JEREZ DE LOS CABALLEROS, SPAIN — When I first got to Spain, my Spanish students immediately asked me if I was on Tuenti. Like most Americans, I had never heard of it.

Once I learned that it was another social network, I figured I didn’t need it. First of all, I had a Facebook page, and secondly, I was wary about becoming friends with my students on a social network.

However, I quickly found out that if I wanted to stay connected with the new friends I was meeting outside of class, I would have to get a Tuenti profile as well. Some of my Spanish friends abstain from Facebook in favor of what has been called the “Spanish Facebook,” which claims to be one of the “most popular invite-only sites in the world.”

While Tuenti may have been the dominant social network in Spain a few years ago, comScore numbers show that Facebook has passed Tuenti in unique visitors and Facebook traffic has increased at a faster rate than Tuenti’s. In January 2011, Facebook had 15 million unique visitors in Spain, while Tuenti had 9.2 million, according to comScore, up from 11.5 million uniques for Facebook and about 8 million uniques for Tuenti in January 2010.*

On the surface, Tuenti has many of the same options as Facebook, so why is Tuenti the giant it is in Spain?

How Tuenti Beat Facebook

Tuenti, pronounced like the English “twenty,” comes from the Spanish phrase “tu enti(dad),” which means “your entity.” It was created in Spain some five years ago, two years before Facebook got around to launching its Spanish-language option in February 2008.

Tuenti’s interface is extremely similar to Facebook, even down to the recognizable blue color scheme. Like most social networking websites, you can create a profile, add and tag photos, create an event, update a status and chat. However, this site caters to the Spanish population — and has done so quite successfully.

There are, however, some notable differences between the two social networks.

I was surprised the first time I tried to update my Tuenti status with a blog post. First, it only showed the link. Unlike on Facebook, there was no option to provide a preview of the post.

Then when I checked the link, I got the “Unsecured External Link” warning pop-up box shown below.

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Are you sure you want to share that blog post?

Clearly, sharing is not Tuenti’s strong suit. The site is a social network in the truest sense of the phrase: It’s for chatting, looking at photos, and staying updated with friends. Tuenti does not help users find out how their friends feel about the latest news.

The fact that the site makes it so hard for sharing news or other information serves as an effective digital barrier. It keeps users on the site and keeps politics out of it.

Not all content is treated so warily by Tuenti. The site has prioritized the sharing of video content. In May 2010, Tuenti signed an agreement with Sony Music Spain to offer 35 hours of streaming videos by 50 key artists. Friends can easily watch and send these videos within the site.

Tuenti has a news feed feature as well, but — rather than updating it with the content from users’ friends — it only lists their friends, the last time they did something on Tuenti, and if they have any updates (e.g., added photos, changed statuses, or had their walls written on). The news feed simply informs users that something new has happened on their friends’ profiles. One has to click on each profile to find out exactly what the changes are.

The site’s chat feature is also markedly different from Facebook Chat. First, it is highly popular. Over 100 million messages a day are sent on Tuenti via chat. And now Tuenti offers an option to video chat. This was made possible when the Spain telecom Telefonica recently bought 85 percent of Tuenti for $93 million.

Privacy is a Priority

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two networks is their approach to privacy. Mark Zuckerberg and the company he created have historically taken a very American, update-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to privacy.

At Tuenti, privacy has always been a central focus. The founders created the site under the assumption of a small, localized community of friends.

“As all of our users know, Tuenti’s greatest strength is providing simple but innovative ways to keep in touch with your closest friends,” project manager Matt Clark wrote on the Tuenti blog.

Tuenti continues to maintain privacy by keeping the site invitation-only. Each new user is given 10 invitations to send to their friends via email.

Even when searching within the network, privacy settings are very high. When looking up a person on Tuenti with whom one is not a friend, the site provides only blurred-out photos and the hometown of the user. It’s impossible for to click on that photo and read the person’s profile information.

The same is true when looking up people via a search engine. Tuenti has made an agreement with the Spanish Data Protection Agency to not let user information leave the site. That means Tuenti users are virtually invisible to Google.

The information given to the site is also kept within the site. It is not sold to companies or used for advertising.

To avoid any privacy issues with young Spaniards, Tuenti requires users to be 14 or older to have a profile. Some of my students tell me they have gotten around that by entering a different birthday, but Tuenti will delete underage users’ profiles if they are caught lying. (How they would be caught remains somewhat of a mystery.)

Similarly, Facebook promises to delete the profiles of underage users and, as with Tuenti, some students evade its age restrictions. But few of my students need to do that, since Facebook lets people join at age 13, a full year younger than its Spanish competitor.

Simplicity is Key

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Tuenti’s clean, Facebook-like interface

While Tuenti’s limited options can be irritating for someone accustomed to Facebook, it certainly makes the site easier to use.

And Spaniards are using Tuenti a lot. In a very unscientific survey, my students tell me they usually spend one to two hours each day on the site. That’s about average, according to Tuenti. The site’s media kit points out that 60 percent of all users connect daily for an average of 80 minutes.

A simple interface might be just the thing for a country that runs behind the EU in Internet consumption. As of 2009, only a little more than a third of the population of Spain are daily Internet users.

Because of this digital deficit, mobile access is crucial to the popularity of Tuenti. Generally users are not accessing Tuenti via smartphone (Spanish Internet plans can carry hefty fees), but they are able to interact with the site by receiving free SMS notifications under a partnership with Vodaphone. Through SMS, users can update their statuses, accept friends and see comments on photos.

This successful Vodaphone mobile partnership is part of what prompted Telefonica to buy a majority stake in Tuenti. The mobile deal was announced in March 2010; some six months later, Telefonica bought 85 percent of the social network.

How users interact with the site may change soon with Tuenti’s new prepaid mobile plan called “TU.” This contract option will include free chat on Tuenti as well as low calling rates (4 cents per minute) among all Tuenti users. While it’s still in an invitation-only pilot phase, Tuenti’s CEO Dentzel Zaryn writes on the company blog that he hopes TU will cater to the 9 million Tuenti users.

Other Facebook competitors

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Russia’s leading social network is Vkontakte

Spain’s love affair with Tuenti is unusual, but not exceptional. Facebook may have over a half a billion members, but it is still not the dominant social network in every country. There are many nations where home-grown sites have become the most popular social platforms — among them, Russia, Japan, Brazil, and China.

Russia is the fourth largest social networking market and Vkontakte reigns supreme there. On February 11, 2011, the network followed Tuenti’s lead and became invite-only. Those that have the ability to invite have been with the site for a certain amount of time. With the code from their invitation as well as by a verifying mobile number, new users are granted access to the site.

In Japan, Mixi was for a long time the dominant network. Its users can register under fake names and create profiles, which especially appeals to privacy-minded Japanese. As of May 2008, Mixi had an 80 percent share of the social networking market in Japan.

Now mobile gaming platform GREE has taken over the market in Japan. Like Mixi, it allows users to create avatars.

How to stay ahead of Facebook

Yet, Tuenti and the other rival social networks face challenges in the years ahead.

In the case of Tuenti, there is a risk that as the Spanish teenagers and university students who made Tuenti so popular get older, users may want something more complex and international. Because a social network is only as strong as its network of users, Tuenti needs to keep innovating and updating the options for them. Its news discussion features and link-sharing options are two obvious areas for improvement.

As Mixi in Japan and MySpace in the U.S. have shown, dominant social networks can easily lose their lead. If Spain’s leading network gets complacent, its users may say “adios” to Tuenti and “hola Facebook.”

CORRECTION (3/10/11): This story originally depended on out-of-date data to make the case that Tuenti was ahead of Facebook in Spain. According to recent comScore data, Facebook has had more unique visitors in Spain than Tuenti since 2009. This paragraph originally ran in the original version of this story:

They are not alone. The millions of Spaniards on Tuenti have helped the site become the third most trafficked website in Spain.

It has been removed. We apologize for the error.

Laura Parkinson is a multimedia journalist living in the Extremadura region of Spain. Originally from Lawrence, Kansas, Laura first became interested in the concept of convergence from the World Company, which was instrumental in developing new and interesting ways to tell stories using all forms of media. She crossed the border to attend the Missouri School of Journalism, where she reported for the NPR affiliate KBIA. At KBIA, she anchored the evening newscasts, reported features and produced an interactive, community talk show called “Intersection.” In 2009, Laura went to London where she worked as a video editor for MSN filming, editing and feeding Internet videos across the site. Currently she is teaching English and blogging about Spanish culture in Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain.