language, quebec and the web

by Hugh

I was at the Montreal web entreprenneurs breakfast, and was talking with Robin, Alex Eberts, Sylvain, and a couple of others about language, the web, Montreal, and politics. It’s funny, though I am an Anglo born and bred, a Westmounter if you can believe it, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a typical Anglo when it comes to Quebec/Canada politics (not sure if typical Anglos exist anymore, at least not this side of the city). Maybe part of that grew out of my stint at university in Kingston. I enjoyed my time there, more or less, but I never quite felt at home in the Anglo Canada of Ontario. My allegiance was always more with the world of Montreal (the French, the English, the everything else) than it was for some idea of Canada. Of course when push comes to shove I’ve voted federalist in referendums, but given the choice of talking to a random Canadian stranger in Tokyo, I’ll feel more at home talking with a Franco-Quebecker than a Torontonian most times (not that I have anything against Torontonians). I’ve long had a certain intellectual sympathy for the separatist movement, partly because I have great respect for Rene Levesque and much of the social democratic vision the PQ had in the early days. (They have abandoned that vision, mostly, and I am not very interested in them as a result – though the rest of the clowns don’t do anything to inspire me either). Certainly as Canada moves more to the right, I am less and less interested in tying myself to the country of Canada as an idea, especially as the elements of the idea I do believe in are fast disappearing.

In the world of web that I live in now, though, the idea of national boundaries are mostly irrelevant. LibriVox, for instance, is populated by people from all over the world, a huge number of Americans, a tiny number of Canadians, and almost no Quebecers (that I can think of). In my commercial web life, I have a British partner in Sydney, and an American partner in Tokyo, and a billingual Franco-Quebecker partner here at home. On another brand new proto-project, LibriLinks, the one guy who has contributed so far is, I think, in England, but I’m not even sure. It doesn’t matter where he’s from.

The only relevant borders for me – at least online – are borders of interest. This is old news, but it’s interesting in the context of Quebec, and especially with the the explosion of new Web projects these days and the increased interaction at events. The ones I’ve been to tilt slightly to English, but the mix is pretty liberal. The money, love it or leave it, is in the US market, so the tendency will be for English. We’re peanuts in Canada, and 1/10 of a peanut in Quebec. As a for instance, 1.2% of the traffic for LibriVox (about 12k visitors a day) is from Canada; vs 32% from the US (the balance being mostly unresloved/unknown @ 26% and network (?) 32%).

English is (so to speak) the lingua franca of the net. No news there either, but the web world that I inhabit in Montreal is pretty bilingual on both sides of the table, and it has to be. Working together on various projects tends to erase the political misconceptions we might have had about each other. There’s not much choice about working together: Anglos have an in because English is our native tongue, and so we’re immediately comfortable in the space where much web action is happening; and it turns out that many of the people doing cool things are Francos.

Not sure what I am getting at, but it was inspired by this discussion chez Martine, and the idea that when you work together on a web project (really any project) with people, just about everything except for the work gets erased from your evaluation, and in the end political barriers break down. In the case of LibriVox something interesting happened. I came to trust and like people not for who they were, what they were (I had no idea of either thing), but for the concrete things they did in that open project. My friendships with those people was built entirely on their actions, and nothing else…And that, it seems to me is the best possible basis for a friendship – accross thousands of kilometers, across language, political, and national divides. There is an interesting web project in there – getting people from different sides of some heated politics to work together on a project with a common cause.