Facebook's Community Translation: Savvy or Just Cheap?

Ann All

All of that Web 2.0 goodwill couldn't last forever. Social network darling Facebook finds itself increasingly under fire over how it serves/uses (take your pick) its community.


Late last year, Facebook rolled out Beacon, an API that sent personal information about members to their "friends" in an effort to sell them stuff. Facebook was forced to tweak the application after members complained mightily, most notably making it an opt-in rather than an opt-out process.


Now, the Los Angeles Times reports, Facebook is taking some knocks by asking its members to translate its visible framework into nearly two dozen languages, a key part of its global expansion plans. The catch: Users won't be paid for their efforts. The article quotes a Korean-speaking Californian who has provided translations for Wikipedia in the past but doesn't plan to do so for Facebook. He says:

(Wikipedia is) an altruistic, charitable, information-sharing, donation-supported cause. Facebook is not. Therefore, people should not be tricked into donating their time and energy to a multimillion-dollar company so that the company can make millions more -- at least not without some type of compensation.

(Cue the irony. Apparently his comments were conveyed via a Facebook message.)


Not all Facebook members expect financial compensation for their efforts. A native Turkish speaker living in London who often spends several hours a day on Facebook translation, tells the Times "it feels good to be creating something that will in time be seen and used by millions of people. "


Javier Olivan, Facebook's international manager, says that the company thought it would be "cool" to enlist members for help with translation. And Facebook isn't really saving money, he says, because it invested considerable resources in building the translation program used by Facebook members. More than 100,000 Facebook members have installed the translation application. Almost 10,000 provided translations in French, German and Spanish.


While plenty of other companies have tapped into the idea of crowdsourcing -- asking folks to help advance their business goals for little or no pay -- the debate over compensation is growing more heated.


Nicholas Carr wrote about it on his Rough Type blog last month. Carr notes that the founders of Bebo just sold their social network site for $850 million -- while musicians and other folks who contributed content to the site got nothing. Site owners "like to pretend that they are simply the impresarios of 'communities' and that the power over the sites resides with the 'members,'" writes Carr. Calling it a "wonderfully disingenuous idea," he concludes:

Exploitation is exploitation, no matter how lovingly it's wrapped in neo-hippie technobabble about virtual communities, social production, and the gift economy.

In addition to the compensation question, some experts have complained about the quality of the translation. A professional translator based in Madrid tells the Times that the Facebook Spanish translation is filled with "outrageous spelling mistakes" as well as usage errors. Renato Beninatto, a member of the Common Sense Advisory consulting firm and spokesman for the Globalization & Localization Association, says conventional wisdom dictates that using fewer translators results in a better product. Facebook competitors MySpace and Friendster both use professional translators.


Concerns over quality are leading to an increase in sites that value expert submissions, including About.com, Google's Knol and Mahalo's people-powered search engine, according to a recent Newsweek article titled Revenge of the Experts. In a nod to economic reality, Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis says:

The more trusted an environment, the more you can charge for it.

Calacanis tells Newsweek that while the next iteration of the Web will incorporate the so-called wisdom of the crowd, it will add "an editorial layer ... of truly talented, compensated people to make the product more trusted and refined."

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Jul 10, 2008 4:11 AM Araceli P�rez Araceli P�rez  says:
I just began translating and voting for bad or good translations to Spanish today. I thought I was going to get a good job with Facebook. Now I know that is not possible. I'm very sorry since I am an English and Spanish teacher willing to remain working home.Thank you for your information. Reply

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