Facebook's Linguistic Passport

Facebook's international expansion began in earnest last year. Now that the company has figured out the whole non-English-speaking-world thing, it's been smooth sailing.

So far so good in Europe and Latin America. Thanks to a translation application that allows users to translate Facebook content into their native languages, 2008 growth among users in foreign markets was rapid, increasing from 34 million to 95 million. Currently a majority of Facebook's user base is international with 70% of its approximately 200 million users coming from outside the United States.

The decision to establish a user-generated translation process was initially more pragmatic than anything else, said Facebook EMEA chief Colm Long. "We didn't have the sort of cash to throw around, and typically these localization companies are pretty expensive."

Once completed, however, it was an opportunity to create a more meaningful experience for users. "They feel very passionately about it and participate in great numbers. It's probably the most democratic and best way."

Redesigning Facebook for languages that read right-to-left like Arabic and Chinese was "a huge engineering challenge" but with the template in place, it marks the passage of a long-standing hurdle.

Whether countries will be ready for Facebook is another question. Countries across the Middle East have limited broadband acess and the region is forecasted to achieve a mere 6 percent penetration by 2010, according to a report by Gartner, Inc. To put that in context, the United States ranked 20th worldwide with 26.4 percent broadband penetration in 2008.

Among the friendlier Arabic-speaking nations for social networking websites are the United Arab Emirates, particularly Dubai. The UAE has relatively extensive broadband penetration and a "strong commercial vibe," Long says.

Facebook's internationalization does not come without complications. As the network grows beyond the Western hemisphere, it has encountered a broad range of challenges, from the technological to the ideological. Not surprisingly, it has not been well-received in markets where governments curtail free speech.

Last year a young activist was jailed and tortured by Egyptian officials for organizing a demonstration using Facebook's group application, and last week Iran blocked access to Facebook in anticipation of next week's presidential elections.

Freedom of speech violation flies in the face of Facebook's founding mission, which is to help people "connect and share." If the company hopes to enter markets where political suppression is frequent, it will need to eventually address this contradiction.

Geoffrey Decker is an editor for the social media start-up whereIstand.com

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