Tribes, Ghettos, Revolt.

Change in Internet demographics, 1990-2011 (click for big)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ways the Internet both resists and reproduces existing cultural divisions and ideologies. As cyberculture becomes increasingly inseparable from mainstream culture, questions about whether Internet spaces offer any potential for real social change loom large. It’s not even clear that Arab Spring, the most widely cited case of the Internet giving the proles the tools to revolt, was really at all made possible by Twitter.

The Web is, no doubt, becoming an increasingly global phenomenon, as the graph above demonstrates. I’m intrigued by the recent entry of the Philippines  Nigeria, and Egypt on the global stage, and I’m not at all surprised to see China’s steady growth. But I was not expecting the rapid expansion of the grey box at the top, “Countries with <1% of all users,” which has just in the last few years become the largest band of all. I’m surprised because my experience of the Internet is so overwhelmingly homogeneous: my interactions with other Internet users, even in relatively anonymous spaces, are all in English, often with self-identified Americans, referencing American pop culture. Where are all these people from the countries that don’t even have their own bar?

The Finns, I know, have their own thriving meme culture on Ylilauta. I know Russians still hang out on FidoNet. But I know these things only because bits of meme culture from each have filtered onto my radar: the Finnish Dolan, Russia’s Predved Medved. I’ve heard of the Chinese QQ and weibos, but I know very little about what goes on there.

Perhaps that is because the Internet, like Real Life™, is a land of infinite self-ghettoization. Online, I tend to go the places my real-life friends go, just as I tend to watch the shows my friends watch, read the books my friends read, see movies my friends recommend. The few places I hang out online that aren’t directly related to my shared interests with friends are places I’ve sought out based on my own interests, which have in turn been shaped by social forces: rabbit owner forums, poetry communities, sheet music archives.

Even within larger sites, we segregate ourselves. One recent analysis of tweets discovered that people on Twitter within particular affinity spaces actually began to develop shared habits of word usage, syntax, and spelling. The article offers this visualization of these “Twitter tribes”:

Some of these connections are not terribly surprising: obviously people talking about SXSW are more likely than the overall population to use the word “presentation.” But other findings of the study are more surprising. If you’re a Justin Bieber fan on Twitter, for example, you’re far more likely to end words with “ee,” as in “pleasee,” than the overall population. As people seek out groups of people who think like them on the Internet, they may become even more like one another.

The Internet is social, and the Internet is global. But those two things no longer interact in quite the way Web visionaries once imagined they might. The revolutionary potential of the Internet is limited by the fact that we don’t come into contact with diverse opinions nearly as often as the increasing demographic diversity would suggest.