Fighting the language fragmentation

Throughout the years while being the editor of netzwertig.com, one reader question arose frequently: Why would we not publish in English in addition to German? Personally I did not feel this would have made sense, but for a very long time I was playing with the thought of launching a dedicated tech blog in English. A site where I could publish analysis of and comments on events taking place in the global and European technology and Internet industry. Now, finally, I am doing it!

The main problem with writing about the events, trends and companies that shape our digital present and future in a language other than English is that your reach is pretty limited. That does not matter if a text concerns a local or national issue, which we have enough of in Germany when it comes to the (comparatively neglected) digital society. But as soon as one covers a major news or service from the U.S. – where most of the latest tech still comes from – the possible impact one might have is radically diminished by sticking to German or any other tiny language present in Europe. It feels a bit like looking through a one-way mirror from the operator side: You see what goes on and you can comment on it, but the crowd on the other side does not notice it: They do not see nor hear you.

I would put it like this: Everything that is not being expressed in English does not matter on a global scale, is not being seen by others, is not being shared, questioned and re-thought by enough people with different views and experiences. Or, if it matters, it happens with a delay (until the translation and distribution in foreign circles).

When you look at the major sites and blogs covering the latest news from the San Francisco Bay Area (which includes the Silicon Valley), from New York (an increasingly important tech hub) or elsewhere, most of the voices are American, or at least from the English-speaking countries. There is certainly no lack of European journalists and bloggers who follow and write about the evolution and revolution of the technology world. But most do it in the many different languages of Europe. I find that to be an unfortunate situation, and it means that voices from the “old continent” are hardly being heard on the other side of the pond. Except those from questionable politicians and media tycoons that, out of desperation about Europe’s failure to create its own giants, are on a crusade against Google.

Obviously I will not be able to change the fragmentation with this modest little site. But my hope is that other fellow European writers who are passionate and opinionated about tech will eventually make the switch as well, or at least try to publish in English occasionally. Europe notoriously has failed to produce the kind of far-reaching Internet giants that the U.S. west coast has given birth to. One of the many reasons for this is the massive language fragmentation and micro-competition between dozens of small ecosystems, which kills a lot of potential strength and network effects.

That is nothing that can be changed within a day. In many countries of Europe the majority of people still lack a common language to communicate with across borders. On the other hand, especially within the Internet industry, it is happening, and language barriers as well as cultural barriers are being dismantled. It takes a while, and it won’t lead to big results immediately. But if everybody contributes, over time improvements will be seen. I simply want to contribute with what I can do.

My plan is not to position meshedsociety.com as a site focusing on Europe though. The only reason why I keep mentioning that word is because this is where I grew up, where I live when I am not traveling somewhere else, and where most likely major parts of my values and view of life were initially shaped. As everybody who has spent enough time in the Bay Area knows: Mentality and culture there can be quite different.

I see this site as an experiment. My goal is to write stuff that people who are interested in the digitization of our lives enjoy reading. If it works out and if I at one point in the future can find an exclusive sponsor or another type of readership-respecting business model to finance my work, great. If not, I will run the site as a side-project or stop eventually, knowing that I never need to regret not having tried it.

If you like to join in on this journey, here (and in the right sidebar) are some easy ways to subscribe or follow. Thanks for reading and good to have you here!

Illustration by jakubmarian.com

18 comments

  1. I think you should publish in both languages. Some people (me) would prefer the original Germany version, once I’m studying it and I really enjoy.

    I also agree with you, it must be an English version for the rest of the world. English is the language of Internet, as German is the language of science.

    • ‘as German is the language of science’-LOL…as an academic I can tell you that publications in global academia have to be in English if you want any engagement with global colleagues. It’s basically similar to Martin’s observations on German language and tech writing.

  2. Maintaining two or more languages is a chore. I would never do it.

    If you audience is mainly and mostly German, no problem. Otherwise, English is the way to go. But even if the audience is mostly German, every German I know speaks and reads English quite well.

  3. I appreciate that you choose to publish in English. Although I know many computer languages, sadly I only speak and read English. I think the part of my brain for languages is stuffed full of C, C++, C#, vb, Fortran, and others more obscure.

  4. While I agree in sentiment, I am a native German speaker but work and live almost entirely in English for reasons of marketability (and I live in London – gosh, I’m a hypocrite!), I disagree in terms of adequacy:

    Yes, you can write in English, reach a larger audience and get more input/impact, but at the same time you alienate the German readers that come to your site to read in German, and also undermine what little spark of a digital tech scene there is in Germany.

    It’s an underfunded, under-exposed sector in the economy, going about and switching to English basically is saying “I give up, there’s no tech industry here, and my voice will not help build one”. People talking is at the core of what makes the SF model work: a large concentration of people, in close proximity, constantly interacting and rubbing up against each other, it’s a catalyst.

    If European bloggers all switched to English, where’s the fun in that? It becomes a hegemony, it’s a race to the average. Half of what makes the international tech scene so interesting is that, in part, because of language differences and deep cultural interpretations of how tech affects them, the interpretation of ideas is just different – and that should be kept alive.

    This is purely anecdotal, but when we released Tyk, it got picked up and used in China and India faster than we could say “ZOMG”, however when we looked around and tried to find where we are listed, we found Chinese websites, in Chinese, for the Chinese. That sprawling mobile and tech scene in Shenzen wouldn’t be possible without a highly vocal internal network of people ingesting, translating, interpreting, discussing and making available information from outside for their local market and readership.

    All I’m trying to say is: It’s amazing when people talk, and speaking two languages can be a PITA, but it can also be really useful, because there’s a commonality that belongs to the speaker and the reader, and not some borrowed language that feels clumsy to use because it isn’t native.

    I disagree that the language of the Internet is English, the language of the Internet that you and I see is in English, but there’s a seething, busy and vocal network out there in Hindi, Mandarin and Russian, they are just not as influenced as Europe by the goings-on of the american tech sector.

    Of course, I may be horribly wrong – all the above is just opinion :-)

    • You are probably quite right with a lot of what you are stating.
      And it is also very unlikely that I will stop writing in German elsewhere (right now the future of netzwertig.com is a bit unclear but not decided about yet).
      I didn’t claim that the “language of the Internet is English” by the way. I wrote this: “Everything that is not being expressed in English does not matter on a global scale, is not being seen by others, is not being shared, questioned and re-thought by enough people with different views and experiences. Or, if it matters, it happens with a delay (until the translation and distribution in foreign circles).”

  5. Well reading that article it was padded out a lot. You could probably have said what you needed to with 25% of the words. This would give you time to write the same thing in German, Spanish and Esperanto.

  6. This! Same reason why many German startups solely build their stuff and communicate in English. Maintaining two or more languages right from the start is a pain in the a** if you want to move fast and building in German limits your market like crazy.

    Sadly German consumers still get very annoyed and irritated “You are German, why is there no German version of your stuff”. No problem in Switzerland b.t.w. where willingness to pay is also a magnitude higher. We Germans seem to be annoyingly focused on our language and scrimp and save every penny (“I might pay for this if you translate it into German” [and then the market kills you because you get slow while stuck in managing multi-language hell])

    • In regards Switzerland: Could it have to do with the fact that Switzerland is a country of four different languages? So the default mode of “one language to rule them all” that exists in Germany many other European countries is missing?

  7. Funny thing is, just last week I’ve decided to start a YouTube channel, where I will upload videos in both german and english once a month. Each time I’m going to upload one video in german and then, one week later, the same video in english as well. Technically, both videos should be the same – same setup, same production values, same content. I’m very curious how these clips will perform.

    So basically it’s a similar experiment. As such, I’m very curious how this site’ll perform. So yeah, I’ll definitely have an eye on your journey here ;)

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