When Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg wants to illustrate the impact of his social network, he tells a story about several young religious militants from Lebanon who changed their view of Western culture through Facebook friendships. The subtext to the tale is that free expression of ideas, enabled by the web, bridges deep cultural divides.
But we knew that: it's one of the central concepts behind the Olympics, after all. What we didn't know is that Facebook is in Lebanon.
In fact, it is expanding rapidly in many regions. According to figures released by market research firm comScore last week, the site is the top global social network. Of Facebook's 132 million users, nearly 63 per cent are outside North America. The site, which had already been translated into 20 languages including French, Spanish and Mandarin, has recently added 69 more.
"Now, through translations, we are seeing a lot of growth abroad," said Javier Olivan, international manager at Facebook, in a recent interview.
As American sites such as Facebook and News Corporation's MySpace saturate their home markets, they are looking abroad to fuel the audience growth that has made them so attractive to users, advertisers, acquirers and would-be inves-tors. MySpace has expanded to more than 29 countries, including India and Korea, in the past few years.
MySpace is particularly popular with users in Puerto Rico, Australia, Britain and Malaysia, according to a study by Pingdom, a Swedish service that monitors website availability. Pingdom based its findings on the regions where a particular social network is searched for most often via Google. For instance, the countries with the greatest interest in LinkedIn, a network aimed at professionals, are India, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and the US.
But Facebook has been particularly successful in terms of sheer user adoption. Its number of new members was up 153 per cent in June from the same month a year earlier, driven mainly by astronomical growth in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Among specific countries Turkey, Canada, Britain, South Africa and Colombia have the greatest interest, according to Pingdom.
By comparison, Facebook's North American audience grew just 38 per cent in June and MySpace was up only 3 per cent, according to comScore.
Facebook owes its results, in part, to its technology-driven international strategy. Rather than launch local-language versions of Facebook for new markets, complete with a local Facebook bureau, it opted to provide translation tools that let users take the existing site and personalise it in their own tongue.
The tools, which users can tweak to create more accurate translations, helped Facebook roll out in new countries faster than many rivals, giving it an early presence in local markets that grew exponentially as users encouraged their friends to join the site.
MySpace has taken a different tack. It is opening offices in countries where it knows there are advertising dollars, as well as friends, to be made.
The strategy makes the company slower at expanding in new markets, but MySpace believes the approach will ultimately mean that its local offerings are better equipped to reflect the cultures of new countries while also catering to advertisers. The site's non-US audiences will soon account for more than 50 per cent of its revenues, explains Jeff Berman, MySpace's president of sales and marketing.
Hi5 is following a hybrid strategy. In May, the San Francisco-based social network launched tools enabling users to translate the site into any language. Before that, Hi5 had hired a third-party service provider, Lionbridge, to translate it into languages like Japanese and make it reflect the added countries' cultures.
The company's user base has grown to more than 56 million, thanks in large part to those efforts, according to Andrew Lipsman, an analyst at comScore. "Hi5 has really put an emphasis on cultural relevance beyond just the translation," he says.
The site is popular throughout Latin America, home to four of the five countries where it shows up most often in searches, according to Pingdom.
Although Facebook has focused on tools, it isn't ruling out opening local bureaux to help make the site more culturally relevant – and to sell ads. But executives aren't convinced that new offices are necessary. Once there are users, the thinking goes, advertisers will follow.
"The platform is open, and as soon as advertisers find value, they just start creating campaigns," says Mr Olivan. "So it is pretty much universal."