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Social networking theorists like to debate whether and how much cultural differences impact the way people respond to and interact with social networks.*
Some, for example, argue that networks such as Facebook mainly reflect and accommodate values and norms prevalent in Anglo-Saxon cultures (U.S., UK, Canada, etc.) — which explains why they’re much less successful elsewhere.
The theoretical discussion turns starkly practical when multinational enterprises develop intranets or other social networking tools for internal use. Differences are real and sometimes critical, as we learned while helping an Asian-based company with offices in Canada, the U.S., Korea and Japan deploy a global ThoughtFarmer intranet.
ThoughtFarmer goes to Asia: On-site visit in Japan
The good news is that most such differences can be overcome with a little innovation and modification. Here are five key lessons we learned:
1. Design matters
Asian users said the original ThoughtFarmer pages, designed in Canada, “looked North American.” They enjoyed more muted pastel colors and anime-style emoticons, a look that seemed equally foreign to North American eyes.
This was not a trivial objection. One of the aims of the project was to make this highly distributed and multicultural organization more cohesive. The foreign-ness of the look and feel – on both sides – worked against that.
Solution? More skinning. ThoughtFarmer’s skinning functionality allows web designers to apply CSS designs on a section-by-section basis that suit the preferences of each region.
Compare Mixi, Japan’s #1 social networking site, with Facebook. Mixi uses muted tones and illustration. Facebook uses primary colors and is primarily text-based with photos.
2. Language matters
You may be willing to exercise whatever language skills you have to glean vital information from the Web written in a foreign tongue. But you’re much less likely to struggle with a language barrier for “merely” social communication. And in many cases, you’ll have no skills.
ThoughtFarmer worked around this critical obstacle by incorporating Google Translate APIs. Users can now click a button to get an immediate machine translation of an intranet page, and then flip back and forth between original and translated page. They can also fill in an online form to order a more accurate human translation.
3. Language subtleties matter
We always use professional translators for translating program labels, tags and instructions into a new language. But we’ve found that professional translation on its own isn’t sufficient — only field testing with native speakers can verify accuracy. And minor mis-translations can have disproportionate effects.
For example, when ThoughtFarmer translated the program to Korean, it used a literal equivalent of the term “favorites”. But Koreans and Japanese use the term ‘scrap’ or ‘scrapping’ when they bookmark a web page – not a translation but the English words. ‘Favorites’ meant little or nothing to them. Result: many didn’t realize the feature was available so didn’t use it.
4. Performance matters
It’s not so much a cultural as a market difference, but norms for Internet connectivity vary around the world. Koreans, for example, enjoy very fast Internet connections – 10 Mbps and up. With the intranet initially hosted in Canada, Korean users complained that response times were slow.
The performance shortfall was small, but employees tend not to use tools that fail to perform to their expectations. Action was needed. The solution in this case was to add mirror servers in Korea and a replication scheme to ensure content was always up to date.
Internet speed expectations in Japan and Korea are extremely high: most home users have connections of 10MBps or more. (Photo: Intersection in Tokyo)
5. Faces matter
Sometimes cultural differences are intractable – but that doesn’t mean fatal. For example, Korean and Japanese users were uncomfortable with posting pictures of themselves at their personal intranet pages, preferring to use avatars or pictures of pets. They could not state definite reasons for this preference. Expectations around privacy, perhaps, or a culturally-ingrained sense of personal modesty?
Some North American organizations require employees to post pictures as a way to promote cohesion by making even remote fellow employees seem more familiar and accessible. But the disinclination of the company’s Korean and Japanese employees to do this appeared deep rooted and it was decided not to press the issue. Did it undermine the project as a whole? By no means.
In North America and the UK, most people don’t hesitate to share photos of themselves on their profile. In Asia, it’s more common to use an avatar. Judging from some of the profile photos we see, avatars may be the way to go.
ThoughtFarmer co-founder and president Darren Gibbons, who traveled to Korea last year to observe how the customer’s intranet was being used there, says, “We did find key differences. But there were also lots of things we found where we were on the right track. And people there were quite interested in being involved and definitely understood what we were trying to do.”
Cross-cultural differences do have an impact on the way people use social networking and clearly they must be taken into account in designing tools, but many, possibly most, can be worked around. As for the rest? Vive la difference.
*For a fascinating discussion of perhaps subtler cross-cultural differences than are aired here, see this post and ensuing discussion by Mark Masterson of CSC, Can Social Software Work in Germany?, and this interview with Geert Hostede, author of Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions, and Organizations Across Nations.