Let’s start with a brief internet history: For the first quarter-century of the modern internet, American companies — and more recently, Chinese ones — have largely been the dominant global forces. Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp apps, Netflix, Uber and China’s Didi Chuxing and TikTok have gotten traction in many countries.
The global digital titans don’t seem to be losing, but they are increasingly challenged by country-specific or regional power players. There are the regional e-commerce companies like MercadoLibre in Latin America and Tokopedia in Indonesia. Twitter is influential in India, but Twitter-like Koo is gaining ground. American tech powers look with envy at Southeast Asia’s Grab and Gojek, which offer scooter rides, a hair blowout or a home loan without leaving the apps.
There are a mix of reasons for the rise of local digital stars.
First, countries are putting up more roadblocks to foreign internet services. India blocked a bunch of Chinese apps including TikTok last year during a border standoff, and that helped create a rush of made-in-India digital services. Russia’s government has tried to nudge people to use homegrown internet services as a way to keep dissent from going viral at moments of crisis, as my colleague Anton Troianovski has written.
But the flowering of local internet services is not always a result of protectionism and nationalism. In some cases, homegrown companies are thriving or kicking the butts of global tech superpowers because they’re really good at what they do.
It can be great to have alternatives to the tech giants, but I worry about what we lose if we don’t even have moments of shared culture on YouTube or an affection for Amazon in common. Maybe you think that I’m silly, but I believe that there are elements of a global internet that bring us a little closer. (And sometimes, rip the world apart. It’s all complicated.)