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Twitter and Web Globalization

John Yunker

ICANN recently launched its own Twitter feed. And since ICANN is a global organization, it launched more than one language feed — one in English and one in Spanish.

http://twitter.com/icann_en
http://twitter.com/icann_es

This is not the most scalable solution. And I'm not trying to pick on Twitter; the issue effects any multinational company or organization.

For instance, let's say ICANN launches a Portuguese feed for Brazil. The address would have to read twitter.com/icann_pt_br. Similar challenges arise with French (Canada vs. France). And even the English and Spanish feeds are inherently going to exclude various flavors of the languages.

In addition, if I were wanting to be a pain, I could register icann_ru to beat ICANN to that address. And this highlights a larger emerging issue (and opportunity) as Twitter becomes more corporate and less personal — how to ensure that brand holders have access to their names. I always thought this would be a nice revenue source for Twitter, similar to the way that registries profit from domain registrations.

Ideally, Twitter would allow you to set up one address and then forward language-specific feeds to the subscriber based on their preference — sort of like how language negotiation works now with Web browsers. For instance, if I type in Google.com, the language I get aligns with the language preference of my browser.

But therein lies the challenge of Twitter — it doesn't just send feeds to a browser. It sends the feeds to browsers and mobile devices and even Twitter apps, like Tweetie, which I use on occasion.

ICANN is now migrating its subscribers from icann_en to icann. No word yet on what will happen with icann_es.

What do you think Twitter should do to solve this issue?

By John Yunker, Author and founder of Byte Level Research
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Related topics: ICANN, Web
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More complex than that Kieren McCarthy  –  May 20, 2009 9:28 AM PDT

Some good points and something that ICANN has been working on in different ways for six months or so.

The main overall issue is: how do you connect multiple language versions of the same information together? If you don't do this it becomes very difficult to approach things in an organized manner and it becomes ad hoc - which can have a knock-on impact on providing information equitably as well as on archiving.

The second question underneath that is: how do you separate the different languages? ICANN hired two experts and ran an extensive public comment process on translation and interpretation and came up with two blocks of five languages to use. We also decided upon using the standard "en", "es", "zh" two-letter code for languages. So that explains why we have the Twitter tags we do.

But do we run one overall feed with all languages or separate feeds? It varies according to the software. So Drupal - which is the open-source CMS software we are using increasingly for websites - has a clever system of nodes where you are able to note within the system that a number of nodes are inter-related i.e. are different language versions of the same thing.

There is also the issue for website of trying to provide a language version of a website with information only in that language i.e. to try to avoid mixing languages on the same page. But when not all the information is translated, you need intelligent coding at the back to pull in only that material that is in that language. This is far from simple, unfortunately.

When it comes to the blog, we use Wordpress. And we have different languages categories for posts. This means that the front page is a feed of everything in all languages (although it remains mostly English) but that you can choose all posts within a different languages category. We stuck up a custom menu at the top specifically with the different languages.

This works but is far from ideal - especially if we translate blog posts in multiple languages because you end up with 5 versions of the same thing on the front page.

The video software we use enables you to actively select a language within the window to see subtitles in that language. That's okay but isn't automatic, so we are currently combining language-tagged webpages with browser awareness so that people should arrive at, say, a Russian page with a Russian transcript if they have a browser set to read Russian. This approach is sometimes simple, sometimes complex. We're still working on it.

But to get back to your main point - yes, Twitter is limited at the moment - hence our Spanish version at icann_es. It's not just language though - it is also topic. We have an IDNs Twitter account at "idntlds" because the specialised nature of some of ICANN's work means that some people are fascinated about very specific subjects but not interested in others. We don't want to swamp people with irrelevant (for them) comments.

Wrt the issue of names being taken - Twitter has set up an arm dealing with companies claiming trademark rights. They seem to be learning this lesson the hard way and appear at the moment to be trying to run it on good faith.

Of course, one of the big reasons Twitter has taken off is because it has opened itself up to third-parties extending what Twitter does. It may be possible that someone creates some software that answers this issue.

Personally I think that to deal with the different language (and different topic) issue that Twitter needs to write in a new category into its system in the same way it has a location system that the iPhone uses invisibly to geotag posts.

Anyway, glad someone has noticed the work we're trying to do to make ICANN more interactive, open and user-friendly.

Kieren McCarthy
General Manager of Public Participation, ICANN

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