Let’s get it out of the way: obviously China has hypertext technically, and I am not in the slightest about to say that there is some kind of Deep Cultural Reason underlying anything claimed here so let’s all set down the Sapir-Whorf pitchforks.
So, the piece’s argument. I don’t have as much to say about the second part (email vs. instant messaging).
In the US, internet culture developed from principal desktop computer use, with mobile internet only an add-on later. The central authority mediating experience is the search engine (grown out of the directory), which itself is only sort of a “platform.” Hosting independent content was and is the way to have an Impact – spin up a blog and Google will come index it. You can link and be linked to, and your readers may traverse those links. There are platforms that make exceptions – Instagram’s limit of “link in bio!” most obviously – but it’s very normal to follow a link from Facebook posts. Even platform-specific content is widely scraped, embedded, aggregated, presented as listicles, etc… and these get linked to again from within the platforms.
In China, internet culture has grown up mobile-first, and largely within the walled garden of WeChat. WeChat doesn’t allow external links and isn’t indexable by external search engines, and its internal searchability isn’t great either. It is a monolith and controls its own discovery opaquely.
The author argues that this leads to less reflective writing within the walled garden. Search engines make asynchronous discovery possible, so you’re more incentivized to make something that’ll age well and be useful for a while. Platforms’ pro-engagement algorithms reward takes quick and hot.
While it does seem true that this dynamic is real (or at least I see evidence within the American analogues), I’m more interested in how the dominance of the mobile platform-model has shaped how ordinary Chinese internet users think about linking to each other when they do have the opportunity.
I’d also echo the author’s question:
[Within the] information ecosystem of other developing [countries, does] Google’s domination encourage blogging even though most people own only mobile devices?
Centralization hates hypertext because real hypertext can be horizontal, meshy. Does fragmentation of markets protect a nascent hypertext culture against centralization? Is e.g. Southeast Asia fragmented enough to be able to answer that question?
Is there cool Chinese hypertext that lives outside WeChat? I mean, I’d guess the answer must be yes – what’s going on in that space? Is it more “alt” than earlier American network culture (shaped as it was by The Academy)?
In an information system that has only tweets, how do we get experts to write blog posts, and how do we discover and rediscover their writing?
Since leaving the hellsite, I’ve tried to keep up with some of the cool experts I followed there via blogs, newsletters, etc. – but a lot of their fully blog-worthy stuff just doesn’t reach that medium. I subscribe to a newsletter that sort of summarizes the entertaining stuff I’m missing – but I haven’t found the equivalent for the wonkier bits.
Is some of this inherent to the nature of mobile rather than the nature of platform dominance? I do a lot of Independent Web Publishing as you can see. When I draft on mobile, links are just… a pain. They’re just a pain.
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