Back in the days when you needed a landline phone to connect to the Internet and when NetZero offered free dialup connection to compete with AOL, the Web was mostly an English-only thing.
Microsoft bought FrontPage from Vermeer Tech and re-distributed the release with an added feature of multilingual support. It was a leap into a new way of Web publishing; Microsoft added full language support to Windows 95 and beyond, and added a separate font coding for every language in FrontPage and Internet Explorer (UTF8 was outlawed then) and made posting and viewing multilingual text on the web a reality.
The late 90’s also witnessed other remarkable landmarks for the World Wide Web: Apache 1.x Web Server was released for the unbeatable price of $0.00, domain names became cheaper, new programming languages were born (like ASP and PHP) and new web applications started to emerge and killed the cgi-bin folder. A wave of primitive content management systems flooded the internet and made it easy for content to be published (remember PHPNuke?) .. and voilà! The Web was booming with content from all over the world.
After more than a decade in the struggle for non-English languages on the internet, we thought that the bases for language parity were fairly established; a decade after that, I am thinking to myself that we might have been wrong.
The glory of Multilingual Web was challenged when the Web turned socialist and mobile. The first time I was handed a Blackberry I noticed the lack of multilingual support, but thought it’s just the first attempt with smarter-than-flip phones experiment. Years later, I was equally disappointed with the first iPhone. The bad feelings carried when examining Twitter and Facebook for the first time – they were initially built for (and only for) English speaking users. I came to realize that the lessons about multilingualism were lost instead of learned and that languages are now facing a new level of barriers.
The global and multilingual challenges of today are a mix of inability to manage users’ data and shortsightedness of the techies running the social networks. Technology companies are no longer in charge of users’ content. There is so much of this content that it’s a hit or miss when anybody tries to make sense of multilingual content because these platforms were not designed for it. The importance of non-English languages is so underrated and lost in this burst of data that instead of addressing this single most distinctive human characteristic, large technology providers are offering automated solutions to handle multi-languages and calling it a day! It’s because of this underestimation of the billions of non-English speaking users that we’re now seeing local social media platforms (similar to Weibo in China and VK in Russia) making big gains against companies with larger-than-the-internet budgets, like Twitter.
Twitter needs to understand that they do not have a problem with the concept of micro-blogging, but they do have a big problem with having a true global vision. Indeed Twitter should tweak the platform a little bit (the way Facebook did), but they should not change it since they were not powered by the technology or the revenue or the company stocks for that matter, they are powered by users worldwide who love to micro-blog.
The analytics of Twitter users are pretty simple to read: the 400 million users on Twitter are almost an exact match to number of English speaking individuals on the internet. Who in the right mind told Twitter that 140 Characters are enough for micro-bloggers writing in all languages? That might be a lot of letters in some languages and too little in others. And when Twitter rose to fix this issue, they announced that the Micro-Blogging platform will expand from 140 to 10,000 characters.
Now hold on there @Jack .. English is not my first language but there is nothing micro about 10,000 unless the mathematical definition changed recently! Why even set a limit and embarrass Twitter’s business rationale? How about adding an edit button? And don’t get me started on the #hashtags since some languages have spaces within the same word and some languages don’t even use the spacebar at all, did it occur to you that this hash thing needs some globalized review?
We love Twitter, and micro-blogging is a great concept that should remain at the core of Twitter practice. Not every human is a writer, but everyone can (and should) express themselves in a few words. Should Twitter remove the blinker-hood that they took from an English horse and installed on a little blue bird, and they might just be able to see what they are missing and why they are hitting a growth ceiling. Just look at the most trending tags on Twitter and you will figure out which languages and populations Twitter is leaving behind.
There are many moments when I am on Twitter trying to write something in Arabic and the experience is so bad that I keep thinking about Netscape Composer V1.0. The sad reality is that Twitter – a social network that claims to stand for "empowering dialogue" - did not consider the international audience the way Microsoft did decades ago. Microsoft’s awareness of the needs of international languages in mid-90’s made that company the global entity it is today, and that is precisely why Microsoft’s flagship software and OS are powering the entire personal computer industry worldwide.
I lived through the entire struggle of multilingual acceptance from when I was a computer science student to where I am managing large multi-lingual web platform and social media operations. The one thing I learned when dissecting the concept of "Internet reach" was the importance of Human Languages; not the computer languages or the marketing spreadsheets. Social networks must acknowledge that no matter what platform people or businesses are using, the underlining goal is to reach more humans no matter where they live or what language they speak. Machine translation is not a spoken language and it will never tweak a business concept, so please Twitter stop pretending and act like a true global company.
There are rumors about Twitter changing course and I am not sure what really goes into their meeting rooms, but I am sure that reaching people over the internet will definitely evolve beyond Twitter and will take more shapes and forms during the very-fast approaching internet future. Let’s not forget that reaching the internet itself changed from the dial-up to 4G in less than 10 years, and social networks changed from Friendster to Facebook, and search engine traffic moved from Yahoo to Google .. and the cycle will go on. Human languages, on the other hand, will be the same as they were for 1000’s of years. You can learn a new platform in an hour or two, but it’s implausible that you can learn a new human language in the same span of time. A good social media network is that which will be fluid enough to accept, support and expand into any regions and any language or users will never be attached to it.
I don’t think it’s too late for Twitter to re-calibrate, at least I hope not.