Facebook, meet Max Weinreich

Facebook’s new profile implements a curious policy: authenticating locations (“current city” and “hometown” but not languages. So, according to FB, a place doesn’t exist unless it’s a legitimate jurisdiction according to some undisclosed canonical authority (brute-forcing the autofill would be an interesting exercise). So, for example, “Kosovo” (the Srpskohravatski/Serbo-Croatian spelling) exists but “Kosova” (the Albanian spelling) doesn’t; and the Belgian city “Luik” (Flemish) autofills as “Luik, Liege, Belgium” whereas the same city’s Francophone name autofills as “Liége, Belgium” (sorry, Flembots, you’re out of luck). “Bombay” is transmogrified into “Mumbai (Bombay), India” — with parentheses, not commas, which might be sloppy/adhocratic or a nice forensic detail.

In FB’s English-language interface, non-Latin entries like “Москва́” (Moscow) or “北京” (Beijing) don’t ‘register’: no lookup is invoked, and you can’t save changes.

But languages? Anything goes:

On a basic level, this policy probably aims to ‘stabilize’ identities on FB — no great mystery given current events (e.g., the USDOJ’s subpoena of Twitter accounts). In this sense, FB’s policy — implemented on the level of its UI but in no way limited to it — is starting to reveal some of its hidden functions a bit more clearly.

It wouldn’t be much harder to come up with a canonical list of languages to look up, complete with ‘alternate’ spellings (e.g., in native script); but it’d be much harder to identify an associated legal authority with teeth. There are sources for this info, and they’re widely treated as authoritative by industry; for example, the ISO 639-3 standard issued in 2007 claims “comprehensive coverage of languages,” 7704 of them. But, as they say, how many divisions does the ISO have?

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