Reconsidering Social Media for Global Contexts

By Kirk St.Amant | Fellow

Social media is increasingly becoming a standard part of the technical communicator’s toolkit. At the same time, the international use of social media on the rise. Facebook, for example, has roughly 1.4 billion users worldwide (Company Info., 2015). Similarly, some 284 million persons around the world are monthly Twitter users (About Twitter, 2015), and LinkedIn connects 330 million+ individuals in over 200 countries and territories (About Us, 2015). It would therefore seem logical for technical communicators to use social media to connect with global audiences. Yet not all cultures use these technologies in the same way, nor do all individuals worldwide turn to the same social networking services to interact.

In truth, the effective use of social media in global contexts involves more than translating a Facebook post or localizing the content posted to LinkedIn. Rather, it requires technical communicators to understand a range of factors from the geopolitical to the cultural. Doing so is no easy task. However, by answering certain questions, technical communicators can better use social media to connect to audiences around the globe.

Question 1: What social media are available to international audiences?

Facebook seems to be an almost standard technology when it comes to daily communication. With over 250 million users in Asia, Facebook would appear to be an essential tool for reaching audiences across that continent (Internet Users in Asia). It would certainly seem to be a key technology for communicating with individuals in one of the world’s largest markets—the People’s Republic of China (PRC). After all, the combination of some 600 million persons with Internet access and an online market worth some $190 billion makes the PRC an ideal location to connect to via Facebook, right (China; Dobbs, et al.)? Well, not exactly.

While Facebook does have a presence in the PRC, that presence is limited to certain users in particular locations, primarily around Shanghai (Woollaston). As a result, citizens of the PRC tend to use other forms of media to connect to social networks. These include instant messaging technologies such as QQ and social networking services (SNSs) such as Weixin (WeChat). For this reason, should technical communicators wish to use social media to interact with individuals in the PRC, they will need to re-consider what SNS they intend to use. Situations such as this one give rise to a second, connected question.

Question 2: What social media are used by individuals in other nations?

LinkedIn has become a powerful networking tool for sharing professional information and exchanging ideas about employment and the job market. While based in the US, LinkedIn’s greater network includes a sizable number of global users including some 8 million individuals in China and some 28 million persons in India (About Us). For this reason, LinkedIn would seem to be an excellent tool for sharing professional information and ideas on a global scale. But it’s not the only employment-related SNS available to users in different nations. In fact, in a number of countries, competing technologies exist, and they connect large networks of individuals in those nations.

The German-based SNS XING, for example, has some 6 million members—primarily in German-speaking nations. (LinkedIn only had 2 million users in the same region [del Moral].) Similarly, Viadeo, an employment-focused French SNS, includes some 9 million French members in its network (Acueil). (It also boasts some 25 million users in China!) In fact, Viadeo is so popular in France that it rivals LinkedIn, which also includes 9 million French members in its network (About Us). For these reasons, when connecting to international audiences, technical communicators need to consider the range of SNS available to individuals in other nations. They next need to design content to be distributed across those different SNS channels. So, in the case of France, technical communicators could share employment-related content via LinkedIn, but they also need to share the same content across Viadeo. That way, they can more effectively use social media to tap into greater online networks in France. Such factors, however, beg a follow-up question.

Question 3: Do individuals in other nations use certain social media?

Access is one thing; use is another. If the individuals in a certain nation have ready access to a particular SNS, will they actually make use of it? Moreover, will they do so on a scale that others around the world do? The answer is, “not exactly.”

While 75 percent of Germans have online access and a large percentage of them regularly use social media, relatively few Germans have Twitter accounts (Social Media Guide). In fact, of Germany’s 80 million citizens, only 4 million turn to Twitter (Coleman). Moreover, public figures—such as political candidates—who do Tweet have much smaller followings than compatriots in other nations. For example, Peer Steinbruck—who recently ran against German chancellor Angela Merkel—had some 60,000 Twitter follower, while his British peer (Ed Miliband of the opposition Labor Party) had over 265,000 followers on Twitter (Coleman; Why Do Germans).

So, with so few Germans using Twitter, technical communicators need to ask if it is worthwhile translating and localizing tweets for German audiences. Ideally, yes—one should try to develop content for all markets, no matter how small. In practice, limited budgets and relatively small returns on investments need to be considered before using certain social media to connect to seemingly small markets. This factor of use—or in this case, lack of use—raises another interesting question.

Question 4: How do individuals in other nations use social media?

For many individuals in the United States, SNSs are vehicles for sharing everything from text about how one’s day is going to re-posting interesting online articles to sharing cool YouTube videos. It is thus easy to assume that SNSs can—and should—be used to deliver a range of content to international audiences. But is that a safe assumption to make—and should funding be allocated to developing and delivering such content widely to international markets? The answer is “it depends.”

While much of the world does use social media to share a variety of content, that expectation is by no means universal. Research notes that many SNS users in South Korea use such technologies primarily for sharing personal photos or other kinds of individual-specific images with friends and family (Chapman & Lahav). This perspective differs from using SNSs to share company news and product information—or links to such content (e.g., companion YouTube videos). As a result, the use of social media to share these “other” kinds of content might not connect to—or be used by—as many individuals as one might expect. This situation leads to a connected question.

Question 5: Who do international users expect to include in their online social networks?

It is quite common for US-based SNS users to have 100+ connections in their network. In fact, one sign of prestige often associated with these technologies is to have as many “friends” or “followers” as possible. This desire to connect to seemingly anyone makes it relatively easy for technical communicators to use social media to enter into a range of different online networks. This fascination with openly inviting individuals to build such large networks, however, is not universal.

In China, many use SNSs to interact with a relatively small network of family and close friends. Moreover, social networks tend to be more closed and restricted to person’s one knows well vs. little-known—or even unknown—acquaintances. Similar perspectives seem to influence SNS use in Japan, where SNSs such as Mixi do not permit individuals to use bulk email to reach out to everyone in a person’s online network. Instead, persons need to be invited individually (Fogg & Iizawa). However, gaining access to an individual’s broader network can be an objective for using social media.

The question becomes, “Can technical communicators use SNSs to connect effectively and participate actively with individuals in other nations?” In some cases, the answer might be “you can’t just ask to be included; rather you need to be introduced by a known member of the network.” The task then becomes identifying the individuals who can provide the introduction needed to enter that network. This aspect moves social media from effective vehicles for contacting persons en masse to individual approaches that involve contacting persons one at a time. Moreover, if the answer is “no; you don’t have the background or the connections needed to enter the network,” then technical communicators need to consider the best strategies to use when developing content to share with members of such cultures via social media.

Final Thoughts

Each new technology shapes and is shaped by how we use it. And use is often connected to how the members of our culture perceive and interact with the technology. Social media are no different. While the numbers cited in this entry will surely change (or have changed) over time, one central factor remains: cultures view and use these technologies in different ways. The questions raised here highlight key areas technical communicators need to consider when using social media to interact globally. By using these questions as a starting point, technical communicators can develop more informed and more effective strategies for using social media to connect with international audiences.

KIRK ST.AMANT (kirk.stamant@gmail.com) is an STC Fellow and a professor of technical and professional communication and of international studies. His main research interests are international communication and information design for global audiences and health and medical communication for international audiences.

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