October 24, 2012

Speak multiple languages? Here’s your ruined social web.

Filed under: Internet — Tags: , , , — martin @ 9:43 pm

Here’s my story about how meeting people from another country and learning another language took away from the fun I used to have with my social web.

I’m a public poster. I post publicly. Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus. Most of the time I post in my native tongue, which is German. Only sporadically, I feel that special need to attract international attention. That’s when I post in English. (Except that I usually don’t get the attention I desire.) Posting in German and English is no problem at all. Most Germans know a fair deal of English. At worst, they see my English posts and think I’m just being self-important. Fine. No harm done.

Along comes a business with which I’ve been working since several years ago. With lots of nice people who speak another foreign language. Let’s assume for this blog posting that they are native Russian speakers. Of course they also speak English, and some of them are learning or already know German. I’ve made friends with quite a few of them, and we’re friends on Facebook, have each other in circles at Google Plus and follow each other on Twitter.

Which introduces Russian postings in cyrillic letters into my social web, and German-language ramblings into theirs.

Also along comes the international language Esperanto. On a whim, I started learning it last year. In the Esperanto world, everyone speaks a different language when they are not speaking Esperanto. And of course, although I haven’t met very many Esperanto speakers in person, we are friends on Facebook, we have each other in circles at Google Plus and we follow each other on Twitter.

Which introduces my German-language ramblings into their social web, and introduces Arabian, Chinese, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Slovakian, Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Hindi into mine.

The timeline of babel

My heart is really big and I love each one of my Esperanto speaking friends and Russian speaking colleagues very much. Nevertheless, it would be nice if I didn’t have to skip over those strange-language postings all the time. It also would give my social web a neater appearance.

How the others use their social web is beyond my control and judgement. So let’s talk about me instead. While it is impossible to limit the visibility of postings to groups of recipients on Twitter, it is possible to group recipients on Facebook and also on Google Plus. The solution for the language problem is therefore very obvious: Form a group of recipients that understand German. Share German postings only with them. Problem solved.

However, I can’t read my reader’s minds. My relative who doesn’t really know enough English to make it worthwhile looking at an English posting: Should not be in the English group. My colleague from Russia who is secretly learning some German but has haver talked about it: Should not be missing from the German group. My Esperanto friend who is fascinated by postings in damn every language: Should be in all groups. Worst of all: Even if they could ask me to be included in some group, how on earth should they find out that my language-specific groups even exist? There is no way for them. Because all those per-group postings would have to be private.

Oh yes, you say: I could make meta-postings and tell my contacts about how I have those circles and how they can ask to be included in them. Which doesn’t help the introverted guy who doesn’t want to come out about his interest for Esperanto. Not to mention the whole awkwardness of it, and how I would have to try not to forget adding any responder to his requested groups.

Also, this extensive management of privacy leads us back to the following: I’m a public poster. I post publicly.

More clumsy workarounds

So, here’s another workaround: Get multiple accounts – one per language. Speaking of Twitter and only three languages in my case, this is actually not a very bad suggestion. Except that I would have to keep pointing out all the time that I provide more feeds. Which at least partially brings back the awkwardness of asking people to ask to be included in groups. Also, there is no fast switching of Twitter accounts on the Twitter website. Looking at stand-alone Twitter clients, Twitter have created artificial scarcity of API access to it. So keeping around several Twitter clients (desktop, mobile, tablet) with several language accounts in them would be a waste of resources. Also, let’s not talk about how this scales for persons that speak closer to 10 languages. (Hint: It doesn’t.)

Facebook on the other hand, disallows having multiple accounts, so this approach is not feasible at all. Unless you have a really desperate knack for maintaining multiple split personalities.

“We have detected that this posting is in Esperanto…”

Which has me at my current state. Which is that I carefully consider the language I will use for any given posting. English is safe most of the time, but I usually prefer German, and I also want to keep the friendship to my Esperanto friends alive.

Keeping diverse-language activities separated isn’t always simple. A German mailing list here, an English-language forum and an Esperanto newsgroup there. That’s a possibility, but much of this has converged into the big social channels, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Not everyone finds it easy to ignore foreign-language postings in their social web. I’ve read from Esperanto speakers who have taken criticism from their relatives because they posted too much Esperanto. However, and this is what leads me to the conclusion of this lengthy posting, programmatically detecting the language of any text is easy these days.

“…do you want to see more postings in Esperanto? (yes/no)”

What the polyglot social web desperately needs is the capability to filter posts by language. It doesn’t have to be enabled by default. It doesn’t need to be offered for every single posting. Someone who never sees any foreign language anyway doesn’t need to waste precious CPU cycles for detection of the constantly same language.

A user, however, who finds that filtering by language would be useful, should have the ability to configure that only posts in this or that language should be displayed or that posts in that other language should be hidden.

I have seen people practising the one-feed-per-language method on Twitter and even Facebook. It wastes resources and drives people into violating terms of use. Who wants to constantly have his account threatened by cancellation? Feeds not filtered by language are awkward for posters and recipients alike, as well as they waste resources for the social web operator.

So, please, Facebook, Twitter and Google, and those about to build the next big thing: Give us the option to filter the social web by language. It’s going to be your personal contribution to world peace. At least, I hope so.

(Illustration: Tower of Babel by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1594, public domain)


  1. We’re building “Red” – the next generation of Friendica with language detection and filtering. Everything is analysed and categorised when it arrives. You’ll be able to decide which languages to accept, and whether or not to ignore other posts or delete them or try to translate them. The detection code is also built-in to the current Friendica platform (and therefore available now) but nobody has yet written a handler for it to decide what languages are OK and let you choose to do with the rest..

    Automatic translation plugins are questionable since you have a choice of Google (no longer free and questionable privacy) or Microsoft (questionable privacy) or an open source project which doesn’t yet have a good German translation – but we’re keeping the doors open for something to emerge.

    Comment by mike macgirvin — October 25, 2012 @ 9:11 am

  2. The problem is not only language specific. It’s also an issue of the context of the posts: Some friends of mine are not really interested in my posts about coding and other readers won’t read my personal stuff.

    So it’s all about filtering.

    The transmitter must be able to categorize or tag the messages in a way and the receiver must be able to subscribe specific categories or tags of the transmitter, or at least to mute non-related.

    Comment by trenc — October 25, 2012 @ 11:11 am

  3. I was thinking about that too some time ago.
    What I would like is to be able to “tag” every post/tweet/whatever with the language it is in, and maybe even provide alternative versions.
    Why shouldn’t I provide an English translation for posts I make in German, if I believe some non-german-speakers could be interested too? (emphasis on I make the translation, not some software garbling my words)

    As you might guess, I don’t really feel comfortable letting computers decide for me. A friendly “is this posting in English?” yes, a “this posting is in English”, no!

    I really wonder why no one of the big players implemented something like that

    Comment by Josef — October 25, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  4. Josef certainly has a good idea, one that I’ve long thought about for my own blog, but which applies equally to Facebook — sometimes I’d like to be able to post several translated versions of the same thing, but with a system that recognises and accounts for the fact that they are multiple copies of the same thing, not just two or three separate posts, and then displays them appropriately to people depending as much as possible on their language preferences.

    On the filtering side, the technology to recognise a language from a written sample is fairly widespread, so in theory at least it wouldn’t be difficult for Facebook to implement a language-related filter for people to use on their own timelines.

    I think Martin overstates the problem though — I don’t think my social web is “ruined” because people sometimes post stuff that I don’t understand. It’s not that difficult to just scroll past stuff you don’t understand, stuff you’re not interested in, stuff that’s not relevant right now, etc. And if friends or relatives are complaining because you’re posting stuff they don’t understand, I would politely suggest that that’s entirely their problem and not yours. Fuck ’em. 🙂

    Comment by timsk — November 6, 2012 @ 11:40 am

    • I’m overstating the problem? Next thing, you’ll say that I’m overstating the solution and language detection isn’t even going to bring peace to the world. 😉

      Comment by martin — November 6, 2012 @ 11:54 am

      • Ho ho. 😉 Have you been paying too much attention to, shall we say, the rabid wing of the Esperanto movement? World peace, indeed…

        Comment by timsk — November 6, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

      • Actually, the communication I had with some esperantists suggests that the occasional language barrier isn’t neccessarily the worst of all things. 😉

        Comment by martin — November 6, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  5. That’s very diplomatically put. 😉 I’m reminded of my favourite prayer: “Ĉiopova Dio, protektu min kontraŭ via sekvantoj”.

    Comment by timsk — November 6, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

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