Flickr expands beyond English-speaking world

Yahoo's photo-sharing site will work in seven new languages, and the company expects new members out of the expansion.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
Flickr is graduating from language school.

Until now, the Yahoo photo-sharing Web site had operated in English only. But on Tuesday, Yahoo is extending its interface to speakers of Spanish, French, German, Korean, Italian, Portuguese and traditional Chinese.

The company expects membership growth from the move, said Stewart Butterfield, Flickr co-founder and general manager, though he wasn't specific about the company's goals.

Today, the early-adopter crowd that's likely to use online services like Flickr tends to be comfortable working in English, but that's not necessarily the case for those with whom those members want to share photos.

"The value is diminished because people can't get friends or family to use Flickr. It limits the growth," Butterfield said.

Tuesday's move will mean Flickr will work in "all the languages that are heavily used on the Internet," he said. "We'll see a significant uptick in growth."

Of course, there are still significant language barriers with the text on Flickr that users supply--photo titles, captions, comments and tags. Though no magic universal translator has been invented, Yahoo has been pondering that issue, as well, Butterfield said.

Yahoo has considered adding computer-based translation, but that area shows little promise, he said. Despite research into the area that dates back to the 1950s, "it still blows," Butterfield said.

More interesting is the possibility of "tokenized" communications--a selection of common messages such as "Great photo!" that can be presented in many languages, he said.

And for now, there are some translation workarounds. For example, some groups of Flickr photographers explicitly try to accommodate their international membership by using multilingual text.

And Flickr's tag cluster analysis tools, which monitor which tags are commonly used in conjunction with other tags, can bridge gaps. For example, a Japanese user who types in the Japanese characters for "Tokyo" can click to see clusters of related tags, the top one of which is the English term "Tokyo."

But while Japanese-language Flickr users evidently often add the "Tokyo" tag in English, the converse isn't necessarily true, meaning that the tag cluster bridge in some cases runs only one way. Flickr's "Toyko" English tag cluster doesn't include the Japanese characters for Tokyo as a common tag companion.

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