i-9c5c36aa5b3a3da2bc430298cfd6a08d-facebooklogo.jpgIt’s been just four short years since a college student named Mark Zuckerberg launched a new social network with a very specific target demographic: American Ivy League college students. Since then, the Facebook phenomenon has exceeded everyone’s expectations. After opening up accessibility to anyone interested in signing up late last year, growth in the U.S. for the social network has been off the charts, with the site currently receiving 65 billion pageviews per month, according to Facebook’s stats.

The Facebook service was originally designed for a very specific audience but has now penetrated American pop culture so that the user base runs the gamut in terms of age, profession and tech savvy. But even with the U.S.-specific particularities of Facebook, the site has taken off all over the world. Users say it goes beyond language to something more universal, and international Facebookers are taking up the site in droves — and by some statistics, even bypassing their American counterparts in signups. A limited need for verbal interaction and a high level of adaptability to local cultures might be the key to Facebook’s international success.

Entrepreneur and blogger Jeff Pulver wrote late last month that, according to the company’s own numbers, Facebook’s international growth seems to be bypassing growth here in the U.S. by leaps and bounds. While U.S. growth in usage was fixed at 8.85% from October 2007 to November 2007, growth in other countries was, in some cases, nearly 50 times that. In countries like Israel and France — which have their own local social networking sites — Facebook usage has grown by over 100%. The numbers are phenomenal by themselves, but more so when you consider that Facebook is a site that is offered entirely in English.

An interesting question is how a website built for such an American audience — originally focused on U.S. college campuses and built on the uniquely American concept of “facebooks” — has tapped into the tastes of millions of users worldwide. While it may not be so surprising that English-speaking countries like Canada and Australia have such large networks on Facebook, the reasons for its success in other places isn’t so obvious. Name a country, and you’ll find a Facebook network for it. Some are smaller than others, but there are local Facebook users in networks from Haiti to Sri Lanka to Mongolia to Brazil.

Different Countries, Different Habits

Turkey is the country that experienced the highest growth over the period mentioned by Pulver — 465% — and has nearly 2 million users on Facebook. I originally thought that perhaps a high number of English speakers in Turkey could partly explain the appeal of an English-only site for Turks. But I found that many of the Turkish users on Facebook don’t even know English.

I did speak to a few users in Turkey who do speak English and provided some insight into why Facebook is popular in their country. Uzay Sezen, originally from Kusadasi but living in Connecticut and part of the Turkey network on Facebook, says that like other American imports, Facebook is universal. “I don’t think people perceive Facebook as ‘American’; it’s going to be just like MTV,” he said. “In the beginning, MTV started as a purely Western music TV channel in Turkey. Now it is fully transformed — one can hardly find non-Turkish music videos there.”

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Turkey Network on Facebook

Sezen says that Turkish developers have found ways to get around any language barriers by creating add-on Facebook applications that make the site more culturally relevant.

“One good example is Raki Sofrasi,” Sezen said. “Raki is the traditional alcoholic beverage of Turkey, which people drink socially at dinnertime with meze. After a certain hour, when people get drunk, tables in a Raki restaurant compete in sending mezes to other tables as a gesture of friendship. This application [acts] virtually as if you are together with all your friends drinking Raki and sending mezes to each other with special notes.”

While most users in the U.S. use Facebook for meeting new people, Turks use it for keeping up with the people they already know. “My parents don’t speak English at all but my brother and I created a joint profile for them. Now they are in contact with all our friends and relatives,” Sezen says.

Internet expert Shel Israel wrote a similar observation about British and Canadian Facebook users on his blog this week:

Canadians and the British, for example, have embraced Facebook, but they use it differently than many Americans. While the Americans often use social networks to make new acquaintances, the British and Canadians tend to use it to just speak with people they already know in the tangible world.

A British Obsession

A recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper puts Britain at the top of the heap when it comes to being “obsessed” with social networks, even outdoing the U.S. on that front. Indeed, there are over 7 million Brits on Facebook, according to the company. But if the British are using Facebook for networking with people they already know, why do they choose to use a “foreign” social network over a local one?

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The Brighton and Hove UK Network

UK Facebook user Brad Haynes of London thinks Facebook’s leadership in his country is due to a “lack of a decent alternative to Facebook and a disproportionately high number of vocal middle-class users.”

Nathan Livings, a Facebook user in Leicester agrees that part of the appeal is that “middle class” factor: “I think Facebook is the network of choice because it’s the one that’s compatible with the majority of my friends. They say that in the UK Facebook appeals more to middle-class people, especially if they have been to University, whereas MySpace seems to be more popular with working class people, or people who are trying to promote themselves in their artistic endeavors.”

Both Haynes and Livings say they have tried British-made social networks but have opted out. “I am a member of Wayn.com but only 2 or 3 of my friends are on it, so I never use it,” says Livings.

Many users I spoke to describe the site as having an “American feel” in the way networks are grouped (for instance by school or workplace) and in the means of communications. Some consider “poking” another user as rather strange, while others wonder why the site asks you to share how you know someone.

Alfredo de Hoces, a Spanish engineer living in Dublin put it this way: “Even though it’s universally used, you can really tell it’s an American product. I think in the U.S., as far as I understand, relationships are a little more superficial and exhibitionist. In a savagely consumer-driven society, you have to have more ‘friends’ or receive more ‘gifts’ than others. Most of the fun offered by Facebook seems frivolous and a waste of time to me.”

But most people I talked to weren’t put off by these things. As Nathan Livings puts it, “the whole Internet has an American feel. Just do a Google search and you’ll see what I mean.”

Chilean Facebook user Jose Ignacio Stark told me that he prefers Facebook over more localized options “because it doesn’t suck visually and operationally like MySpace, Hi5 or Orkut.” All of those sites have translated versions of their services, and have a lead over Facebook in South America.

Some international users point to the privacy afforded by a Facebook profile as opposed to other sites. Fabeha Khan, a Facebook user in Singapore, says that she likes the fact that she can limit who can see her profile. She also says that the “American feel” of the site is more appealing than an Asia-specific social network. Like many users I talked to, Fabeha logs into Facebook 8 to 10 times per day.

Limited Local Options

A common thread in users I talked to from Tijuana to Amman is that there just are no local networks that offer as much as Facebook does. And in countries where it’s unlikely that a local network will crop up — such as Iran and Jordan — Facebook is one of the few names in the game.

Iranian Facebook user Avid Ommi told me that in his country, loyalty to one service or another often lies with how accessible the site is.

“Some of my friends are on Facebook, not all, but it’s going to be more popular as the government has banned Orkut, Gazzag and Xuqa for political reasons,” Ommi said. “Iranians jump from one network to another because when a site becomes popular the government bans it.”

Ommi, who lives in Tehran, says that while Facebook has an American feel to it, he and his friends prefer it that way because “social networks in my country are useless.”

Not Everybody Loves Facebook

But not everyone is totally convinced. Mariano Amartino, a prominent Argentine blogger, says that while there are still no networks in his native language that can compete with Facebook, he’s got a few complaints about the site.

“If I have a profile on Facebook and a reader of my blog or someone from my ‘real life’ finds it and asks to be my ‘friend,’ there’s a certain social pressure to accept,” he said. “If I don’t accept, it can be taken the wrong way.”

Amartino says that there is also a spam-like quality to the invitations to add applications that one receives from Facebook friends. “If you’ve received an invite to add the SuperWall application, you [would think it was] spam,” he said. “But since the invitation comes from a ‘friend’, you have to accept and then delete the application or that also might be taken the wrong way.” He also says that if a good social network were to pop up locally, he’d more than likely switch over, but that the likelihood of being able to connect with more friends on another service was doubtful.

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Communicating on Facebook via Actions

Jose Luis Antunez, an Internet entrepreneur and author from Seville, Spain, says that before it grew to several million members it was a “totally American product” which isolated international users because the concept of “facebooks” is unknown outside the U.S. Even though he’s still a member, Antunez says he isn’t hooked on Facebook.

“With microblogging platforms like Twitter, the immediacy and simplicity of sharing what you are doing in such a direct way is amazing,” he said. “I don’t want all the subsections that Facebook provides; I prefer something simple both in the speed of publishing and the way I present my content.”

While Orkut still dominates in Brazil, Hi5 in other parts of South America, and sites like Germany’s StudiVZ or France’s Skyrock Network have steady followings in their home countries, users in other parts of the world opt for Facebook because local options are inexistent or not up to par.

The Clone Opportunity

Depending on how you look at it, Facebook’s dominance might spell opportunity or a lack thereof for new companies wanting to create local social networks. The lack of localization on Facebook means that if someone could make a similar site that’s also more linguistically and culturally relevant, they might have a chance for success. On the other hand, it seems that it would take a lot to build a local Facebook rival at this point (though Facebook’s opening of its platform architecture might make that easier).

Chilean user Jose Ignacio Stark says he believes a local Facebook “clone” in his country probably wouldn’t have legs: “As we saw here with the Fotolog [the leading photo-sharing site in South America] clones, nothing is better than the real thing. The trick now is to use the advantages of the site to provide a local focus.”

Jose Luis Antunez disagrees: “In Spain, Facebook has a user base that only numbers in the hundreds of thousands. A new network called Tuenti.com is in beta and is already getting a lot of traffic. I think people here will ultimately prefer it over Facebook because they have more friends there, but it remains to be seen what will happen if Facebook gets translated into Spanish.”

And other companies are trying to replicate Facebook’s success in other places. European social networking site Bahu.com, a site targeting students, aims to take over in regions where there are still untapped users, such as Southern and Eastern Europe, according to a company press release. And a startup called Vostu is attempting the same thing in Latin America.

Facebook is aware of the potential for even more international growth, and has some plans of its own. The company reportedly plans to enter the Chinese market, where a site called Zhanzuo.com dominates. Facebook is denying plans to acquire that company, but recently received an injection of capital from a prominent Chinese investor.

Perhaps a way to spur even more international use is the most logical one: language accessibility. A Facebook spokesperson told me that the company is “committed to the internationalization of the site by late 2007 or early 2008,” though she provided no further details. But with applications developed to suit the local culture and the fact that language isn’t an issue for many users, it seems possible that even without local versions Facebook could grow to be the universal social network of choice.

What do you think? Do you think Facebook is uniquely American or is it universal? Are you more inclined to use local social networks or is the site’s headquarters insignificant? Why do you think Facebook has such an international appeal? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

UPDATE: Luis Rull, a blog entrepreneur from Spain, had a few observations to add the conversation. Here are some of his thoughts on the universality of Facebook.

“I prefer Facebook to other social networks because of the potential for new features. I do not pay attention to the geographical origin of the networks. The key to this phenomenon is that the idea of being connected or related to someone is universal. The English words used are easy to understand and only works as “labels” . The concept and main idea are universal and do not need to be translated: It’s obvious at the first look.”

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.