MediaNext: Training Facebook in the Land of Vkontakte

July 15, 2009

3704908885_46773f4ba4_oSo, you are sitting in Ukraine, and you are wondering, “Do I train Facebook or do I train Vkontakte?” If you understand what both can do, which one is more powerful, you think the answer’s easy—Facebook. Then you realize that Vkontakte is the website that gets the most traffic in Ukraine, among ALL websites. Yeah, it’s that popular. Facebook? #36.

Do you train the more powerful tool? Or, do you train the tool that everyone is already using? If your goal is to train skills that add a lot of value and power, using a site that is #4 in the world, and will therefore catch you up with everyone else in the world, you go with Facebook. If your goal is to tap into large groups of people in your country, you go with Vkontakte.

This presented me with a real dilemma. On the one hand, my mantra for the whole training was to “go where they already are”. Social networking doesn’t groove so well if you go somewhere dead (and by dead, I mean like when you walk into a bar or a restaurant and the serving staff all look up at you at once, happy to finally have a customer). On the other hand, this is Facebook we are talking about. Facebook can flat out haul ass compared to Vkontakte. It can do so much of what I wanted our trainees to go home knowing how to do that Vkontakte simply can’t.

If you don’t know anything about Vkontakte, it is a Facebook mirror created for Russian and Ukrainian speakers, founded by the Russian company Digital Sky Technologies. On the front end, it looks and acts like Facebook. And it is extremely popular in Russia and Ukraine, as Web traffic ranking goes. But then it’s not like the Internet has quite the penetration in these countries, or that being number one in a place like Ukraine is the same as being number one in America, the birthplace of Internet addiction (seriously, we make the Internet look like crack, by comparison). Also, Vkontakte starts looking more like a Hollywood movie set once you take a look inside. That DST invested $200 million in Facebook makes it look a lot like they see a Facebook moon rising in this part of the world pretty soon.

In our first training, in Kyiv, I focused the conversation back to Vkontakte, thinking that was the tool people would have to use. Facebook wasn’t, as far as I knew, available in Russian. Or Ukrainian. The problem with this was that all of my best examples of journalism and NGO uses were on Facebook. So, I was showing all these great examples on one tool, and recommending that people try to recreate them on another. This is complicated by Vkontakte being somewhat different even on the things you can do with it that are like Facebook. First, the layout is organized differently, so your wall, contact info, friends, and whatever else is available on both can be found in different locations on the page. Second, the various links you click, and processes you follow for actions like creating groups and events, have some differences in their steps. This makes it hard to train using a step-by-step approach, particularly when talking about two different platforms.

So, I’m not sure that people got the most they could out of this session. You can’t create Pages on Vkontakte, like on Facebook. And many of my examples were from Facebook Pages. Like, the New York Times Facebook Page and Amnesty International’s Page. Thus, this was more theoretical than practical. People could create accounts for their news media or NGOs, and it would be something like a Facebook Page, since Profiles and Pages are fairly similar. However, you lose all of the best functionality, like publishing updates automatically on Fan’s home pages, adding applications like RSS and Twitter to publish automatically on your Page. Like I said, Vkontakte is like a Hollywood movie set compared to Facebook. At a glance, you might think they are the same. But step inside, and one becomes hollow.

It wasn’t a big surprise following the training that we got a lot of feedback that said the social networking and Facebook session was the least useful.

Of course, I would make a discovery that week that would make the session a LOT more useful. After searching relentlessly trying to figure out how to get Facebook to appear in Russian or Ukrainian, I stumbled upon the Translations application in Facebook that would make this possible. Would have been a lot more convenient the week before. Smashing!

This made me a little more ambitious about training Facebook, and opened a whole mess of possibilities.

Tune in next time when I tell you about Facebook Pages and Groups, and training them in Ukraine…

Author’s Note:  This is part of a series of posts on my experiences doing New Media trainings with Internews-Ukraine in June and July 2009, as part of their MediaNext initiative, in partnership with European Journalism Centre. These views are my own, and do not reflect those of Internews-Ukraine or European Journalism Centre. Just so we’re clear on that.

Photo 1: A nice example of how to approach Social Networking. Looks kinda like what I’ve been trying to convey. Courtesy of Intersection Consulting.



  1. Dear Ben,
    I’m following your blog since you have taught us during Donetsk session. To tell the truth, I had this question even at that time regarding differences and most notably the usefulness of Facebook and Vkontakte for Ukrainian realities.
    You said about their correspondent ranks, but you missed to show whether a tendency of Facebook’s penetration in Ukrainian society exists. And consequently is there a necessity for studying and using Facebook if one operates in Ukraine only? As for Twitter, for instance, we have no other Russian-speaking alternatives for now. That’s why its Ukrainian audience is really snowballing.
    Maybe you should deep into Vkontakte as much as possible for teaching your trainees how to connect these social networks and get the most efficient result in the end?.. Think over 😉

  2. This is a great point. I need to better explain, I think, the benefits of Facebook compared to Vkontakte. I will do that more in my next blog post. But I should also send something to training participants, and say something in the trainings. I think Facebook’s penetration will continue to grow quickly in Ukraine. Especially if journalists write articles about Facebook, and why people are choosing it ;). I think the number of Facebook accounts in Ukraine is about 100,000. I don’t think there are a lot of statistics. But, I will watch for the numbers. The real benefit of Facebook is two things. 1. It will help connect journalists and NGOs to the larger world, which is happening because of the Internet. 2. It has many more possibilities that benefit journalists and NGOs. You can create Pages, which you can’t do with Vkontakte. I will write about this in my next post. Also, you can make messages go automatically to Facebook, but can’t with Vkontakte. So, if you post something on your blog, it will appear on Facebook automatically. And, if you post something on Twitter, it will go to Facebook automatically. This means you can publish several places automatically. There are a lot more applications you can use with Facebook than Vkontakte. I just read an article that said that Vkontakte is seriously searching for developers to create applications for Facebook. However, I believe that Facebook will still remain a much better resource, even in Ukraine. Vkontakte is just so limited.

    You asked if one should use Facebook if only working in Ukraine. If you want Twitter and Facebook to work together, then yes. Also, if you want to use the best possible technology, then yes. Especially a technology that greatly expands your options. But, if you only want to reach communities of people that already exist, I would say perhaps not. However, it doesn’t seem like people are using Vkontakte for professional purposes. I haven’t seen many. It is probably because there is not a lot you can do with Vkontakte, other than find friends and write some basic information about yourself. All of the other functions are not very good. They are too simple, and don’t work well.

    Thank you for raising these issues! It is great to hear these thoughts from someone who was at the training. It will help make my training better!

  3. […] Training Facebook in the Land of Vkontakte […]

  4. […] Training Facebook in the Land of Vkontakte […]

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