Lost in translation

This week I would like to share with you some thoughts about the behavior of people in online social networks inspired by the discussion in our COMM506 wiki. As we know, language serves as one of the factors that make people feel that they belong to one group. It is an important factor that fosters the development of social networks based on the homophily principle, networks that can be characterized by dense ties between its members.

When we register on any social networking site, as a first step we usually connect with our friends and relatives, i.e. members of our small network with dense ties. Eventually, our online network grows and we connect with people we work with, as well as meet in different situations (professional conference participants, suppliers, etc.). Taking into consideration the effects of globalization, we can suppose that these people can speak different languages and belong to different cultures. Sometimes we also start to follow well-known people that are of interest to us (scholars, celebrities, political figures, etc.), but in general we do not have a reciprocal relationship with them.

With time our online network diversifies and the amount of loose ties increases. Small dense clusters loosely connected to the rest of the network appear. From this moment on we need to spend some efforts into maintaining our connections with all our network’s members, and this can be tricky if our social network is diverse (e.g. its members belong to different cultures or speak different languages). For example, if we start to maximize the reach of our posts by using the language that is understood by the majority in our network, we risk loosening the virtual ties with the members of our dense network and getting less feedback from them. On the other hand, if we decide to receive more support from our dense network and start posting messages in the language that is spoken by its members, we can alienate those who do not belong to it. As a result, they can decide to ignore our messages and we won’t be able to address them at all, i.e. we will lose our “loose connections”. The content of the posts is also important, as we should consider cultural specifics.

So, what is the best tactics to maintain such a diverse network then? How to get feedback and interact with all the members with one message? This week I decided to make an experiment in order to check the real impact of the language of the message on online social interactions. On Monday I posted the following message (authentic communication: I really had a fewer 😛 ):

Tanya Erofeeva

I didn’t write any words in Cyrillic and used standard Facebook functionality to describe the situation (the message is translated automatically depending on the language you set as default for your account). No picture was attached to the post to ensure that it won’t attract additional likes. And you know what? This post became one of the most popular post in my virtual life! I was surprised that the first comments were left not by the members of my dense network (as I expected), but rather by the “weak ties”. All in all, the “weak ties” are responsible for 50% of replies. I received feedback both from English-speaking and Russian-speaking Facebook friends. Another interesting fact: people started a separate discussion in comments discussing why everyone around them gets sick lately, and that attracted attention of other network members, who usually do not comment my posts.

So here are my findings (based on this and my previous experience with posting in different languages):

  • Language of your message is VERY important, especially for those in your dense network
  • Content of the message should be of interest to the majority of your “friends”
  • “A picture is worth a thousand words” – 100% true. Such posts are liked and commented by everyone, although you should be careful with captions.
  • Posts in two languages (first in Russian, then English translation) get less response than those in one language, i.e. addressed to specific group.
  • Posts that can be understood by anyone get maximum reach and engagement on Facebook.

I know that all these things seem quite obvious when laid out in blog, but I have never thought about the effects of language on social networks in these terms.

Did I miss something? Any ideas on how to efficiently manage personal communication in online social networks? You are welcome to leave your opinion in comments below 🙂

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Posted on February 7, 2014, in COMM506, MACT and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. As much as you are a bridge to networks of different languages, it is really difficult (almost impossible) to get your contacts to engage with those that speak a different language. The universal translator would be pictures (music or even videos with or without subtitles). There are few viral stuff that have transcended the language barrier. The best example I could think about this phenomenon (cheesy as it is) is Gangnam Style. Google will need to crank up its work on Google Translate especially for network bridges or brokers like yourself.

  2. Tanya, I really enjoyed your informal experiment (and I hope you are feeling better!). Dealing with two or more languages certainly complicates matters. I tend to segregate what I post where. I am not sure that it is the best method and it can be challenging to keep up with more than one blog.
    When I think about it, I have had heightened response to tweets that include a graphic or a photograph. I hadn’t really realized that this was the case, so I thank you for making me more sensitive to the phenomena.
    I have another Tanya in my PLN, Tanya Lau who lives in Sydney Australia and is working on a masters (looking at PLNs in relationship to innovation) and blogs at http://explorationsinlearning.wordpress.com – I have learned a great deal about efficiently managing personal communication in online social networks from Tanya L. She is quite rigourous about commenting on other people’s blogs. Her comments are articulate and thought provoking. It is obvious she has not only read the material but that she has given it some thought and consideration.
    I did a synchronous session with Stephen Downes, who writes about connectivist learning (and bogs at http://www.downes.ca/news/OLDaily.htm). Downes said that he considers giving thoughtful feedback to be the most important online activity you can participate in – much more important than blogging or tweeting – it opens up the possibilities for interaction, dialogue and learning through connecting.
    So my number one suggestion is to thoughtfully comment on other people’s blogs. Another idea from Tanya L. is to rework and remash the comments you have left on other blogs to create the nucleus for a post on your own blog.
    Then there is the idea of adding value to what it is that you are producing in the first place. A great resource to work through some of the thinking on adding value is http://www.bethkanter.org/content-curation-2/
    Thanks for a great question and making me think!

  3. Tanya – a fascinating experiment! I think your conclusions are very insightful … why do you think your weak ties were first to chime in – given the fairly personal nature of your status update? it would be interesting to see if the experiment could be adapted to other SNSs like Twitter … what would it look like?

    • I think that there could be several factors at play here. The weak ties were first to react because of:
      1. Surprise: I do not usually post anything like this in general news feed, so they could be intrigued why I did that and reacted to my message
      2. Time factor: I posted the message late in the evening, when my “dense ties” might be already going to bed. However, in Europe (taking into consideration the time difference) it was the most active time for social networking and the weak ties were simply first to see the message
      3. Language: the message can be understood by everyone
      4. Interest: a lot of people are sick right now everywhere, so weak ties could also relate their personal experience to this and join discussion

      Adapting this experiment to other networks?
      I think in Twitter the results will be totally different. We will need to change the content of the message in order to get response. Tags are also a huge issue.
      Instagram might work though. Picture of the thermometer can tell the whole story and get response 🙂

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