Who’s Online Now, and Who’s Coming Next
With the creation in 1989 of the “HyperText Transfer Protocol” by researcher Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet has been synonymous with what’s called the “World Wide Web.” (That name, incidentally, was also Berners-Lee’s idea.) The phrase, like Berners-Lee’s new computer language, is elegant, compact and easily grasped. But for much of its life, it has also been a little deceptive. The truth is that for years the Web has been World Wide much more in theory than practice.
But that’s changing, and those shifting patterns of online use are changing what the web is all about.
From the outset, the United States was the earliest and largest adopter of the web. In 2000, just over 95 million Americans were browsing the Internet – more than twice the figure for any other nation at the time. Ten years later, Internet penetration in the U.S. remains very high (79 percent), exceeded only by South Korea (80 percent), Britain (82 percent) and Iceland (a whopping 93 percent). Taking population into account, that puts more than 245 million Americans on the web; roughly 12 percent of the global total of Internet users.
However for sheer numbers online, China dominates. The International Telecommunications Union, working with agencies like the United Nations, estimates 485 million Chinese are active web users. That’s 23 percent of the global usage total, but given China’s out-sized population, its Internet penetration rate lags far behind at roughly 36 percent.
These numbers tell one sort of story – of Internet haves and have-nots – but other data are pointing to a new narrative. Take India, for example. The world’s second most populous nation, India has traditionally ranked at the bottom in terms of Internet penetration, still only around nine percent. But that still translates into 112 million Indians online, as estimated by the Internet and Mobile Association of India. Moreover, at its current growth rate, India could likely overtake the U.S. in raw numbers of people on the web in just two years, with plenty of room to grow beyond that.
Or consider Russia. The web-rating company ComScore just released new data showing the Russian Federation has overtaken traditional top-dog Germany in terms of overall Internet users. Again, key to understanding what this means is the Internet penetration rates. At over 78%, there just aren’t that many more new Germans who will be coming online, but Russia’s rate of 43 percent suggests many more Russians will be hopping online.
Which is exactly what’s happening in India, Russia, Indonesia and other populous nations. People in these late-adopter nations are hooking up to the Internet at much faster rates than Western Europe or North America, precisely because there’s so much growth potential and so many more people. Some of this is also being sped by ICANN’s decision last year to allow non-Latin characters such as Arabic, Cyrillic, and Hindi in web addresses.
All this points in one direction: while the web is expected to continue growing everywhere, its spread will be fastest and most noticeable in Asia. With an overall penetration rate of just 24 percent but over half the globe’s population and wealth, Asia is the place putting the “worldwide” into the web. And those large numbers of new users will bring with them their own cultures, traditions, questions and web styles.
Postscript: There’s one noticeable outlier in the data. While Africa trails the rest of the world in web use, Nigeria – that continent’s most populous nation – also has the largest number of online citizens at 44 million, or roughly 28 percent of the nation. It’s very likely that Nigeria will soon overtake France and Britain in overall numbers.