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IP Addresses Not A Proxy For Language Ability

As Mark Allen Peterson wrote in his post on “Developing Expertise,” we have been having a discussion about the importance of bringing anthropological knowledge to the social web. For this reason I called upon people who follow me on Twitter (@kerim) to bring their anthropological expertise to the new question-and-answer forum, Quora. While there are a lot of questions which could easily be answered by using Google or Wikipedia, there are a lot of good questions as well; questions which it would be good for anthropologists to answer. But after using the website for a while, trying to help out where I can, I suddenly found myself blocked from asking questions because the computer was assuming I couldn’t speak English based on the fact that I connect to the Internet from Taiwan. I wrote to Quora about this and they quickly fixed the problem, but I wanted to share our e-mail exchange as the use of IP addresses as a proxy for language ability is increasingly common and I would like to see linguistic anthropologists more aware of this issue. But there is also a second issue here which is the attempt to police the use of a forum by non-native English speakers. This too seems highly offensive and questionable. I’d be curious if there aren’t other attempts to control who can access websites in this way?

UPDATE: I wanted to add that I understand one reason why a forum might wish to limit the language used in that forum: the need to moderate the discussion. A shortage of trained moderators in other languages could legitimately require the forum to require that people post in English, at least until they train more moderators. However, I am not questioning this so much as the assumption that the distribution of these speakers can be identified by IP address and the use of a Quiz to try to keep non-native speakers from participating. I’ve posted this on Quora as well, so it will be interesting to see how the discussion evolves there.

Below the fold is my e-mail exchange so far, I will update it when I hear back from Quroa:

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