Blogs and the tower of Babel

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Image courtesy Fimoculous via Flickr

Image courtesy Fimoculous via Flickr

IBM maintains one of the world’s largest employee blog networks with more than 16,000 blogs. If you think of IBM in the gray-suit, Organization Man image of ole (which the company has successfully spoofed in a popular YouTube video), it might surprise you that its social media policy for employees was drafted by its internal, online community with no revisions by the company’s legal or HR departments. That kind of crowdsourcing is a testament in part to the work of Adam Christensen, IBM’s social media communications manager, who recently spoke on a Conference Board panel about how social tools like blogs are increasing collaboration across the company (here’s a cool presentation from Adam covering IBM’s internal social media efforts). For IBM, the only barrier to internal collaboration through social tools is older than stodgy corporate cultures and more difficult to overcome: language.

IBM employees in America and Japan constitute two independent, thriving blog communities that rarely share ideas with each other due to the language barrier. Machine translation hasn’t yet reached a stage where it can translate Web content clearly on a large scale. While the Web is enabling better communication than ever, more than 6,000 languages are being spoken on this planet. With vast quantities of international content at our fingertips, it’s like the Web has brought us all back to the fall of the tower of Babel, more aware than ever of our inability to understand each other (thank goodness for sites like Global Voices that help us enjoy of some of that international content). Along with limited Internet access in some parts of the world, language presents the biggest challenge for global outreach and teamwork on the social Web. But Semantic Web technologies could soon change that.

We’ve discussed the Semantic Web on this blog before, and Cision Europe CEO Peter Granat recently addressed how linked data online will affect PR professionals in a talk at the Media Relations Summit in New York. The idea is simple: right now, the Internet consists of a collection pages linked together. But new technologies enable computers to tag each idea within a page, enabling more intelligent search. Eventually, linked data will transcend language barriers by organizing references to the same idea discussed in various languages with a single tagging system, lessening the need for the traditional language-to-language translation methods that have so often come up short. Who will you be able to team up with when the barriers come down?

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