Facebook as a multilingual communication site

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Olsen, Carolyn Anne

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As Facebook grows beyond a billion users (Zuckerberg, 2012), a decreasing percentage of those users are English-only speakers. Facebook provides a platform for multilingual conversation to occur, which requires that Facebook display non-Latin scripts. Because of the hegemony of English and the Latin alphabet on the Web, non-Latin scripts are often “ASCII-ized.” Displaying non-Latin scripts well facilitates communication for multilingual users and creates a place where they can explore their identity linguistically as they post on Facebook. This study examines what factors contribute to multilingual Facebook users making linguistic posting choices.

Many have named Facebook as a successful multilingual Web site, thus it is reasonable to expect that Facebook is an exemplar of multilingual social networking sites. This study is an examination and critique of Facebook’s multilingual translations. To address questions of how Facebook’s interface facilitates or impedes multilingual conversation, the researcher recruited twelve active, multilingual Facebook users to participate in individual interviews and a small focus group. Besides English, these users spoke and posted in the world’s four other most widely spoken languages: Chinese, Spanish, Arabic and Hindi.

The researcher found that multilingual Facebook users did not always have a choice in what language they would post. Users faced obstacles ranging from the Facebook app distorting script display to hardware bias limiting users’ text entry. Furthermore, participants’ linguistic presentation was not dichotomous between two languages; multilingual users and their friends are accustomed to operating in a multilingual space.

The larger implication of these findings is that Facebook, despite pioneering massive translation projects, has not solved the problem of linguistic representation for social networking sites. Facebook’s solution is not scalable to less widely spoken languages because even languages with many millions of speakers, such as Spanish, have flawed implementations on Facebook.




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