Saturday, March 31, 2007

MySpace competition? The world is big enough

Friendster, Orkut and other social networking sites are big dogs in foreign cyberspaces.

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By Patrick Day
Times Staff Writer

April 1, 2007

REMEMBER Friendster?

The online social networking site was on track to become the Internet's next big phenomenon a few years ago until an upstart called MySpace eclipsed it in popularity and media attention. But being spurned by America's fickle teenagers doesn't mean the budding social networking site went into hibernation or shrank to cater to a few true believers. While MySpace may continue to dominate in North America (more than half of its 100-million-plus accounts come from the United States), Friendster, Google's Orkut and other general-use social networking sites are thriving overseas.

In the Philippines, for instance, Friendster is used by an estimated 87% of the country's 8 million Internet users. About 70% of Friendster's 40-million-person user base comes from Southeast Asia.

"There's only room for a handful of broad global networks," said Friendster spokesman David James. "We're pleased with our progress."

In economically developing countries such as Brazil, India and the Philippines, emerging middle class youth cultures have invaded American servers, pushing sites that are considered also-rans in the U.S. into dominant social networking forces in the countries that have adopted them.

At the same time, unforeseen cultural conflicts and legal hassles demonstrate that going global can create problems far more complex than MySpace's well-publicized problems with sexual predators.

This month, Google struck a deal with police in Mumbai to turn over the IP addresses of Orkut users involved in so-called "Hate India" campaigns in the site's communities. The police investigations stemmed from a group who posted photos on Orkut of a burning Indian flag with anti-India messages scrawled on it.

"The conflict that arises is that Orkut is global, while the Indian authorities want to assert control of it," said Pete Cashmore, whose blog covers the latest developments in social networking.

Similar conflicts have occurred between Google and the Brazilian government. In 2006, a Brazilian judge threatened to fine the company $23,000 a day for noncompliance if it didn't turn over to the government information related to users spreading child pornography, racism and homophobia in Orkut's communities.

With the company and its servers under the jurisdiction of American law, the question of whom it must answer to overseas is an area heavy with legal concerns and complications. In this case, Google chose to cooperate with the Brazilian government. But will every online culture clash be wrapped up so neatly? With the kind of popularity Orkut is experiencing overseas, that's a question some sites would kill to be faced with.

Although Orkut, named for its Turkish-born creator Orkut Buyukkokten, has never received the kind of domestic media attention lavished on Google's other products, such as Google Earth and Google Maps, in Brazil it's the social network of choice.

About 55% of the site's 47 million users come from South America's largest country. With only 19% of traffic coming from the United States, it makes sense that Google quickly added Portuguese to Orkut's official list of languages, which currently stands at 13 and includes two forms of Chinese.

"Once we saw [the site] was catching on in Brazil, we started adding features those users would be excited about," said Courtney Hohne, a Google spokeswoman.

The language barrier

THE language option on Orkut has been both a boon and a problem for Google. One of Orkut's most popular features lets users create communities based around certain interests. But when some of these communities began to be moderated and run in languages other than English, many users complained loudly and attempted to instate English-only rules. For a time, Orkut threatened to become a high-tech Tower of Babel.

"I believe we have a language barrier," said Felix Ximenes, Orkut's head of communications in Brazil. "You're online to have fun and talk to friends. Sometimes it's very local. Sometimes it's friends from abroad. If you're not proficient in the language, it can be difficult, but a lot of the broader communities, about music and movies, post in English."

Now Orkut has an option to allow friend invites only from languages the user can understand.

Friendster, meanwhile, has kept English its sole language. But that hasn't hampered its effectiveness. James says the typical user in Asia visits the site every day or every other day and spends hours messaging with friends and family. That's compared with typical American users who come much less frequently and spend less than an hour there.

Just how are these sites catching on overseas despite starting in the U.S.? A lot of it may have to do with the cultural demographics of the San Francisco Bay Area.

When a social network is launched, its creators first try to involve their own circle of friends. Invitations go out to people in the Bay Area, who in turn send them to their friends, and so the network grows.

"There are quite a few Asian expats in the Bay Area," said Friendster spokesman David Jones. "They want to keep in touch with friends and families. If you can't call them every day, you keep in touch through the network."

To appeal to a broad international audience and avoid cultural missteps, site designers have had to find the best way to streamline these one-size-fits-all websites to work in any culture.

"It's a sensitive issue," said Hi5 Networks Chief Executive Ramu Yalamanchi, whose San Francisco-based site has expanding audiences in Portugal, Mexico and France. "Certain colors on the site aren't received as well in some markets. Some words don't translate well." A site with a large user base in Thailand, for example, must avoid designs that use the color purple, which is associated with death and mourning in Thai society.

Although the globe has already been divided up, Risk-like, into competing social networks, that hasn't stopped U.S. companies from trying to compete for markets. According to Cashmore, Fotolog, a New York-based photo-sharing service, is catching on in Brazil as well.

"The most important factor in the success of a social network is its ability to reach critical mass," said Cashmore. "Because users flock to where their friends are already, it certainly becomes less probable that there would be more than a handful of significant players per country."