Even Coke Can't Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony on Facebook

Xenophobics Trash Soft-Drink Maker's Portuguese Post

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For a moment this morning, the fight over the sanctity of America's borders centered on an unlikely battlefield. If you were on Cola-Cola's Facebook page and saw all the Glenn Beck-like vitriol, you might have thought the Happiness Factory had just staffed up with a a bunch of illegal (but cheerful!) immigrants. Alas, it was just a technical glitch that made Americans do the unthinkable: read another language.
Coca-Cola Facebook page
Coca-Cola Facebook page

An otherwise normal day at a brand page that , with 33 million fans, is liked almost as much as Justin Bieber's began harmlessly enough. Then from somewhere within the bowels of Coke's social-media operation came a Facebook post about something called "Student Day": "Today's the Day of the Student! If you're part of this group [of students], show us by having some fun or posting a comment here. And congratulations."

Trouble was the post was in Portuguese and the message added an apparently unwelcome dash of the international to the millions who like their soda cans red and their news feeds red, white, and blue. The resulting comment thread turned into a depressing hotbed of xenophobia, filled with some rather salty remarks and not a little confusion over just what language it was they were hating, stemming from Portuguese's low profile among non-speakers and its resemblance to Spanish, which, to many, is the tongue of the apocalypse. Some folks were mildly annoyed by the sight of a language they don't understand and simply unliked the page. Others had a more visceral reaction: "SPEAK ENGLISH OR FUCKING DIE!!!!" Jason Hughes suggested. As such, many of the comments were in blatant disregard for Coke's Facebook "House Rules" that forbid inappropriate remarks.

Coke eventually pulled the post and the thread from the sight of American viewers, but there was still a sprinkling of rage left on its wall. Rodrigo Viotto Chiarato mocked the American "We rule! Speak our language" attitude and reminded everyone that "Many ads from Coke are about diversity." To which Cody Greene replied: "If it's so GREAT TELL YOUR PEOPLE TO STAY IN THERE COUNTRY AND NOT TRY TO BRING DRUGS AND THERE SELFS HERE!!" (Sics all around!)

Coke says that it wasn't the hot-button nature of the subject matter that led it to scrub its page, but rather the fact that the "Student Day"-related content wasn't relevant and stemmed from a technical glitch. Basically, all of Coke's posts are geotagged so that its fans see only posts in a relevant language based on their IP address. U.S. users see posts in English; Brazilian in Portuguese and so on. But something went wrong today and two posts, one in Portuguese and one in Romanian, were visible to everyone for about 10 minutes, according to a Coke executive.

"Now those posts are only viewed by the audiences in Brazil and Romania," said Ashley Brown, director-digital communications and social media, in an email. "We did this to avoid consumer confusion and the posts are still online where they were intended to be seen."

Asked whether the company has any plans to communicate this to its Facebook fans, Mr. Brown replied, "We don't have immediate plans to post an update on this, but we'll keep an eye on the conversation and if we need to we will comment."

The episode provided an interesting glimpse at ideas of how geography-less social networks interact with ideas of nation, which is a doctoral dissertation waiting to be written if there ever was one.

Consider that an awful lot of rather vocal people seem to be under the impression that Facebook is American, as in part of American soil, like a 51st state. And a not-insignificant subset of those people seem to think that only English should be spoken and written on said soil. This is maybe not good news for the proprietors of Facebook, who probably imagine their company as "global" or maybe "transnational" in nature and thus having appeal to brands whose business is similarly international in nature and whose consumers reside in many different countries that speak many different languages.

An estimated 80% of Facebook's active users are outside the U.S., with (Portuguese-speaking) Brazil and India growing at a rate of 23% and 11%, respectively, between February and May 2011, according to ComScore. That's compared to 4% growth in the U.S over the same time period. If Mark Zuckerberg and company want to get to 1 billion users, they'll need that international growth, and if they want to properly monetize the network, they'll need those global brands to be able to act globally.

All things considered, it's probably an inopportune moment for this sort of thing to happen. Unemployment's above 9% and the market is as jittery as an office manager on Diet Coke binge -- optimal conditions for xenophobia to flourish.

It's also not the first time this has happened. Best Buy stepped on this sort of landmine a couple years ago when it asked its Facebook following whether it should publish a Spanish-language BestBuy.com. It yielded a similar response and Best Buy, like Coke, removed the post.

"There were hundreds of negative responses flowing in, people posting racist, rude comments," Best Buy marketer Tracy Benson said back in September 2009 at a conference. "Our contact center was monitoring this, and they were crying, waiting for a positive comment to come in."

There is , apparently, crying in social media.

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