This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.
The global internet is becoming a little less American, and this can be both thrilling and unsettling.
I’m a tiny bit obsessed with regional e-commerce stars like Coupang in South Korea and Jumia in parts of Africa, and how they are managing to out-Amazon Amazon (so far).
Their success is evidence of what may be an evolution away from online services as a homogeneous — and largely American-dominated — global blob. And it shows we may now be on the cusp of a golden age for country-specific or regional digital specialists.
At a time when many people and elected officials are anxious about the power of mostly American and Chinese technology giants to shape what people believe and remodel economies, it’s good that there are more alternatives to Big Tech dominance. But there is also something magical about globally shared internet services.
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.)
In part because YouTube and Spotify are popular in Bogotá, Bangalore and Boise, a fractured world shares a love of reggaeton and K-pop music. When much of the world uses internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong help galvanize regional protest movements in Thailand and Myanmar.
I’m glad that Coupang can thrive by catering to South Koreans’ love of online shopping. Indonesians deserve local corporations that know what they need better than some faraway tech giant. I also hope that we can manage to retain those fine threads of shared internet life.
What if we knew the cost of convenience?
In the Before Times, a couple times a month I would open the Grubhub app and order too much food from a burger place around the corner from me. One day I looked at the restaurant’s own menu and realized that my burger and fries cost a couple dollars more in the app.
If you’ve used a food or grocery service like Grubhub, Instacart or DoorDash, you might have had a moment when you realized that the prices are higher than they are in the restaurant or store. Or you might have wondered what those “service fees” are.
(Read my colleague Erin Griffith’s new article about 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 nearly universally hide what their convenience services really cost us. What if — mind-blowing suggestion coming — we knew the real price of having a burger or groceries delivered to our door?
That’s not how it works. My colleague Brian X. Chen last year found that the same food ordered from four different delivery apps cost 7 percent to 91 percent more than what he would have paid if he had bought the meal directly from the restaurant.
The higher costs come from a mix of padding the prices on menu items, a muddle of service or other fees, and even a divergence in sales taxes. Courier “tips” have sometimes gone into the companies’ pockets as well.
The result is that it’s almost impossible to know what these services really cost or to decide for ourselves if we’re paying a fair price for convenience.
I assume that my burger place around the corner marks up the prices of orders coming in by app to offset the commissions that the restaurant pays. Fair enough. Some people are choosing to use Instacart or restaurant delivery apps to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus. I get it. What’s not fair is not knowing the true cost.
I still get takeout burgers from that place around the corner. But now I call it on the phone — the telephone! — and know that more money is staying in my pocket and the restaurant’s, too.
Before we go …
Like voters in swing states ahead of an election: My colleagues Michael Corkery and Karen Weise reported on a drive to unionize Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama and how they’re being besieged by arguments from advocates on both sides. Even the timing of a traffic light has been a point of contention.
Nope, tech companies can’t fix everything: NBC News and Bloomberg wrote about Microsoft’s struggles to help operate government vaccine websites in New Jersey, Iowa and Washington, D.C. “It was too difficult even for a tech giant like Microsoft to combine the patchwork of existing digital infrastructure across 99 counties,” NBC News wrote.
The last purely good day on the internet: It was Feb. 26, 2015, when people were glued to the minute-by-minute saga of llamas on the loose in Arizona and a debate about “the dress.” My colleague Charlie Warzel flashed back to something he wrote on the first anniversary of that great day.
Hugs to this
This giant dog and this teeny dog are best buddies, and I love it.
We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]
If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here.