The three-year-old social networking phenomenon Facebook, worth more than $15 billion by many estimates, got a good deal on going global.
Its users around the world are translating Facebook's visible framework into nearly two dozen languages — for free — aiding the company's aggressive expansion to better serve the 60 percent of its 69 million users who live outside the United States.
The company says it's using the wisdom of crowds to produce versions of site guidelines — especially terms specific to Facebook — that are in tune with local cultures.
"We thought it'd be cool," said Javier Olivan, international manager at Facebook, based in Palo Alto, Calif. "Our goal would be to hopefully have one day everybody on the planet on Facebook."
Coolness aside, and many users are embracing the idea, other social networks aren't "crowdsourcing" translation. The move is generating mounting criticism online, where some users question whether amateurs can produce good translations. Critics complain of sloppiness and skimping, even as Facebook says it is improving service in an innovative way.
The concept of collaborative translation is familiar in open-source programming communities. But Facebook's effort — as it builds sites in Japanese, Turkish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and Dutch to join versions in Spanish, French and German that launched this year — is among the highest-profile attempts to harness users' energy to do work traditionally handled by professionals.
The Spanish-language version has taken a particular beating for grammatical, spelling and usage problems throughout.
Ana B. Torres, a 25-year-old professional translator in Madrid, Spain, called the translation "extremely poor," citing "outrageous spelling mistakes" such as "ase" instead of "hace" (for "makes" or "does") and usage of the word "lenguaje" for "language" rather than the correct "idioma."
Other critics say Facebook just wants free labor.
Valentin Macias, 29, a Californian who teaches English in Seoul, South Korea, has volunteered in the past to translate for the nonprofit Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia but said he won't do it for Facebook.
"(Wikipedia is) an altruistic, charitable, information-sharing, donation-supported cause," Macias told The Associated Press in a Facebook message. "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."
Facebook points out that it has spent considerable resources building the translation program. Olivan said it's not soaking users but including them in the growth of the network — and possibly attracting new ones.
"If the goal is to save money, we're doing the wrong thing, because we are basically spending our most valuable asset, which is engineering time," he said.
He said that Facebook relishes being different from competitors and that users are helping the company produce versions in numerous languages as quickly as possible.
Just one-fifth of the world's Internet population actively manages profiles on a social network, said David Jones, vice president of global marketing for Friendster Inc., which has recently shifted its focus to capitalize on its strength in Southeast Asia.
"It's still a bit of a land grab," he said. "So there's plenty of growth to be had in the world, and we're focused on that, and certainly other social networks I'm sure are as well."
Friendster recently launched a beta version in Vietnamese, adding to its lineup of versions in Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Indonesian. It plans to keep introducing a new language every month or two.
Setting the pace, however, is industry leader MySpace. The News Corp. subsidiary has 200 million registered users worldwide and 29 country-specific and regional sites and more on the way.
Its global push, which began in early 2006, appears to be paying off. Between June 2006 and June 2007, its number visitors worldwide age 15 and older jumped 72 percent to 114.1 million, according to Internet research firm comScore Inc.
In the same period, however, Facebook's global traffic surged 270 percent to 52.2 million users, according to comScore — even though it had yet to launch its first foreign-language site.
As it enters each market, MySpace hires a dedicated team, said Travis Katz, international managing director. Contractors perform the initial translation, which the local MySpace team tweaks to ensure it fits the market, he said.
"The translation in and of itself is not very expensive," Katz said. "The thing that's challenging is getting the cultural aspects right and making sure that the site is culturally relevant and doesn't feel like an invader from Silicon Valley landed."
Friendster's Jones said his company also uses third-party translators.
"As interesting as it might be to get your users to chip in and help out on that, we could do it faster ourselves and very consistently, quite frankly, across the language, across the entire site," Jones said.
More than 100,000 users have installed Facebook's translation application. Nearly 10,000 helped translate the French, Spanish and German sites — the Spanish version in less than four weeks and the German one in two weeks.
The process involves translating a glossary of basic Facebook terms, translating text strings throughout the site, voting on each translation and then "testing and verification."
Some users, like Murat Odabasi of London, are spending hours each day translating Facebook. Responsible for 14,910 winning words and 1,938 winning phrases, Odabasi held the No. 2 spot among 391 translators on the Turkish leaderboard as of Wednesday.
Odabasi, 24, a software developer and native Turkish speaker, said the volunteer arrangement is good for users as well as Facebook.
"We come up with the words and phrases that will ... eventually become a part of the Turkish language itself," he said in an e-mail in English. "It feels good to be creating something that will in time be seen and used by millions of people."
Collaborative translation is an increasingly important tool for businesses, said Renato Beninatto with the Massachusetts consulting firm Common Sense Advisory. But he said companies may need professional services to finalize translations.
"The traditional wisdom is that if you have fewer translators, you generate a better product," said Beninatto, also a spokesman for the Globalization & Localization Association.
If managed well, however, crowdsourcing can result in a good translation, he said.
Among the hottest debates so far has been over "poke" — Facebook's term for giving someone a playful nudge. In Spanish, it became "dar un toque." In French, "faire un signe." And in German, "anstupsen."
Japanese translators couldn't find an equivalent so they decided to go with the original English.