Thinking Tech

What China's dominance could mean for the Internet

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73 million Chinese citizens joined the online ranks in 2010, bringing the country's total online user base to a staggering 457 million--more people than live in the entire United States, by far.

Questions about China's explosive digital growth tend to be shaded by an assumption of Western--and particularly, American--dominance. They focus on the country's restrictive filtering policies, its imitations of American site concepts, and its strained relations with Western companies that try to breach its markets.

Issues like these are undoubtedly worth attention, but draw focus away from bigger questions. Like: What happens when China's online exceeds that of all others?

Something as nebulous as "online influence" is more or less impossible to quantify. Contributors to influence, though, are easy enough to track. Just this week, the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) released its summary of findings for 2010. The salient bits:

  • 73 millions Chinese citizens came online this year, for a total of 457 million
  • Growth has slowed, but is still rapid: 2010 saw a 19% rise in users, after 28% in 2009, 41% in 2008 and 53% in 2007
  • 303 million users access the Internet by phone, up nearly 30%

For a bit of perspective, the number of Internet users in China surpassed the entire population of the United States in 2009. Before the end of 2011, there will be more people browsing social networks like QQ or search engines like Baidu from their phones than there will be human beings breathing in the United States.

A 2010 report by communications firm Fleishman Hillard noted that Chinese users are particularly engaged, as compared to the rest of the world. According to The Australian, the agency found:

[I]n the five usage areas: research, communications, commerce, publishing and mobility, China is at the top of each and every one.

The traditional leaders, the UK, the US, even Germany, are laggards relative to the rest of the world.

The stats may be staggering, but China's online influence eludes most American users. There are plenty of reasons for this, the language barrier being the most obvious. But there are nearly as many reasons to believe that these factors will be ameliorated with time.

For example, it's conceivable that the language issue could be at least partially resolved by improvements in the free and instant translation tools already on offer from companies like Google. (This could also serve as an accelerant in the emergence of an intermediate language, as discussed in this fascinating Wired piece from a few years ago.)

Or perhaps a future liberalization of censorship policies could encourage more American web companies to expand their operations to China; likewise, a rise in novel and innovative web tech from China could lead its companies to reach for American shores. If organic growth doesn't draw the American and Chinese Internets closer together, commerce will.

Yet we have no idea what this heightened level of interaction will look like. Will Chinese users take to American sites? Americans to Chinese sites? Will there be aesthetic consequences, in terms of user interaction and design? And of course, how will secondary and tertiary online user bases--the numerous robust but limited European populations come to mind--figure into a more globalized Internet? Will this digital globalization really even be noticeable to a typical user? I suppose the core question comes down to that phrase, right there: What is a globalized Internet?

Whatever it turns out to be, we won't have to wait long to see it.

Chart, depicting differing but related sets of data, courtesy of Royal Pingdom

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure