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The Story of Facebook Arabic


As the Wikimedia Foundation seeks to expand its user base in the Arab world and increase the Arabic content on wikipedia two main considerations need to taken into account:
  1. Linguistic Challenges
  2. Management of potentially sensitive content


Linguistic: Lessons from Facebook

What type of Arabic is needed in order to create a unified identity for Arabic language users?...Classical Arabic, informal Arabic, a dialect specific to a particular region? In order to create a Facebook Arabic that was user friendly, the company constantly sought direct feedback from the community on the language translations.


Beginning with a pilot site released to a select group of community members, Facebook asked participants to provide translation suggestions. According to a news account by The Telegram, “Facebook…asked users of a trail version to translate the site over the past month – a cost-effective scheme that has proved popular with users who translated the site into other languages.” [1] Users feedback to the language they experienced on the site was crucial for FB’s success. Facebook tested its pilot sites predominately amongst university students.


Open translation in a linguistically complex region poses a number of problems. With a higher number of Egyptian users translating in their unique dialect, an open-transition method does not accurately take into account language variation across the 22 Arabic speaking countries. Facebook shifted its language strategy away from open-translation to in-house translation. The bulk of the project was outsourced to translation experts. A team of FB translators found an appropriate mix of formal and in-formal Arabic for the site launch. Facebook Arabic was then piloted and taken back to the community.

Dialect comes into play regarding crowd-sourcing in the Arab world. How will dialects and word usages be controlled? Is the community at large responsible for reinforce the dialect used on wiki pages? With classical Arabic as a baseline for published works, will other forms of informal Arabic, and Arabic specific to certain regions be accepted?


Managing Content:

Community involvement is core principal behind wikipedia for the content and information. Wikipedia will see a firestorm of editors from the Arab world once word of the project spreads. In just a span of two years, for example, Facebook Arabic saw an increase of its user base from 0 to 30million. According to Ghassan Haddad, Head of Internationalization for Facebook, once the Arabic language version was launched, “FB saw an increase in the adoption of FB in Arabic, not English. [The company] wanted to make FB available in the language of the region, therefore had to take into account linguistic and cultural considerations.” With trends so quickly spread, wikipedia will undoubtable experience rapid growth in the Arab world. The issue then becomes, not who will create Arabic content, but who will monitor it. Internal mechanisms need to be in place to manage linguistic and verify factual legitimacy of the published content. Haddad notes that Facebook implemented a new strategy once their user numbers increase: while the company initially focused its strategy on user growth, its since had to reframe FB's focus, now concentrating on engagement with its Arab users.



How to Target Arab Universities?


Engaging with universities and scholars is the best way to promote wikipedia’s vision of increased Arabic content. Institutions of higher education have human-capital, and therefore guarantee that someone will either create or edit content online.


The best way to gain buy-in from students is to organizing ‘Wikipedia content creation competitions’ between a few universities. The premise: university teams compete against each other to create. The winning team will be the one that creates and edit the most Arabic content. The prize for the winners would be a free trip to the wikimedia foundation, or attendance at a wikimedia foundation conference. The aim through this is promote the idea that producing knowledge is something that fun, collaborative and competitive.






[1] The Telegram. “Facebook launched in Arabic and Hebrew. 11 March 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/4971052/Facebook-launches-in-Arabic-and-Hebrew.html





This research was done by Suzan El Rayess, a second-year Master of Public Administration student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, concentrating in Urban and Social Policy with a specialization in Management. Email her at: se2276@columbia.edu

This is a sub-topic page, under Wikimedia in the Arab World.
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