago, but this time on a global scale. The email he sent is a nice object lesson in itself. Alek wrote it off the cuff, and sent it to me in Polish. I asked him for permission to put it up in English translation, and soon both of us were mired in extra work, trying to get it ready, until two months had passed. You really should go read it, and if you read Polish (sigh), visit the blog he describes in his message.

The periphery is a rough place to be. You feel resentment towards the center, that magic emotion that is equal parts rejection and longing. People who live out in dialup country get a taste of it reading the main US sites and weblogs - there's a strong bias towards New York and the Bay Area (case in point, the self-proclaimed Charles Kuralt of the Internet writing about his impending road trip from one coast to the other as if he were preparing to cross the Gobi). But this is nothing compared to what happens as soon as you get outside the English language.

Alek has no idea what to do about it, and neither do I. It seems wrong and even dangerous to have a blogosphere that is so parochial, but I've done too much work with natural language algorithms to believe in a technical solution. We'll never do much better than Babelfish.

I guess the best we can do is follow his advice, try to build bridges, and take on a special burden if we're lucky enough to speak more than one language.

When I was a fourth-grader playing soccer, I remember that the games would always look the same. We'd start off in our respective positions, but within a couple of minutes there would be a rolling soccer ball and a herd of twenty kids behind it, chasing it around the field, and it would be like that until someone scored a goal. Add to this picture a bunch of people standing on the sidelines, and you have weblogging, circa 2003. The ball is the Daypop Top 40, the people on the sidelines are all those web authors who don't happen to write in English.

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