Twitter? It's All Chinese To Me. But What If It Actually Was?

I pick up a few followers each day and my policy is that assuming the person is real (that is, not a spammer or other kind of self-promoter) and seems reasonable enough, I will always follow them back. Without fail. If they later turn out to be an insane person (or, worse, rude), I can easily unfollow and/or block them.

Lately I’ve had one or two people follow me (who have I then followed back) who tweet exclusively in their own language. That is, a language that is not English. A language, therefore, that is not my own.

I take a fair bit of responsibility here. When it came to languages in school, I slacked off a bit. I have a basic command of French and recognise a few (mostly choice) words in other European languages, but when it comes to complex prose, and certainly anything from most of the countries around the rest of the world, I’m lost.

The Question

Which presents something of a moral dilemma. My question is thus, and it’s two fold:

  • What is the correct etiquette for following users on Twitter who exclusively tweet in a language you don’t understand?
  • If your goal on Twitter is to become a power-user/influencer and recruit loads of followers around the world, should you expect to have to tweet in English?

I’d been thinking about this subject for most of the day and decided the best course of action was to engage my own followers in this discussion. So, just after 4pm I posed this question:

“Risk of sounding ignorant but: is there any point in following someone who always tweets in a language you don’t understand (& vice versa)?”

I got a lot of great responses. Some felt that not understanding the language would be an obvious barrier.

“The whole point is almost like a personality driven RSS feed. No point having one you don’t get.” (@IAmAylosha)

“You could learn a new language 8=) Honestly, I doubt that there is a point unless you just want followers to boost numbers.” (@LoneWolfMuskoka)

“Not much point following if you can’t understand them. Why second guess?” (@Disfunctional)

“Only if they have a nice picture or the language looks pretty as text. I recommend following someone in Farsi.” (@theks)

“I make a point of not following anyone who doesnt tweet in english. unless theyre really really good looking.” (@xlad)

Others felt that the effort to understand, possibly by using a translator service, might be rewarding.

“Sure there is! TweetDeck’s fantastic Translate feature makes other languages a non-issue.” (@paradisetossed)

“You might learn something?” (@henrikkarlstrom)

“I follow a few French tweeters, but only because I’m (re)learning French.” (@retroblique)

“How about if Twitter sets up an auto-translate function?” (@sharlr)

“TweetDeck translate is “powered by Google”, and Google Translate supports 41 languages and growing.” (@henrikkarlstrom)

Others saw the funny side:

“I’m sorry, my British-English translater for TweetDeck crashed just before your last tweet – can you RT now that it’s back up?” (@niceguyted)

I then openly posed the question as to whether if one expects to ‘do well’ on Twitter – that is, to grow a large base of followers and be useful and an influencer – should you expect to have to tweet in the dominant language within the Twittersphere, which at this moment in time is English? Again, I had some choice responses.

“It’s hard to combine twittering with friends in one language with general twittering in English. All get the same tweets.” (@henrikkarlstrom)

“Yes? Whatever language most people tweet in should be the preferred language for tweeting.” (@FrostyJane)

“I’d imagine that huge followings could happen in India or China without english but they’d be less global in nature.” (@LoneWolfMuskoka)

The latter point is an interesting one and pushed the discussion on to another tangent. Twitter, while increasingly popular, is still very much dominated by Western, English-speaking users (mostly Americans and Britons). Ultimately as Twitter gets more and more mainstream and becomes truly global, there’s a high likelihood that your ‘all friends’ feed with be a veritable smorgasbord of different cultures and languages. Even if one was an expert second-language speaker in French, German and Italian, what about Chinese? Or Japanese? Or the various Indian and African languages and dialects?

At what point do you decide that you will only follow people who engage in a communication method that you completely understand? (And if you’re above a certain age, this could well include text-speak, too. 😉 ).

The Future of Twitter?

This of course works both ways. Assuming the currently highly restrictive boundaries in China are ever dropped, ultimately the Chinese will have an increasing dominance in all aspects of the Internet. When taken as a separate language, Mandarin Chinese has more native speakers than any other language in the world. If you don’t understand anything that another person is tweeting, common sense would perhaps suggest that there is no point in following them. But is that the correct etiquette? And does it risk Twitter breaking up into concentrated feeds where everybody speaks and writes the same way? And if that happens, does Twitter ultimately then descend into different pockets of like-minded folk, with fixed groups and themes?

I’m not necessarily sure this is the best way forward. Twitter works really well as an easy way to meet and socialise with new and interesting people. I’ve met and engaged with many cool folk on the platform, and continue to do so on a daily basis. The last thing I want to see is the network diversifying into lots of small, concentrated focus groups where you’re expected to only tweet about the subject at hand. But I do believe that there is an increasing likelihood that because of the inevitable increase in Twitterers from all around the world that steps may have to be taken to ensure that the experience on the platform is a pleasant and welcoming one for all.

Online Translators

I’ve already mentioned the use of online translators above and some of my followers felt that this was the logical way forward. TweetDeck already supports Google’s translate feature and some 41 languages are available, and possibly in the future Twitter will implement some automatic-translation option. But this is not an exact science; while a real person can often translate a second language with speed and ease, many online services struggle with nuance and tone. For example, one of the replies I received yesterday during this discussion was as follows:

“Puedo ¡Hablarte en el idioma que quiras, mientras sea ingles!” (@mattimago)

This is Spanish. If I enter this text into Google’s translate service, I get this back:

“! Can talk the language that Quiros, while English is!” (Google)

Quite. That’s a fairly basic sentence, too (the actual meaning is “I’ll speak to you in any language. As long as it’s English!”), but this is a problem that many translation services face. They’re often very good with bookish, academic prose, but struggle with slang, emphasis and intent. Even if Twitter did somehow manage to feed a translator for every language in the world into the network, one imagines that a lot of the output would be wrong and even unintentionally comical, more often that not. This of course also assumes that either Twitter or the user knew which language they needed to convert in the first place! 🙂

The Answer?

I’m not sure there is an answer here. Right now, while I continue to get non-English tweeters added to my followers a few times a week, it’s not an issue as such. I think as with everyone on Twitter you’ll have your own personal rules as to whom you will and will not follow.

But here’s the thing: In a few years from now the network will almost certainly be quite multi-cultural. In all likelihood this is a situation that Twitter has possibly not fully anticipated. Because of this the measures that will be necessary to make this inevitability not prohibitive to the existing and new users on the network will not be in place. This may ultimately mean that it all gets a bit messy at some point.

It’s one thing for an English speaker to suggest that you need to tweet in English to do well on the predominately-English speaking Twitter, but there will be a point in the future where that is not the case. Even if the Chinese don’t take to Twitter en masse, the collective weight of the rest of the world will ensure that English will not be the first language of the majority. What then? English might well be the business language of choice right now, but even that is at risk of change.

And this isn’t business. It’s the internet, and it’s Twitter. Five years from now, perhaps the only people who have millions of followers will be those people that not only speak a myriad of second languages, but are prepared to listen to it, too.