StudiVZ, Germany’s most popular social network site for university students and often called a “German Facebook clone”, has been forced to shut down its website for several days following the exposure of a series of pathetic security issues. While this disaster provided hours of great entertainment for programmers and hackers, from a commercial perspective the most interesting question is the one posted by Don Alphonso in his recent blog: What if StudiVZ’s users simply turned to the original and registered with Facebook?
As he writes, this would leave behind an essentially worthless company. However, here’s the main reason why this won’t happen: Facebook is available in English only. Yes, we’re talking about university students and not about consumers in general, which have trouble understanding even simple slogans in English. Still, we have to face the facts: A representative study rated only 5% of the students as having very good or good English language abilities. I’m serious. Just look at my lousy English – my fellow students thought it was amazing (“You must have spent a lot of time abroad” – maybe so, but not in English speaking countries).
Loosing 5% or even 15% of their users wouldn’t cause irreparable damage to StudiVZ. You’d need a far higher figure to generate the positive network externalities which really make social networking site work. Facebook won’t get there unless they set up a German version. They probably won’t get this done until Tuesday, when StudiVZ is supposed to be back on line. Apparently they don’t even own the domain facebook.de.
Lesson learned: Security and internationalization should be on your mind right from the beginning of a web project.