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Facebook targets Russia

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Facebook Inc. is the world’s largest social network site, with 500 million-plus members at last count.

However, there are plenty of big markets where Mark Zuckerberg’s creation isn’t dominant.

In Japan, Facebook doesn’t rank in the top three, and the site isn’t much of a force in Brazil or China, two populous countries where Internet usage is off the charts.

The outlook for Facebook in Russia may be more promising, despite the popularity of homegrown social network sites, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its January 3 issue.

Facebook officially launched its site in April and only ranks number 5 so far, according to Internet tracker comScore, but its growth has been impressive.

From January until August in 2010, its Russian operation has racked up a 376% increase in users, to 4,5 million, according to comScore data.

The company cut deals with Russian wireless carriers Beeline and OAO Mobile TeleSystems, so that their subscribers could tap the mobile version of Facebook.

To overcome the language barrier, Facebook allowed users to suggest translations for the name of features not easily understood in Russian such as “poke” (as in trying to get another Facebook user’s attention), and then let the site’s members vote them up or down.

“Russian is a very complex language, so we allowed the users to translate the interface themselves so that it captures the complex grammar,” said Javier Olivan, a London-based Spaniard who is head of international growth at Facebook.

Its founder has made no secret of his ambitions to thrive in Russia, a market where other Western players, including Google Inc., have struggled to get their footing.

Speaking at an October 17 event at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Zuckerberg said that if Facebook succeeded in penetrating the Russian market, it might have a shot at doing the same in China, the country with the largest number of Netizens.

Russians’ heavy use of social network sites makes the country an ideal test case. Russians spend 9,8 hours per visitor on a monthly basis on such sites — more than double the world average, according to comScore.

Why do Russians while away so many hours online?

For one thing, there’s the climate: Staying indoors and socialising via the Internet is much more attractive when winter lasts a good six months.

Then there’s the physical isolation, compounded by poor infrastructure, especially in cities like Murmansk, which lies north of the Arctic Circle.

Most importantly, though, there is a tradition in Russia of relying on informal information networks for simple day-to-day survival.

“In Russia, there is no sense that you can rely on the public or the system, so you’ve traditionally had to rely on a network of friends,” says Esther Dyson, a venture capitalist who has been investing in Russia’s technology sector for over a decade.

In a country with weak institutions, “it’s very natural for people to network for what they want.”

Even in these less oppressive, post-Soviet times, relationships are critical to everything from landing a job to wriggling out of a problem with authorities.

It’s no coincidence that the Russian love affair with the Internet has blossomed at a time when citizens are once again seeing their political and media freedoms dwindle.

“(The Web) has become a place where you have absolute freedom of speech, where you can say whatever you want, good or bad,” says Ilya Krasilshchik, editor-in-chief of Afisha, a Russian lifestyle magazine and website.
— Bloomberg

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