“The App You’ve Never Heard Of”: Exploring Western Bias in Tech Media

If an app isn’t developed firstly for the Western market, tech press suggests its success isn’t worth knowing about.

by Archana Madhavan on September 7th, 2016

A little over a month ago, Japanese messaging app LINE made its market debut; at $42 a share, it was the largest tech IPO of 2016. A LINE user since 2013, this news was exciting to me, but apparently everyone else in Silicon Valley was left wondering: “What is this company?”

Outside of my day job, I’m a linguaphile; I’ve taught myself Korean and Japanese for almost 6 years and have friends who are native speakers or fellow learners from all over the world. Because of that, I’m intimately interested in the emerging technology of East Asia, finding my language partners and fellow language learners in East and Southeast Asia prefer to use LINE instead of WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.

It’s not hard to see why. At more than 200 million global users, LINE is the most popular Android app in Japan and has a staggering 30-day retention rate of 77%–meaning 77% of their users come back to use the app at least once a month. This may not seem that big of a deal, but as Moshe Alexenberg points out, if you consider the industry average of barely 2%, LINE’s popularity in its Japanese market is remarkable. In fact, in Tokyo, whole stores are dedicated to merchandise featuring the characters that make up LINE’s original “stickers.” Given the popularity of LINE, imagine my astonishment when I came across headlines like this:

Tweet from Business Insider reading "This little-known app is set to dominate the future of messaging" with a photo of the Line logo.

Tweet source.

True, LINE is far behind the number of global users of Messenger and WhatsApp, but I still found the headline to be deeply unsettling–as though the existing popularity of this app in Asia just didn’t matter.

LINE isn’t the only consumer app I’ve seen this happen to. For example, to say WeChat is China’s most popular app would almost be an understatement. At over 800 million active users, about 30% of whom are outside mainland China, it’s become so ubiquitous that it pretty much has its own universe. On the commerce side of things, Chinese businesses and businesses in areas populated heavily by Chinese immigrants, like Melbourne, are almost expected to maintain WeChat accounts, just like businesses in America are expected to have a Facebook page. TechInAsia writes, “If you live in China, you could realistically use no other app but WeChat all day.” And yet, even as of this summer, we have tech articles claiming that people have “never heard” of China’s most popular app.

Headline from the Sydney Morning Herald: "WeChat: The app you've never heard of that's key to cracking China". Dated July 3, 2016.

Link to article.

Headline from Tech Insider reading "An app you've probably never heard of is the most important social network in China". Dated Nov. 1, 2015.

Link to article.

This phenomenon extends outside of social media as well: Alibaba, known as the “Amazon of China,” was yet another perceived “unknown” despite being the world’s biggest e-commerce platform. Alibaba’s IPO in 2014 was the largest in U.S. history, beating out Facebook, Twitter, and Google, and with a greater market cap than Amazon (source).

Headline from Salon: "Why a company you’ve never heard of is about to take over the world". Dated September 18, 2014.

Link to article.

The irony of the “unknown” app

It is flabbergasting that LINE–an app that beats out Messenger and WhatsApp in Thailand and Indonesia–or WeChat or even Alibaba would ever be so baldly described as “little-known.” Little known to Americans or Europeans? Perhaps, since they were not part of the original target market. But “little known” to millions of people in Asia? Certainly not.

This pattern reflects the arrogance and shortsightedness of tech publications which, although often having primarily Western staff, are consumed globally: English speakers around the world — both within and outside of the tech industry — consume Western tech news; after all, Silicon Valley is home to international giants like Facebook, Apple, and Google. Such headlines erase huge populations of users, not only internationally but even in the West itself. Take, for example, the large population of immigrants to the West: just as WeChat remains significant to Chinese Australian immigrants and their families, many immigrants from non-Western cultural backgrounds remain connected to the technology of their (or their extended family’s) homeland. For example, South Korea’s most popular chat app, KakaoTalk, is installed on 93% of smartphones in the country; in America, the majority of KakaoTalk’s downloads are by Korean immigrants and Korean Americans. Not acknowledging just how significant KakaoTalk is to the Korean tech industry and to Korean Americans is exclusionary and, frankly, ignorant.

That brings us to the second point. For popular products that aren’t developed in Silicon Valley, what “unknown” really insinuates is “irrelevant.” If an app isn’t developed firstly for the Western market (and, primarily, privileged users in that market), Western tech press suggests that its success isn’t worth knowing about. It almost connotes that it doesn’t have to be known, or that it’s okay to not know about it in the first place, because it was never really that important. Especially in a tech industry that claims to be “changing the world”, this often reflects colonialist, racist, isolationist and/or nationalistic attitudes, as Anjuan Simmons discusses in “Technology Colonialism”.  As more and more online content is republished and repurposed, hundreds of variants of the “app you’ve never heard of” article populate tech blogs and websites, reaching a wider and wider audience and skewing perceptions of the actual relevance and success of these apps to readers worldwide. Case in point: the headline describing LINE as “little-known” may not have shown up in the American Business Insider site, but it did in Business Insider Singapore — despite the fact that the app has a considerable number of users in Southeast Asia and Singapore itself.

Series of multi-colored globes in a pile.

Photo CC-BY Jayel Aheram.

In fact, news of significantly popular non-Western technology often doesn’t make it into Western tech press until their IPO, and then only when it surpasses some “more relevant” American company’s benchmark (in the case of Alibaba), or when they’re seen as competitors to Western companies. This again reinforces the perception that non-Western tech giants are “irrelevant” until some superlative benchmark is reached. At a microscopic level, the attitudes perpetuated by a lack of tech coverage and use of dismissive language means Western B2B companies miss out on serious opportunities to expand into international markets, build international partnerships, and stay up-to-date with global innovation and communities. As a result, they may fail to understand international markets entirely, and even how to relate to the culturally diverse individuals that make up their own local market. This is irresponsible and even dangerous as Western companies set their sights on international expansion regardless of context, collaboration or understanding, and as their products themselves uncritically reflect Western biases. At a more macroscopic level, the skewed perception of irrelevance confounds the goal that many ambitious startups have today–that their technology will change the world and break cultural barriers. Most importantly, continuously skewed coverage reinforces limited and often oppressive notions of what — and who — matters… not only in tech, but in the future of human progress and economies overall.

The declining cost of mobile devices coupled with the huge uptick in apps developed for them is bringing more people online and the world closer together. Yet a biased, narrow focus in tech journalism contradicts and subverts these outcomes. It’s time tech writers and bloggers educate themselves about what’s dominating the markets in parts of the non-Western globe, and move towards journalism that truly reflects a commitment to technology that is changing the world… not just Silicon Valley.