A Golden Age of Local Digital Stars

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A Golden Age of Local Digital Stars

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The global internet is becoming a little less American, and this can be both exciting and unsettling.

I’m a bit obsessed with regional ecommerce stars like Coupang in South Korea and Jumia in parts of Africa and how they manage to outperform Amazon (so far).

Their success is proof of what moving away from online services as a homogeneous – and largely American-dominated – global blob could be. And it shows that for country-specific or regional digital specialists, we may be on the verge of the golden age.

At a time when many people and elected officials are concerned about the power of most American and Chinese tech giants to shape what people believe and reshape the economy, it is good that there are more alternatives to dominance Big tech out there. But globally shared Internet services also have something magical about them.

Let’s start with a brief Internet history: In the first quarter of a century of the modern Internet, American companies – and more recently Chinese – were largely the dominant global forces. Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp apps, Netflix, Uber, and China’s Didi Chuxing and TikTok have met with approval in many countries.

The global digital titans don’t seem to be losing, but are increasingly challenged by country-specific or regional rulers. There are 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 are jealous of Grab and Gojek in Southeast Asia, which offers the option to book scooter rides, a hair loss, or even a home loan without leaving the apps.

There are several reasons for local digital stars to rise.

First, countries put more barriers to foreign internet services. India blocked a number of Chinese apps over the past year, including TikTok, and this has helped bring numerous digital services up and running in India. The Russian government has tried to get people to use domestic internet services to prevent dissent from going viral in times of crisis, as my colleague Anton Troianovski wrote.

However, the bloom of local internet services is not always a result of protectionism and nationalism. In some cases, local businesses thrive or kick the butts of global tech superpowers because they are really good at what they do.

It can be great to have alternatives to the tech giants, but I worry about what we’ll lose if we don’t even have moments of shared culture on YouTube or a shared affection for Amazon. You might think I’m stupid, but I believe there are elements of a global internet that bring us a little closer. (And sometimes you tear the world apart. It’s all complicated.)

In part because YouTube and Spotify are popular in Bogotá, Bangalore and Boise, a broken world shares a love of reggaeton and K-pop music. With much of the world using websites like Facebook and Twitter, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong help fuel regional protest movements in Thailand and Myanmar.

Glad Coupang can thrive when it comes to South Koreans’ love for online shopping. Indonesians deserve local businesses that know what they need better than some distant tech giant. I also hope that we will manage to keep these fine threads of our Internet life together.

In the Before Times, I opened the Grubhub app a few times a month and ordered too much food from a burger joint around the corner. One day I was looking at the restaurant’s menu and found that my burger and fries were a few dollars more on the app.

If you’ve used a grocery or grocery store like Grubhub, Instacart, or DoorDash, you may have had a moment where you found that the prices were higher than those at the restaurant or store. Or you have wondered how high these “service fees” are.

(Read my colleague Erin Griffith’s new article on Instacart’s popularity during the pandemic and the company’s expansion plans.)

That’s because in the rush to grow as fast as possible, these apps are almost everywhere hiding what their convenience services are really costing us. What if – a breathtaking proposition – we knew the real price to have a burger or groceries delivered to our door?

That’s not how it works. My colleague Brian X. Chen found last year that the same food ordered from four different delivery apps cost 7 to 91 percent more than what he would have paid if he had bought the food directly at the restaurant.

The higher costs result from a mixture of filling up the prices for menu items, a jumble of service or other fees and even a different sales tax. Courier tips have sometimes also found their way into companies’ pockets.

The result is that it is almost impossible to know what these services really cost, or to decide for yourself whether we are paying a fair price for convenience.

I expect my burger joint around the corner to increase the prices for orders via app to offset the commissions the restaurant pays. Because of me. Some people choose Instacart or Restaurant Delivery Apps to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus. I get it. What is not fair is not knowing the real cost.

I still get takeaway burgers from this place around the corner. But now I’m calling it on the phone – on the phone! – and know that there is more money in my pocket and also in the restaurant.

  • How voters in swing states before an election: My colleagues Michael Corkery and Karen Weise reported on an attempt to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama and how they are besieged by arguments from lawyers on both sides. Even the timing of a traffic light was a point of contention.

  • No, tech companies can’t fix everything: NBC News and Bloomberg wrote about Microsoft’s efforts to support the operation of government vaccine websites in New Jersey, Iowa and Washington, DC. “Even for a tech giant like Microsoft, it was too difficult to combine the patchwork of existing digital infrastructure in 99 countries,” wrote NBC News.

  • The last good day on the internet: It was February 26, 2015 when people were glued to the up-to-the-minute saga of Llamas at large in Arizona and a debate about “the dress”. My colleague Charlie Warzel remembered something he wrote on the first anniversary of that great day.

This giant dog and teenage dog are best friends and I love them.

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