Translate my website... bitch

Gullible time-rich polyglot? Facebook wants you!

For Sale sign detail

Facebook is headed for a problem. In the wacky innovation-lite and revenue-poor world of web 2.0, you have to be able to show your investors and the hordes of "I want to believe" journalists some sort of growth.

Forget profits growth - advertisers just aren't yet hip to your super-awesome targeting kung fu, nor to how you're the godfather of the next 100 years of media. Best focus on the enormous numbers of people who are agreeing to tell you an email address and what their favourite colour is: your precious users.

That's why in 99 per cent of articles about Facebook, MySpace and Bebo, there's a line about how many users they have and accompanying implied "wow!" from the writer, who knows numbers make good copy and that boggling on about users will do in the absence of any financial brass tacks.

There's plenty of examples in "Facebook and the wonder of widgets" from the Telegraph, from June last year, which also covered Bebo and MySpace when Zuckerberg's site was breaking into the UK mainstream.

The problem comes when all the English-speaking middle class urbanites are members, or know they want nothing to do with Facebook. It's reasonable to surmise we're at that point in the UK now. Yet the story and public perception is still one of explosive growth - it's a great marketing wheeze - and reporters are too lazy to join the dots independently.

In March 2007 comScore reckoned that it had about 3.5 million members in the UK. It's now pegged at about seven million, which is all very impressive; but Zuckerberg and his venture capital advisors know they have to maintain user growth while profits are elusive, and Microsoft's ludicrous $15bn valuation of the site risks becoming a stick to beat it with.

That means expansion into continental European and Asian markets, where Facebook is a no-name among all but expats and bloggers, and local clones have snatched the lead in the race to build a massic database of political, sexual and cultural preferences. Witness how cheap it seems to have been for the Samwer brothers to buy their way into Facebook in exchange for a little local knowledge.

Redmond paid top dollar ($240m = 1.6 per cent equity) for Silicon Valley cachet. But in lands where nobody gives a toss what TechCrunch thinks, and the users are already catered to, Facebook's negotiating position is significantly weaker.

Happily for Zuckerberg, this is where the virtuous web 2.0 circlejerk completes itself. It's hit the news this week that he'll ask users to translate and localise Facebook for him. For free. So his company can pull more users and maintain the growth story while it searches for a business model. The cheek is admirable, really.

An invite-only application encourages the naive to offer up their translations of site content, which will then be voted on and edited by other volunteer skivvies. Unsurprisingly, German, French and Spanish markets are reportedly top of Zuckerberg's wish list, and so the "thousands" of chumps are reportedly doing his linguaphonic bidding.

The Spanish, German and French press is presumably gearing up to laud Facebook's explosive (user) growth when their versions go live in March.

At the DLD conference in Germany this week, El Reg heard Facebook VP Matt Cohler allude to a "a translation tool" that is "high quality" and "correctly localised". Of course, according to the "wisdom of crowds" dogma, just how high-quality and correctly localised the new international versions are will depend on the number of tools who fall for it. ®

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