Facebook to hit 500 million users, but at what cost?
Monday, July 19, 2010; 8:08 AM
Facebook is expected to say this week that it has reached 500 million users, making it the biggest information network on the Internet in a meteoric rise that has connected the world into an online statehood of status updates, fan pages and picture exchanges.
In its six-year history, the site has become ritualized in our daily lives. It has even attracted the unwilling who join for fear of being cut out of the social fabric. It has connected old friends and family. It has helped make and break political campaigns and careers. It has turned many of us into daily communicators of one-line missives on the profound and mundane. And it has tested the limits of what we care to share and keep private.
The sheer impact and sized of the Facebook universe has captured the attention of federal regulators and lawmakers who are struggling to protect consumers and their privacy as they flock to this and other sites like Twitter. The privately held company that still thinks of itself as a startup is also learning how to handle the new responsibilities that its massive trove of information about its half billion users brings.
"As the amount of personal information shared on social networking sites grows, and the number of third-party companies and advertising networks with access to such information grows, it is important that consumers understand how their data is being shared and what privacy rules apply," wrote David Vladeck, head of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, in a letter last January to the privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy and Information Center.
The milestone will be celebrated, according to The Wall Street Journal, by a public relations campaign with users sharing stories of how Facebook has affected their lives. And the half-billion-membership mark has captured the attention of Hollywood, with Sony Pictures set to release "The Social Network," a movie on Facebook's origins in October.
The half-billion-member-mark can't be understated. To put the number into perspective, the population inhabiting Facebook now equals that of the United States, Japan and Germany combined. Or, two Mexicos and a Brazil. The universe of Facebook membership is less than half the population of India, but in the last year the social networking Internet site has doubled in size.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment for this post.
The Silicon Valley Web site is now the biggest online trust of our vacation photos, electronic rolodexes, and recordings of how we felt about President Obama's candidacy for president, the ban on headscarves in France and the Lindsay Lohan's rollercoaster ride with sobriety. Seventy percent of users are outside the U.S., and one-quarter of all users are checking in and updating their pages from their cell phones.
And now Facebook is grappling with the growing pains that come with its influence. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 26, created the company out of his dorm room at Harvard University just six years ago. The firm recently moved its headquarters from University Avenue in Palo Alto to a bigger campus on Page Mill Road.
When Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) blasted Facebook for failing to join the Global Network Initiative to fight online censorship, the firm's policy director Tim Sparapani said in a C-Span Communicators interview last March that Facebook doesn't have the same resources of members Google and Microsoft. When asked about the company's child safety efforts, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg noted that the company has done much to try to educate members but with 1,800 employees, it isn't able to cover every base.
"They are very much like many technology companies that are about the technology first and growing quickly for an IPO (initial public offering) and thinking about consumers and privacy as an afterthought," Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC said in a recent interview.
Facebook eventually walked back on some of its changes. And the firm says it is learning as it goes. It has expanded its office in Washington and recently hired former White House economic adviser Marne Levine to head its global policy group out of D.C.
"We don't pretend that we are perfect," Zuckerberg said in an interview with Post Tech last May. "We try to build new things, hear feedback and respond with changes to that feedback all the time."