Saturday, June 23, 2007

Nguyen, Wang, and Chan walk into a bar...

One area of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace where there's still plenty of room for improvement is for English-speaking people finding Asian people they know. Visit your favorite social site and do a search for the name Nguyen, or Wang, or Chan. You'll get a bajillion hits. Even with a first and last name, you're pretty likely to get dozens of hits on people with identical or very similar names.

Worse, often people go by names that aren't their given names. There's a guy on my team who goes by Robert, but his name is actually Xiaofeng or something very similar to that, and even that of course is just an English transliteration of something in Chinese. Some people I know spell their names differently depending on the nationality of the person they're talking to. And, a couple Mexican ex-coworkers of mine sometimes went by their full names, and sometimes only the first of their two or three last names; the multiple-name phenomenon is by no means exclusive to Asian people.

It's hard enough writing software that's smart about nicknames and slightly-misspelled names.

It can be very difficult to find people you know on these sites. Facebook does decently in this area, showing you pictures, schools, class years, et cetera when you're searching for a person, and it gives preference to people who work with you or go to school with you or are friends of your friends. That's a great step in the right direction. But name searches with basic string comparisons aren't good enough to get enough hits in many cases, and at the same time, we need better methods of refining the number of hits for a name search.

I think that there are solutions, but I sure don't know what they are. Most Americans, myself included, don't really know much about how names work in other places around the world, but some of these problems have probably already been solved on Asian social networking sites. Go fix it!


Matthew Johnson said...

I find this post amusing given the state of IvoryTower's name and forum search... :-)

Larry said...

Here is a good place to start: