Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

YouTube and Bridging the Cultural Gap

Written by johnleemk on 9:13:17 pm Dec 13, 2007.
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I first used the internet over ten years ago — and I set up my first website over ten years ago as well. Although this is probably not that remarkable for a middle- to upper-middle-class citizen of the developed world, for someone from the developing world, I suppose that is something.

I still remember only vaguely grasping the power of the internet when my father, who was then working in Singapore, explained how we could use internet relay chat (IRC) to talk with him. Already, my perspective on the world was changing — it is difficult to be parochial and simplistic when you log on to a list of a hundreds of chatrooms, each literally full of people from countries you have only heard of, speaking languages you have never heard.

I recently got a sense of that experience again while browsing through videos on YouTube. When YouTube first became a phenomenon last year, I did not understand the whole fuss. I remember only a couple of years ago, when someone wanted to post a video online, the process was tricky and not always guaranteed to work because of system incompatibilities. It was clumsy, but it worked.

But now with YouTube's arrival, literally a whole world of visual content has been made available to billions of people, regardless of what operating system or web browser they use. Now, this is not necessarily a huge boon — much of my time on YouTube has been spent watching a Japanese game show featuring people playing football with binoculars on, and odd transliterations of the lyrics to German and Tamil music.

But while idly browsing through the comments of an operatic pop recording a few minutes ago, it dawned on me that more and more videos have non-English comments on them. Moreover, they were not being ignored — they were being read, as indicated by the comment rating system!

There are a lot of fancy ways to describe this phenomenon — New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls it the flattening of the world, which I suppose is as good a term as any to use. I prefer to call it globalisation, because this is the essence of a global community.

Only half a decade ago, around the time my parents were born, you could learn about the world, but it was difficult to bring this reality home to you. Today, because of the internet, globalisation makes the world into your backyard. The video I watched was an Italian and English operatic pop song, with about 20% of the comments in Spanish or German. And lest anyone accuse globalisation of being biased towards the West, we all know that YouTube hosts clips from anywhere in the world, and that some of the most-watched videos on YouTube have not been produced in the West.

This probably seems unremarkable today, but I remember that only five years ago, it was still relatively exceedingly rare to bump into more than a handful of non-Americans on the internet. If there were any, they often stuck to their own communities. It is truly incredible that we have gotten to a point where people are comfortable commenting in another language on what is essentially an English website.

People enjoy denouncing globalisation, both economic and cultural. Economic globalisation is fundamentally a good idea, but it is not the subject of this piece. As for cultural globalisation, let me ask you: would you prefer a world where a Taiwanese youth can can reinterpret a German 16th-century piece on the electric guitar, or a world where we are all "culturally pure" and the Taiwanese and Germans keep to themselves?

You might accuse me of painting a false dichotomy. But the honest truth is, if you accept a little exchange and dialogue between cultures, you have accepted complete dialogue. There is really no in-between. Either you accept that all cultures of the world have the right to participate in a free exchange of ideas and YouTube videos, or you believe that we should all maintain some vague, idealised "cultural purity", as some anti-globalisation protesters seem to argue.

The internet is a wonderful tool, and we are only really beginning to see its full potential. Ten years ago, it was still something only a handful could indulge in. Today, with the advent of things like the One Child One Laptop project, we may be on the cusp of a fully globalised world — a world where the concerns of someone halfway across the world are just as, if not more relevant to me than those of my neighbour.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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