Does social network design affect local acceptance?

Despite some social networking juggernauts’ efforts to become global standards, a quick survey of the most popular social networks seems to indicate that social networking experiences cannot easily be optimized for ubiquity.

Why is Fotolog a relatively photo sharing site in the US but wildly popular in Brazil? Hi5 and Bebo are both able to capture the attention of many social networkers in India and the UK, respectively, despite the hype around MySpace and Facebook here in the US.

It could all be marketing, but I think it’s something else. As far as I know, Friendster’s popularity in the Pacific Rim was not an intentional decision. Cases like Friendster, Orkut, and Fotolog also undermine the case that Hi5, Bebo, and other apps like Opera don’t seem to expand beyond their designers’ native soil due to lack of ad dollars or a foreign language character set.

It could be luck. I’ve read theories, based on concentrated social interactions on sites like Digg, that a social network’s growth depends on acceptance by thought-leading “tribes” of users who get active and become the heartbeat of a social network. This concept seems akin to Malcom Gladwell’s Maven-Salesperson-Connector model of trendsetters. So maybe a few cool kids in Indonesia jumped on Friendster and the rest was history.

I think there’s another possibility that’s worth exploring: social software becomes popular in a region if it’s interface and experience design closely represents the social interactions in that area.

Social networking is a fun, powerful tool that isn’t going away, though may evolve into subtler forms than the current cow shed social networking sites. As pundits and entrepreneurs celebrate the new connections and communications enabled by social networking tools, we often overlook the medium itself, focusing only on the people and the content they generate.

As Burst 2.0 looms, it’s tempting to frame social networks as a simple, clickable “people need people” fad. The more things change, the more they’re staying the same, right? Wrong. The truth is that the social networking medium – the sites and other tools that power social networks – continues to change; there are many flavors of this and some flavors taste better to different communities.

Understanding local cultural preferences for social functionality flavors is a subtle study of usability trends within the context of specific populations. Building a truly global social app would require finding not a single best solution but a mutable experience that fits the social mores of each user population.

The variables that might determine the success of a social application in a given population could include user expectations around:

  • formality and politeness
  • expectations of personal privacy and property rights
  • trust or fear of others
  • the relative value of education/reference vs. entertainment
  • language constraints
  • the local technology ecosystem within which the application lives (e.g. how much technology is a part of social interactions in general)

As an example, if I were designing a social application to succeed in the United Kingdom, I’d take a look at Islandoo and all the reality tv that comes out of the UK and note that (as an American) britpeeps seem to be very competitive and very interested in reality programming (attention whores?). That’s a sweeping generalization, but it could lead me to realize that whereas an American audience might not be interested in point systems and featured members, such features might promote growth amongst British users.

For the big social networking site, this might mean subtly altering a user’s experience based on her geographic origin, or slowly molding the experience or suggesting setting changes based on her behavior.

I think that part of Orkut’s Brazilian popularity is a result of a happy accident – the sites tools and transactions closely mirror the kinds of social interactions that are common in Brazil. This is potentially good news for anyone who is having trouble with an American (or other intended) audience: try out some new languages in your interface and some new cultures, and you may find that your application designer is a Dane at heart.