For the 600,000 speakers of Welsh the Internet represents a galaxy of new opportunities to use and see their language. Google lists approximately 4,830 web search results for the term ‘y we Gymraeg’, which literally translated means ‘the Welsh language web'.
But as far as the network of machines is concerned there is no distinct Welsh language web; online pages of multiple languages interlink and multilingual content can often reside on the same database on the same server. For example, Twitter is a centralised platform based in the United States, but is host to conversations by Welsh speakers, many of whom read and write tweets in Welsh. A similar observation could be made of blogs in Welsh on WordPress.com and videos on YouTube.
The precise meaning of the term y we Gymraeg is subject to discussion among academics and bloggers. But judging by the search results, Welsh speakers regard a language-specific web as a natural reality which they can explore and contribute to. It is their subset of the World Wide Web – all the pages, blog posts, videos, tweets, podcasts and other content that is in their language.
Ned Thomas, the Welsh academic and media activist, has described the situation for those in England who occasionally look on:
The Englishman is remarkably unselfconscious about his language and content to use it as a tool. Although he can allow intellectually for the Welsh attachment to the native language, it is something the Englishman finds hard to understand emotionally. It must seem a romantic cultural obsession, a communal neurosis. There is an obsession; that must be admitted. A healthy language, like a healthy body, does not need to have its temperature taken all the time; but the Welsh-speaker is constantly asking how the language is doing [...].
Since his comparison in 1971, Wales’ national constitution and education system have been partly reformed, to the language’s benefit.
Now, the continual emergence of web-based content platforms – while in theory promising – introduces an additional set of criteria for assessing the health of the language.
Recent research presented by the BBC at a media conference shows that of the time spent on the web by the average Welsh speaker, only 1% is on Welsh language content. We can assume that most of the remaining 99% of the time is taken up by English-language content. There are several factors behind these percentages, which form a contemporary story of linguistic domain loss.
Although the Welsh language web is large from an individual user’s perspective, it has relatively few resources available when compared with other languages. Even the Basque language, which statistically is in a comparable situation to Welsh in its homeland, is much more privileged on the web in its number and diversity of established websites and levels of participation.
Wales has comparatively fewer institutions that would view an increase in quality web content as an important part of their mission. There is perhaps an excessive reliance on voluntary efforts. Yet the cumulative amount of spare time at the disposal of volunteers, what the American writer Clay Shirky refers to as cognitive surplus, is also small.
Welsh language users do benefit from other language webs. Wikipedia is a superb example – a project which started in English but has spawned parallel projects in many other languages. Wicipedia Cymraeg is in fact the most popular website in Welsh, receiving 2.5 million page views per month. (The spelling reminds us of the lack of need for a ‘k’ among the 28 letters of the Welsh alphabet.) It currently has 36,774 articles which are predominantly contributed in spare time.
Wicipedia Cymraeg’s success is due to a perfect combination of interesting content and that other challenging factor for any small language: attention. Owners of Welsh web projects suffering from a lack of attention would do well to reflect on how Wicipedia has achieved such effective distribution of its content.
Reasons why awareness of Wicipedia is high include mainstream media coverage, inbound links and prominent search ranking for its articles. Because of its blanket Creative Commons licence, the content of Wicipedia Cymraeg is in the hands of nobody – and everybody. That is, its content can be repurposed and reused elsewhere. This licence is among the strategies being considered by publicly-funded bodies in Wales who produce content, in order to strengthen the language in the digital age.
The existence of the Web, as referred to above, is not to be taken for granted. Its inventor, the Englishman Tim Berners-Lee, regularly warns of threats to the Web such as fragmentation due to the growth of competing platforms run by Apple, Facebook and other companies. He says:
[...] If we, the Web’s users, allow these and other trends to proceed unchecked, the Web could be broken into fragmented islands. We could lose the freedom to connect with whichever Web sites we want. The ill effects could extend to smartphones and pads, which are also portals to the extensive information that the Web provides. [...]
Any threat to the World Wide Web is a threat to the Welsh language web. These ‘fragmented islands’ will be controlled by companies who are geographically and culturally distant from the homeland of the Welsh language. With an already patchy landscape of Welsh-language media of any kind Welsh speakers are unlikely to celebrate imminent ‘disruption', that buzzword so beloved of the Silicon Valley speculators and venture capitalists.
Conversely an increase in websites and web apps which are owned and controlled by Welsh language users and organisations, would be a strength. Meddalwedd rydd (free software) such as WordPress and open standards like HTML5 could enable more of these homegrown projects to appear – but only if embraced.