Five lessons learned about cross-cultural social networking


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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.

Darren, Allie, Joe at Nexon

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.

Mixi vs. Facebook design comparison

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.

Intersection in Shibuya

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.

Faces in the West, avatars in the East

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.


Join The Discussion

  1. Larry Hawes

    Great post on a topic that is too often neglected! Multi-lingual content is a very important component of intranets and Web sites that span geographical and cultural boundaries. Crude machine translation is not enough, as you recognize in your post. Well done, Chris!

  2. Mike Wagner

    Great post on a subject that confuses a lot of folks due to lack of background/experience.

    I learned some of my cross-cultural thinking translating ancient texts from Greek and Hebrew into modern English.

    For that reason I appreciate your policy: “We always use professional translators…”

    Finding the dynamic equivalence between source language and target language is a must.

    Keep creating…a story worth repeating,

  3. MMP

    Working in the field of social computing and social media business consulting in the Nordics, I think our colleagues overseas would find my comments interesting.

    All countries have a different culture and that it why when we approach companies in different countries also in the field of social web consulting, we need to take certain values and ethics into account. This is why one cannot in a way talk about one approach, if we are discussing social networks strategies as users use various networks differently in each country. So in a way, the social web is one, but with various nuances.

    Comment to language. Language does not matter if we are private social web users. But it does if we do use it in our work environment. At least in the four European countries, where we have been working with clients in social media.

  4. José


    Understanting other countries mentalities is something that we should develope, as it’s a signal of maturity as humans.
    Behind a computer, this is not a simple task and a simple way to prove it is to remember ourselves of altercations that happen between members of online forums, simple due to a wrong interpretation.
    I believe that the interaction between people of different nations is a way to overcame this obstacle.

    Kind regards,


  5. marion

    Dear Sirs
    I found your article very interesting as an intercultural trainer and as a person who lives in Israel. We read and write from right to left (Hebrew), and I know that in many organizations they prefer to build an English site only in order to make it easier for foreign investors. However I think that the site should at least in the about and career pages be in Hebrew too, as for many israeli though they know English it would be much easier to learn about a company and look for a job in Hebrew.
    As for quantity of text and colors: your observations are very important.
    thank you.

  6. Janet Kuntz

    I have been looking for information on this topic for a while… so thank you for tackling it. I work in information management, information architecture and strategy. As we connect information sources, and look for improved methods of collaborating across boundaries, understanding the multicultural linguistics and social issues is something that needs to be factored in within large organizations as well as those working with the public. Too often we forget the internal aspect and focus solely on external users to the detriment of effective internal digital workspaces, innovation and ultimately improved relations with clients and the marketplace.

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