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Social Networking: Facebook Looks to India

A little late to the subcontinent, Facebook is now pushing hard to win over Indians by adding Hindi and five other local languages

These are busy times for Javier Olivan. As international manager for Facebook, the 32-year-old Spaniard's job is to find ways for the social networking site to expand its reach far beyond its U.S. base. And last month the company took one of its biggest steps yet, adding Hindi and five other Indian tongues. That takes the number of languages officially supported by Facebook to 57, with several dozen more in the works. "We've been literally launching almost a language a week," says Olivan.

Facebook, though, isn't expanding its workforce at anywhere near that pace. More established Internet companies such as Google (GOOG) and Amazon (AMZN) have grown internationally by setting up operations in far-flung locales and hiring workers there, but Facebook believes that's not an option. "I don't know why people think that by having a local office you will have a better local product," Olivan says. That might work "for certain types of businesses," the Stanford MBA concedes, but not for Facebook. "The brick-and-mortar approach is not effective in doing [things] fast and efficiently," he says.

Alternatively, since launching its first foreign language edition, Spanish, in February 2008, Facebook has relied on its users to help out. Instead of hiring its own translators, the company asks for volunteers from the Facebook community. Some of these come up with several variations of hard-to-translate terms (how do you "poke" a friend in Tamil?) and then give other users the chance to vote on the results. The translation of Facebook into local language editions is "a huge crowdsourcing," says Olivan. "There are hundreds of thousands of people collaborating into getting the whole thing published."

Facebook vs. India's Orkut

Many people who follow India's Internet, though, don't think local-language versions will help Facebook much. For years, Orkut has dominated the Indian social-networking scene. The Google-owned site may not be very popular outside India, but within the country it has enjoyed first-mover advantage. Indians chose Orkut, in part, because they had no choice of going with Facebook, which at first restricted users to university students in the U.S.

Now that Facebook is aggressively targeting overseas markets, recovering from that self-inflicted wound won't be easy. The company hopes the six new Indian languages (Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Punjabi, Tamil, and Telugu) will help close the gap between it and Orkut. However, most Indians who use social networks are urban educated youth, for whom English is almost a native tongue.

Perhaps more important, say some Indian Net surfers, is that support for complex Indian languages remains unwieldy. It's tough to type Hindi on a standard English keyboard, so the language support may be a nice bonus, but not of primary value. "We all write in 'Hinglish' anyway, so I don't need to have Hindi typing," says Aditi Sharma, 20, who studies in Mumbai but uses Orkut to stay in touch with high school friends. ("Hinglish" is what comes up when you type out Hindi phonetically with English characters, throwing in words from both languages for ease; for instance, "How are you?" becomes "Kaise ho?" )

Facebook's Olivan doesn't buy that argument. He acknowledges the grammar and script of Indian languages present some challenges for online users, and he knows that many young Indians are content to type in some form of English. Still, Olivan adds, "people like to communicate in Indian languages."

A Cell-Phone Edge?

He points to Indonesia, where Facebook launched a local-language version last October and is now one of the country's most popular Web sites. Perhaps too popular for its own good: Last month some Muslim clerics called for restrictions on Facebook usage in the country.

One key to Facebook's success in Indonesia, says Olivan, is the translation of its cell-phone version, too. Facebook executives are hoping they get a similar edge in India, one of the world's largest mobile markets. The company just joined an ad campaign with Aircel, a second-tier rival to the big mobile-phone companies in India; the campaign stars a cricket player using his Aircel mobile and Facebook to stay in touch with his friends back home.

Of course, other mobile Internet users have access to Facebook using phone-based browsers, but then, they can head to, as well. Perhaps more troublesome for Facebook in India will be its heavy reliance on graphics. Most Indian users have slower connections, and the stripped-down look at Orkut loads more quickly for them. Foreign e-mail providers faced a similar situation a decade ago: Rediffmail and other locals took off quickly in the late 1990s at a time when Hotmail and Yahoo! (YHOO) took longer to load from foreign servers.

As Facebook tries to make more headway in India, it can also count on momentum and critical mass. Orkut, which blossomed in India while Facebook was slow to open its doors, may be popular in India, but it's not very high-profile in most other countries. "I have both now, Orkut and Facebook," says Chavvi Nangia, 23, a fashion designer in New Delhi. "None of my U.S. friends even know what Orkut is, so I finally gave up and joined Facebook."

Einhorn is Asia regional editor in BusinessWeek's Hong Kong bureau. Srivastava reports for BusinessWeek from New Delhi.

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