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

Technology & Innovation
  • 3.1 million individuals could lose their job to self-driving cars.
  • But A.I. is not a monolith: it makes a lot of mistakes.
  • To better understand how to navigate our economic future, we should pay attention to these mistakes.
Keep reading Show less

Russian reporters discover 101 'tortured' whales jammed in offshore pens

Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.

(VL.ru)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Russian news network discovers 101 black-market whales.
  • Orcas and belugas are seen crammed into tiny pens.
  • Marine parks continue to create a high-price demand for illegal captures.
Keep reading Show less

NYTimes exposé reveals how Facebook handled scandals

Delay, deny and deflect were the strategies Facebook has used to navigate scandals it's faced in recent years, according to the New York Times.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The exhaustive report is based on interviews with more than 50 people with ties to the company.
  • It outlines how senior executives misled the public and lawmakers in regards to what it had discovered about privacy breaches and Russian interference in U.S. politics.
  • On Thursday, Facebook cut ties with one of the companies, Definers Public Relations, listed in the report.
Keep reading Show less