Victor Donselaar, a Dutchman living in Helsinki, Finland, finds the social network Facebook useful for staying in touch with new friends and business contacts from across Europe. But when he wants to connect with old buddies from the Netherlands, his social network of choice is strictly homegrown. "In Holland, none of my friends are on Facebook," Donselaar says. Instead, he notes, they're on a popular Dutch site called Hyves.
As U.S. social network growth slows, sites including Facebook and rival News Corp. (NWS)-owned MySpace have shifted their attention overseas. But while these leading Western sites have seen steady adoption in key countries, they've been met with indifference in markets like the Netherlands, where comparable domestic sites are entrenched. International expansion is key to growth for sites that have struggled to make money from users who would rather socialize than click on ads or make purchases from a profile page.Lost in Translation
Language is one barrier. Facebook and MySpace both introduced many of their foreign-language versions only in the past year, and many translations are still imperfect. But in many cases, the local sites cater to the sensibilities of local cultures in ways that are difficult for the U.S.-headquartered sites to match. "In the U.S., people use social software pretty much the same way nationwide, while different parts of Europe have different uses depending on culture," says Loic Le Meur, a French entrepreneur who moved to Silicon Valley to launch the video-sharing site Seesmic. For example, he says, "Latin-culture countries such as France, Spain, or Italy tend to share and blog a lot, often under their [own] names, while Germanic cultures tend to share more anonymously."
Hyves (its name being a play on the English word "beehives") says it has signed up 7 million Dutch residents, or almost half of the country's population of 16 million, since launching in 2004. On the site, users post photos and videos, customize their personal profiles, and connect with neighbors in nearby provinces. One of the most popular users is Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, who boasts about 150,000 friends and sometimes invites people he meets on the site for a visit to his presidential office.
"The local tone of voice of our Web site is very important," says Hyves co-founder Raymond Spanjar. "Both MySpace and Facebook have been translated into Dutch, but as is usually the case, the translation is rather clinical and doesn't really compare." For example, Facebook's "Wall" feature, a personal guestbook where friends can leave comments, in Dutch is called a "prikboard," the literal translation for bulletin board. By contrast, Hyves created an original name, the "krabbel," for its comparable feature. "It is now a very popular word, and might even be added to the Dutch dictionary," Spanjar says.Unseating Entrenched Locals
U.S. sites have made little headway in the Netherlands. According to data obtained from comScore (SCOR), Hyves had 5.7 million unique visitors in November, compared with Facebook's 585,000 and MySpace's 566,000. And in October, nine months after MySpace announced a renewed focus on the Netherlands, the Beverly Hills (Calif.)-based site shut its Amsterdam office. MySpace found the landscape competitive and entered the country late, Derek Fehmers, who led MySpace's operations in the region, told a Dutch news outlet.