Off the Map: Dealing with regime change

We live in very dynamic times across several dimensions — cultural, geopolitical, technological and so forth. Most content creators and localizers maintain a collective awareness that markets do change, since culture is ever-evolving and adapting, particularly in an interconnected world.

Even so, we tend to make assumptions about market conditions, at least for a time, because as businesses we rely on some degree of stability in order to create our products and plan our distribution strategies. To be honest, a lot of forecasters would love it if the markets stayed relatively consistent — it would be far easier to predict consumer interests, whims and desires. And it would help content developers to focus their craft on the types of content they know people would enjoy and predictably consume.

However, we are businesses operating on a global scale and not only across many diverse cultures, but across cultures that are constantly evolving. In some locales it seems as if those changes are so subtle as to be imperceptible, so they’re sometimes (perhaps unfairly) viewed as backwards or conservative. Other areas are showing more overt changes, often for the betterment of their society, but sometimes not so much. Whatever the case, change is inevitable; as the oft-quoted Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “The only constant is change.”

Let’s first keep in mind a fundamental principle of the global distribution of content: whether we like it or not, externally-created content must find some level of appeal or approval with the forces that control distribution in any given market. Most often, this force is the national government on some level. In heavily restrictive areas such as China, the government has nearly absolute control over the influx of content and will take excessive means to maintain that level of control, as seen by the “Great Firewall of China.” In the majority of markets, the government has a role in regulation but with varying degrees of intervention. It’s prudent then to understand what that level of intervention might be and how the content being produced and distributed will or will not meet local expectations, which is really the key. This is really where the practice of culturalization becomes so critical, to better understand the geopolitical and cultural conditions and adapt accordingly.

As a footnote to appealing to the local authority that controls distribution, one thing that content developers often seem to overlook is that many countries do not share their own concept of freedom of speech. While many governments around the world have freedom of speech clauses in their constitutions and founding documents, almost all countries maintain some level of control, some mild and some very severe (such as North Korea and Myanmar). So when a regime changes, the rules that we’ve come to expect about who controls the distribution of content and by what standards will potentially change as well. When considered in the context of content creation and distribution, this forces us to explore the issues around one of the major variables in our globalization and localization industry: what happens when the conditions of our target markets change rapidly and how do we respond?

The twentieth century saw a great deal of political change across the globe, which is often a natural outcome of major events such as World War I and II, as well as the effective end of colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. One of the more significant changes was the so-called fall of communism in 1989, a movement that started in Poland and then quickly spread to Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and other eastern European countries. So swift were the actions that by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself was dissolved, giving way to the creation (or perhaps re-creation, since they were once independent) of 14 countries. The political and cultural changes were extremely diverse; for example, the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania embraced a societal and administrative structure much like western Europe, whereas some countries were more like Turkmenistan, which ended up being ruled by a severe, heavy-handed dictator who called himself the “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of the Turkmen People) and declared himself President for Life (he died in 2006 and was replaced by a democratically-elected president).

One of the fundamental outcomes of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was new local requirements and preferences on language usage, where many of the former parts of the USSR quickly reverted to their local languages and put restrictions on the use of Russian despite its persistence as the lingua franca. Over time, cultural changes ensued with some of the new countries embracing a broader definition of free speech while others remained cautious and controlling. Without a doubt, this radically affected content strategy and distribution, and required companies to ramp up new product development and localization efforts.

Recently, one of the more surprising upheaval events has been the seemingly sudden regime changes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a tumultuous time that has since been dubbed the “Arab Spring.” This wave of revolution across Arab countries began in December 2010 in Tunisia with a local uprising that resulted in the complete overthrow of its government within a month, following the tragic self-immolation of protester Mohammed Bouazizi and the escape of President Ben Ali to Saudi Arabia. With the help of media exposure as well as the rampant use of social media (Figure 1), this incident spurred similar protests that spread rapidly to other Arab countries which had likewise been under the rule of perpetual and entrenched leadership. By January and February of 2011, the range of protests, civil disorder and demand for government reform had spread to Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, Morocco and several other nations. In addition to Tunisia, entire governments were overthrown and replaced in Egypt, Yemen and Libya; in Syria, the country erupted into a major civil war that is ongoing as of this writing.

Beyond the serious sociopolitical changes, some market strategists might shrug at these events from the viewpoint that these markets weren’t robust to begin with for external content. However, this feeds a persistent Western misperception that the MENA region is inaccessible or difficult. True, the region presents its own unique challenges as all markets do, but in some media sectors, such as video games, it’s been one of the fastest growing locales. It’s not a question of viability, but rather of adaptability. Many see the Arab Spring as a potential (and long-awaited) opening up of the region as new democracies promise expanded free speech and expression, which in turn implies a greater acceptance of external content and thus business opportunities. We will have to wait and see if that may be the outcome.

Another consideration in the wake of regime changes is the relatively fundamental aspects that must be accounted for in content. These include something as simple as a change to a country’s name or the retirement of a now-historical name (Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia), the change or introduction of a new country flag, national anthems, national symbology, emblems and so on. As we know, these basic identifiers for countries are critical fixes as they are usually leveraged across many resources such as registration forms and country/region lists. New governments and countries are often proud of their achievement and expect to see the correct names and symbols in content being distributed in their market. And on a competitive note, a timely change to this kind of information can also show the consumer that your company is responsive and agile, which may increase the local appeal.

In cases of regime change in target markets, it’s important to set aside assumptions and not to act too prematurely in response. As we saw with the fall of communism and now with the Arab Spring, the changes are swift and at times unpredictable. Our humanity hopes the best for the people in these markets and that their actions will provide them with the positive outcome they seek. At the same time, we take a cautiously optimistic perspective on the situation and carefully gauge what the market might want and need as it evolves and moves forward.