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Language and text on the Internet

August 6, 2008

Another interesting article in the New York Times Magazine (I do read other outlets, I swear) was by Virginia Heffernan in her “The Medium” column. Heffernan chronicles her experience with non-English websites, comparing how Japanese and French websites treat strangers like herself.

I thought the article was interesting since it turns the tables on English speakers and makes us wonder how the “Anglosphere” treats non-English speakers. For organizations that work with new immigrants in the US, this is an interesting question and raises my own concerns about text-based communication on the Internet.

Many nonprofit organizations have jumped into the Web 2.0 world in spaces that rely heavily on text-based forms of communication (i.e. e-mails, blogs, etc.) but it may not always be the panacea for all their communications challenges. These spaces that often require above-average proficiency in English and savoir-faire in technology-based spaces.

Text-based communications technology such as e-mail is also infinitely replicable and consequently can become effectively meaningless to policymakers. Folks like Clay Shirky have pointed out that groups like MoveOn have had limited success in influencing Capitol Hill. Anonymity in creating text on blogs and bulletin boards also allows users to be contentious and intransigent in ways that do not promote true dialogue. Wikis, a form of on-line collaboration that allows users to edit text together, have shown the most promise in fostering new forms of collaboration. Yet even wikis require a common language, an extensive vocabulary and higher than average technological knowledge.

This makes me wonder if non-text-driven tools like video are easier for new English speakers to access. Heffernan’s experience on the Japanese website kind of backs this up. Video also requires more conceptualization and pre-planning, perhaps making it less spur of the moment and perhaps malicious. Also making decisions about framing and effective messaging provide a learning process for video creators.

More on this soon…

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