Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Social networking, the interactive web and challenges to widening inclusion

Posted in social networking and business, Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on January 8, 2010

One of the basic themes that run through my postings in this blog and through all of the series I post to in it is inclusion and of widening access and opportunity to participate. When Ray Kurzweil developed the first really successful text reader that could take the printed word and convert it to voice, the power of text processing and of the text-oriented web was opened up to people who were visually impaired. It can be argued, and quite convincingly that the history of online is as a general process, the history of a widening and expanding of access. This was true before the World Wide Web where anyone could send and/or receive file transfer protocol documents and other online resources. The advent of the World Wide Web simply made the experience richer for content and easier to use. And anyone and everyone could make their own web site and publish their own content, personally branded or branded to their own business, large or small. The impact of this has been one of leveling the playing field for all to participate, and it has both given voice and created opportunities for others to find and listen to this rich sea of voices.

Email was the first killer app for online and before it was the Internet per se – back in the beginning when it was ARPANET and still a limited-access resource. That application has always supported, and by its very technology underpinnings encouraged wide participation. Web 2.0 and the interactive web, and online social networking, blogging, IM and Twitter and our growing range of new and emerging online channels and options have merely expanded the reach of an already actively growing trend – inclusion and active involvement and participation, and with all of us as potential contributors and not just as passive consumers of content.

On one level this posting is a continuation of thoughts shared here on reaching out to and including the blind and visually impaired into the growing global conversation. There are, of course a lot of other groups that are increasingly enabled by our new and emerging technologies and our growing pool of best practices in its use and that definitely includes opening doors for a widening range of communities and cultures. So this posting is about inclusion in its broadest sense, and it is about recognizing and reducing barriers. But this brings me to a question that ongoing events in the news have also shown to be compellingly important.

• Do all increases in inclusion serve to lower barriers to participation or do some actually create and strengthen barriers to open participation?

If the answer to that is yes, then a whole new set of issues comes up insofar as we have to decide what types of change to include offer positive value and to whom, and which ones might balance that at the very least with a more negative impact.

The core issue I would start with here is the simple and perhaps obvious fact that different languages are written in a wide diversity of differing scripts and character sets. Many like English and the Western European languages are written is relatively limited character sets that can be encompassed in coding with single bytes per character – the one byte character sets. Some, and certainly the ideogram based writing systems like Chinese require two bytes per character. But even just considering the one byte character sets and the languages they support, there is a wide ranging diversity.

This is much more opportunity than barrier for online for issues like web page content, where Unicode and similar multiple character set options are available, but it becomes more of a challenge when it comes to shared online information like URL content. And that is where this story really begins as a group of Russians, and with backing from at least some in their government argue that URL’s should be written in Cyrillic characters as well as, and as an alternative to the Roman character set of English. The argument is given that Russian URL’s and browsers used to access them should be Cyrillic-centric for finding and connecting online to Russian web sites. This would extend, of course to email addresses and the representation of domain and top domain names there too.

This would acknowledge the rich diversity and culture of the Cyrillic languages and the peoples who use them. This would also create new and significant barriers in the Internet walling off Russian language speaking peoples from much of the rest of the world. And as an historical parallel that comes at least to my mind I find myself thinking of the way Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic cut off his peoples from their past in literature by switching from Cyrillic to Western European character set writing, and only allowed that that taught in schools.

I am not in any way arguing the relative merits of any one character set over any other here, but I am instead arguing that the answer to my question, above is indeed that “yes, some decisions to include can create new barriers to inclusion and participation.”

I add here that the admittedly anecdotal responses I have heard regarding this proposal argue the point that while Russian should be written in Cyrillic, URL’s should be in a more universal script and that means keeping them all in the Western European character set that has been standard up to now.

This becomes a matter of weighing nationalism and support for one’s own culture and heritage against access to and ability to engage in a more global conversation and exchange of value. I also would argue that the later should generally win out and in giving as many as possible, as wide a reach to connect and share as possible, globally. This is where the most will be empowered to the fullest of their potential.

I add that this in general, is a complex set of issues that can only be addressed on a case by case basis. If I were to pose any basic underlying guidelines for dealing with this type of issues though they would be that:

• This type of issue is most likely going to arise where cultural identity and sensitivities come into potential conflict with cross-cultural needs and priorities.
• We need to find ways to talk and to work together across and sometimes even in spite of our cultural identities and other differences, and at the same time
• We have to respect and find value in the richness of culture and cultural diversity and differences while doing so.

The dynamic of all this as it plays out in real life and day to day cannot be expected to be easy and it is not something that can be managed with simple cookie cutter solutions. So I post this with an of-necessity open set of questions that I would share with others.

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