Global social networking

Did you know that Americans do not have the largest social networking communities in the world? According to market research by Ipsos, America comes in fifth place in terms of number of people connected to a social network – South Korea comes in first. According to Ipsos,

Leading all other markets in its love affair with social networking is South Korea, as half (49%) of all adults in this country have visited at least one of these websites in the past, while over half of all online adults have visited a social networking website in the past 30 days… In comparison, about one in five American adults (24%) have ever visited a social networking website.

The chart they include is the best part of this announcement. It points to South Korea and Brazil as being the most active social networkers, with China and Mexico closer to the U.S. but still more active than American social networkers. (additional reports about these findings here, here, and here).

Furthermore, According to research by comScore, a company that measures Internet use statistics, different services gain and maintain popularity in different regions of the world. While social networking in the U.S. is dominated by MySpace and FaceBook, Latin and South America (Brazil in particular) primarily use Orkut, and the Asia/Pacific region uses Friendster first and foremost, and Orkut as a numerically solid alternative. As the comScore press release notes,

MySpace.com (62 percent) and Facebook.com (68 percent) attract approximately two-thirds of their respective audiences from North America. That said, each has already amassed a large international visitor base and both appear poised to continue their global expansion. Bebo.com has a particularly strong grasp on Europe, attracting nearly 63 percent of its visitors from that region, while Orkut is firmly entrenched in Latin America (49 percent) and Asia-Pacific (43 percent). Friendster also attracts a significant proportion of its visitors (89 percent) from the Asia-Pacific region.

And ironically, all the companies in the comScore study are American. Some have just wound up being more popular in other countries besides America. But are there social networking services born in other countries, which cater to people in those countries? Absolutely.

Danah Boyd has provided a (partial) list of foreign social networks, as well as the languages in which they are published and the number of profiles each has. She lists

- Cyworld (Korea)

- Mixi (Japan)

- QQ (China). Here is a link to the English version of QQ, which has a South African web address and a much cleaner appearance than the Chinese site.

- Hevre (Israel)

- Lunarstorm (Sweden). British version here.

- StudiVZ (Germany). StudiVZ has mirror sites in French, Italian, and Polish, as well as a Spanish language version targeting South America, but no English version.

Her commenters have listed still more services – one pointed in particular to this list, which lists many non-American services. All told I’ve looked at perhaps 30 to 50 non-American social networking services, some of whom claim tens of millions of users.

And yes, foreign social networks can look different from American ones, and people of different nationalities may use them differently from people in the U.S. or discuss topics that wouldn’t reach an American audience. For example Hevre, an Israeli site, looks like this:

Image of Hevre, an Israeli social network

La Zona, a music industry oriented social network maintained by MTV Latin America, looks much closer to American social networks than Hevre does, but even then (to my mind at least) this site has a distinctly more Latin American appearance than a U.S.-based social network.

Image of La Zona, a Latin American social network

In terms of how people in different countries use social networks differently than people in the U.S., Forrester Research’s Vice President and Principal Analyst Charlene Li wrote a report on Mixi that noted certain cultural differences in how Japanese people network with each other. I found these characteristics of particular interest:

- Invitation-only participation. Most of the Mixi users I spoke with said that they use Mixi only to connect with their friends. The most used feature – the “diary”. They update their own and frequently check their friends’ diaries. While essentially a blog, many users don’t consider it one, as it’s really only for their friends.

- Anonymous profiles. As a rule, the Japanese don’t use their real names on their profiles. While this is also often true in North America, I found it interesting that users made it a point to tell me that they didn’t use their real names. Also, very few of the Mixi users I spoke with said that they had ever interacted with people they did not know, the complete opposite of the behavior usually found on MySpace.

- Heavily mobile-based. Several users told me that text messaging updates actually facilitated participation as they were more comfortable writing than engaging in face-to-face conversations.

- Structure. Unlike MySpace, Mixi is highly structured with minimal ability to change the layout. The users I spoke with liked the structure, as it created certainty about how users were to interact with each other.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune, James Shih echoes Charlene’s thoughts about the structure of Mixi in this article. He notes that

MySpace, for example, has often been described as a "free-for-all" in which members can easily create multiple profiles, add their own programming and post other kinds of media, like pictures, music and videos… Mixi of Japan, however, has a much more structured approach. A person can join only if invited by current members. Personal profiles are based only on text, except for three photos (premium service allows more). Surprisingly, users do not seem to mind. In fact, most members do not post pictures of themselves, opting instead for photos of celebrities, scenery or pets.

This article continues by discussing Cyworld, which it says blends elements of virtual worlds (such as Second Life) with social networking:

Cyworld is yet another story. Personal profiles are dominated by the Miniroom, a 400- pixel-by-200-pixel space that users can decorate with digital furniture, wallpaper and other objects, much as they would decorate real rooms. An avatar, or a character representation referred to as Minime, is also in the room, and the user can change Minime's clothes, hair and facial expression. In fact, users pay real money to buy the various virtual objects to spice up the lives of their Minimes.

By comparison to Japanese Mixi users, Chinese people are more willing to network with people they do not personally know – in fact they are even more willing to do this than American social networkers are. This chart from the eMarketer report I linked to above indicates that Chinese people are far more outgoing when it comes to social networking than their peers in Europe and the U.S., and the report itself adds that

Among adult Chinese broadband users, 80% had discussed hobbies or interests online via a social network, and 78% had used a social network to meet new people. Less than half of users in most other markets surveyed said they had used a social network for either of those purposes.

The internationalization of social networking has caught the attention of American services as well. MySpace in particular has branched out to other countries. They have dedicated this entire page to their global network, and generated media buzz such as this Victoria Shannon article in the Herald Tribune. But as to how successful these transplanted networks will or will not be among different demographic segments of the world’s population, Bob Ivins of comScore has the most pertinent observation. He notes that

A fundamental aspect of the success of social networking sites is cultural relevance… Those doing well in certain regions are likely doing an effective job of communicating appropriately with those regions’ specific populations. As social networking continues to evolve, it will be exciting to see if networks are able to cross cultural barriers and bring people from different corners of the globe together in fulfilling the truest ideals of social networking.

So I’ve just thrown a bunch of information at you. Now it’s your turn – I’d love to have your thoughts as a comment. Have you encountered the international sphere in your own social networking activities? If so, did you encounter any cultural differences you found particularly striking? If you met someone from a different country through your network, did s/he talk about his/her home country? If so, what did s/he say?

Posted by Aaron Bowen

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