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As Facebook Grows, It's Not Just In English

One in every 14 people around the world use Facebook
One in every 14 people around the world use Facebook
Facebook is already well known as the world's most widely used social networking site.

But just how widely became clear this week, when the company announced that its number of user profiles had reached 500 million. That is equivalent to one in every 14 people on the planet.

All that has happened in just six years, proving how much people enjoy staying in touch with friends, family, and things that interest them. But growing big is not the only way Facebook has changed.

It started out in English but in recent years has been launching versions in other languages as well.

In some places, Facebook has been among the very first to offer non-English speakers the opportunity to join the social networking world. Elsewhere, it has come into competition with other, long existing, non-English language sites.

Facebook launched its Arabic version in March 2009, and a few months later registered users in Iraq had grown by over 100 percent, despite poor Internet connections and the frequent electricity outages that plague the country.

23 Hours A Month

Haidar Radhi, who lives in Iraq, says he spends a couple of hours per day on the popular website and thinks it gives Iraqi youth an opportunity to see more of "the world" -- even if it is virtual.

"I'm on Facebook, and I use it to communicate with my friends from different countries as well as in Iraq. It opened lots of gates for us young people. It's a new culture for the youth. It brings us closer to the world," Radhi says.
I log in at home, at Internet cafes, and at work.

Radhi's couple of hours a day spent on Facebook are nothing unusual. The social networking site says that on average, users spend 23 hours and 20 minutes per month communicating with each other.

Twenty-four-year-old Iraqi Hassan Kadhim Issa says he, too, logs into the networking website frequently.

"I am in daily contact with 20 to 25 people on Facebook. I spend one to two hours on it every second or third day. I log in at home, at Internet cafes, and at work. I like it because it allows me to explore new cultures, new sides of the world, learn new things," Issa says.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Facebook has also been expanding rapidly since it launched in the Russian language in 2009.

But it has yet to make a dent in the Russian market against pre-existing Russian-language sites like the Facebook clone "Vkontakte."

Russian blogger and social media expert Anton Nossik says Facebook took too long to launch its Russian-language version.

"Facebook never made any effort to avail itself to Russian users and only started offering a Russian-language interface in 2009. Since then it acquired a million-plus users. So you could say, these days, that Facebook is the fastest growing [social networking website]," Nossik said.

Coming late to the Russian market means that other sites already have their celebrity users, the kind of people who draw thousands of others to their pages.

One of those is Anna Chapman, who was among the 10 Russians arrested in the United States in June for suspected espionage. Her profile page on Vkontakte is one of the most-viewed web pages in Russia this month.

Friend A Politician

As social networking sites grow around the world, they frequently attract not only ordinary citizens but political leaders as well. Politicians establish their presence in the social networking world by writing blogs or by posting photos on Twitter -- making the virtual world increasingly reflect the real world.

Nossik observes that in Russia there once was a time -- some 15 years ago -- when no-one knew what the word "blog" meant. Not anymore.

"Today, we see blogs of those politicians who do know why they need a blog. And those who don't think they need one, they just don't start one," Nossik says.

"Like, for instance, Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin, who doesn't feel the need to interact with an audience through a blog or a Twitter or a social network, so he doesn't have an account in any of them, while President Dmitri Medvedev does have a standalone blog on, a feed on YouTube, a livejournal community, and a Twitter."

In Iran, too, Facebook and similar sites have become part and parcel of both private and public life.

The opposition Green Movement used social networking to publicize a torrent of damning photos, testimonials, and cell-phone camera footage of the government's brutal crackdown on those protesting the country's disputed 2009 presidential election. That torrent brought international condemnation of Tehran even as sites like Facebook helped Green Movement members and their sympathizers stay in closer touch.

But protesters are not the only people who, in the midst of the crisis, recognized the power of social networking. Perhaps as no coincidence, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently joined Twitter too.

For such reasons, it is hard to say how much social networking -- despite its association today with young people and change -- might really change the world.

Iranian-American technology journalist Cyrus Farivar puts it this way:

"Who's won? Yes, there was this new Green Movement that started, there's been all this activity online, these videos and people who previously had nothing to do with Iran, no family connection, no interest, no nothing in Iran, have suddenly decided to get involved," Farivar says.

"On the one hand, that's great. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic is still the Islamic Republic."

That may reflect an underlying truth about Facebook and other social networking sites.

They have unquestionably proven their ability to draw record numbers of users and make the world a smaller place. But whether they can make the world a more ideal place remains to be seen.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq and Radio Farda contributed to this report

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