This is a though I just came up with. I haven’t given it much thinking, but I would like to share it with you anyway, just to make you think again.
Website popularity usually goes one way: from the English world to the non-English world. Non-English websites can become very popular within their own cultural boundaries, but rarely get a lot of traction outside their cultural boundaries. English, and especially American, websites start in English-only mode. Then they get popular in the reasonably large English-speaking community. Next they get something magical or special for the non-English part of the world, partially because they are promoted in English popular media, which the rest of world follows very closely as well.
This gives them a huge edge. Example: a very popular Dutch social media network is Hyves. It is very popular under secondary school students, because it provides an easy interface to do what they want to do: share pictures, status updates and leave messages at each others walls. It is not run by a creepy guy who sells your personal details to the advertisers, although it was recently bought by the Dutch ‘Sun’.
The English Wikipedia on Hyves: “In May of 2010 Hyves had more than 10.3 million accounts (corresponding to two thirds of the size of the entire Dutch population which stands at over 16 million in 2010), with growth of over two million members compared to the previous 1.5 years.” It is the most popular social network in the Netherlands and it obviously does something right. It also offers an English version of its website, but that never became very popular.
Lets look at Facebook. Founded in 2004, but opened to the wider public only in 2006, a year when the Dutch police already started to use Hyves to locate suspects. It would be still a while until Facebook would get so popular that stories about suspects sharing their location on Facebook would emerge, but Hyves already had them. Facebook grew to half a billion users very quickly, many more than Hyves’ 10.3 million people. However, now more and more Dutch people are moving to Facebook, and I do hear that many people find its interface confusing and don’t know where to find things, considering it a more limited platform. (Although FarmVille makes up for that for some people.)
Why did Hyves, which seems to be favourite still amongst secondary school students, and also, though less, amongst adults, never gain enough traction in the English world to become popular? You, reader, probably never heard of this network before. I believe that this is caused by the language barrier, by the fact that the international culture, the one world that globalisation is said to have brought us, is mostly a one-way culture.
We consume the American culture, our own culture is heavily influenced by it, but because no American really follows Dutch culture, Hyves could have never gained enough fame abroad. Many Dutchmen and women gladly joined Facebook, despite its lack of localisation, but that would simply be not possible for the people that do not belong to the 27 million people that speak Dutch to use it. I read English-language news blogs about English-language social networks, but I do not read Swedish news blogs about Swedish social networks either.
This does not apply just to one social network, you can see it in many places. Companies like TomTom are the exception, not the rule. It takes a lot of effort and translating to market a non-English project or product in the English-speaking world, but it takes no effort at all to market an English project in the non-English world. Why? Because apparently we want to be like you, and you too.
EDIT Referring back to the title of this post: because of this barrier, innovation also flows one way. It can float from the non-English world to the English world, but much, much harder than the other way around. This causes innovative initiatives outside the English culture to stagnate and limits the pool of potential the world can tap from.