Social networks: are they really international?

We all know and use at least one social network: Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, LinkedIn, Viadeo… you name it. Hey, even YouTube or Flickr could be considered a kind of social network.

Social nets broaden our horizons in terms of communication and “networks”, especially in a globalized society. Thus, we can interact with people all over the world, with only cultural and linguistic barriers. Of course, this is easier if you speak foreign languages, and English is always of great help to reach other users.

But once you have started all these multicultural, intercultural, and multilingual interactions, what happens with your own participation within the social network?

I personally use three different languages to interact with friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and total strangers. The question now is: what do all these people make of the content I post, especially when I posted it in a language they do not speak?

Social networks may offer a service available worldwide (or almost), but do they offer an actual international experience? For instance, having to deal with many languages in one’s own profile remains a hard task, and a heavy drawback to balance with all the tiny advantages of multilingualism.

Twitter: careful, you might get unfollowed

Yes, careful on Twitter. In my own experience, tweeting too often about content to which your followers do not relate can get pretty messy. Do you tweet in different languages? Have you gotten unfollowed often? Well, there you go. It is all about either choosing your audience right, or establishing the right balance between one language and another (and another).

Indeed, as pointed out by a Twitter user, this social network is more selective that others like Facebook. And here, you cannot stay connected with people whose posts you don’t want to see on your Timeline.

Aquafadas, a French digital publishing start-up, has chosen to post in French and English. I don’t know if this works for the company, but business looks like doing well. However, as most posts are in French, we can wonder whether its Twitter account really reaches foreign users or potential customers. So, again, how do you share with all your contacts without alienating some?

The answer seems pretty simple, right? Share in English. Most people understand Basic English, so that should be the way to go. But what do you do with the small percentage that doesn’t understand English at all, or doesn’t want to? I can’t help but think of members of my own family, like my mother, who refuses to use English. So some of my tweets, Facebook posts, hey, even this entire blog, are things that I won’t be able to share with her. Anyhow, one language will always exclude some people. And resorting to Basic English not only does that, but also reduces the way we share and how we express it.

Another solution would be to have several accounts, one for each language. Seems like a neat choice. But keeping up with two different Twitter accounts is hellish (you can follow me here and there). Nevertheless, this is the perfect solution for large international companies or even celebrities (whose accounts would be managed by their staff, of course).

But all these ways around do not really solve the problem: how to get a real international sharing experience from social networks?

Facebook: some hints of international relationships

Lately, Facebook has shown that it has noticed, understood and tackled this issue. The best example is the integration of Bing Translation into Fan Pages posts, then to all interactions between Facebook users.

This is of course still being implemented, and sometimes you can come across a conversation in which you won’t be able to check the translations. But once this feature is solidly established, it will completely redefine the way we interact with our Facebook friend. Hey, you will even be able to share with people who speak completely different languages from the ones you understand. And if this feature is developed further, we even might be able to include Sign Languages translation.

An example of Fan Page translation. Source: Inside Facebook

Of course, this represents a huge business opportunity for companies with Fan Pages, especially the ones that target a specific market, or simply can’t afford to pay translations or language skills.

After actual spoken/written language, we could also wonder if social networks take into account other cultural factors. Take Arab users, for instance. How do they perceive the fact that social network websites are designed for Westerners? Reading from left to right, we are first drawn to the profile picture, then the name and main data, and finally the profile itself. Is this issue a real one? Do social networks need to adapt, or is it like being a lefty, adapting to everything that doesn’t fit your user needs?

Instagram: a picture says more than 1000 words

With their social network, co-founders Mike Krieger and CEO Kevin Systrom really saw the big picture. What would be best to share beyond nationality and language boundaries? Pictures, of course.

Instagram, sometimes known as “the Twitter of pics”, just does that, taking the best from Twitter (simplicity) and Facebook (likes). It allows you to share effortlessly to any number of persons around the world. Of course, a picture can always be interpreted differently according to culture, gender, and other biases, but every single message suffers the same consequences, no matter its form.

In an interview, Systrom reminds us of the universality of pictures as a language. But is Instagram that far reaching and international? OK, it is international, at least in purpose. And although it has until now focused (and restricted) the app towards iPhone users, it soon will open up to Android compatible devices, broadening the network’s reach even more. Let’s not forget that the iPhone is not available in every country, or at least officially, so this was a huge restriction as far as internationality is concerned.

Ok, so Instagram offers a more universal experience. But what about comments? Those are not translated like Facebook’s. Nor hashtags. In my own experience, if I want my pics to be found by any fellow speaker, I’ll need to tag them with the same hashtag in three different languages. So the 30-hashtag limit per image comes often short.

The core value of this network is sharing our own arty pics. And yet exchanging with other users leads us back to square one: language.

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In the end, the extent to which each social network pretty much reflects its accessibility. Twitter, despite becoming very popular, remains a tech-savvy network. Facebook scores with increased access to foreign users, and remains the common-of-mortals favourite. As for Instagram, a comparison would be unfair, as it is not as popular as the other two media giants. But it has found a way for most users to communicate. At least, in a way that might be less reductive than Basic English.

Thank you for reading! Please share your thoughts on the comments below or find me on Twitter. You can also check my pics on Instagram and I’ll make sure to check yours.

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