Facebook Grows In Popularity Around The World

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Nearly half the U.S. population — about 147 million people — have a Facebook account. But the most remarkable growth of the American social media site has been overseas. Sree Sreenivasan, digital media professor at Columbia University, talks to Steve Inskeep about Facebook's gravitational pull and its popularity outside the U.S.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Nearly half the people in this country - about 147 million - now have a Facebook account. Yet some of Facebook's most remarkable recent growth has been overseas. In Indonesia, for example, more than 30 million people now use Facebook. In Turkey, it's nearly 25 million.

To talk about Facebook's impact around the globe, we called Sree Sreenivasan. He's been tracking Facebook from his perch as a professor of digital media at Columbia University.

Professor SREE SREENIVASAN (Digital Media, Columbia University): In Honduras, 21,000 people in a single week woke up and decided to join Facebook.

INSKEEP: How many people in Honduras? Not a very big place?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: Not a big place. Twenty-one thousand people join in a single week, and that's put into the list of the fastest-growing countries in that particular week. But it just gives you a sense of people around the world deciding that Facebook is a place they want to hang out.

INSKEEP: What is driving that growth overseas? Is it similar to Facebook's growth in the United States in recent years?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: I think a lot of it is just the human connection. And there's a lot of buzz about Facebook and other social networks. But we should also note that social networks have been around for years. And you take an example of a country like Brazil. In Brazil the biggest social network is something called Orkut, O-R-K-U-T, a Google project that failed in America, but has been successful that every Brazilian on earth who's online is on Orkut.

But in recent months, people are moving onto Facebook. And when you ask them why are you on Facebook, they say Orkut is still important. It's for us to talk to each other. But Facebook is to talk to the world. And that's fascinating to me.

INSKEEP: Well, now it's interesting that you mention that, because in recent days on this program, we've had reports about the possibility that some competitor could seize a huge portion of Facebook's market. You're saying, actually, no. This site is still growing.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: Facebook has an enormous gravitational pull at the moment. That doesn't mean that it will always be the best or most popular social network. But it's very difficult for competitors to kind of break through and have a real mass appeal at the moment. I could join a new social network, but my friends won't be there. My family won't be there.

And I like to say that Facebook is both underappreciated and under-criticized -underappreciated because we have just seen the beginnings of the impact it can have on connecting people, and under-criticized because of the various issues about privacy and then their constant changing of the interface. And the rules of the game - you kind of figure out things, you understand where things are, and then suddenly, they change things.

INSKEEP: You seem a little frustrated by Facebook.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: I'm a big fan who's frustrated. You know, that's the way I look at Facebook.

INSKEEP: Well, what's the ambition for the next few years of Mark Zuckerberg, the head of Facebook?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: He's been very clear. He thinks that the world should be on Facebook, and people around the world should be connecting with each other. And Facebook should be one of the primary places you start your journey on the Internet every day.

But we also know that Mark Zuckerberg has said things like privacy is no longer the social norm. When he says things like that, that has a huge impact on the rest of the world, because he can hit a switch and things change for 500 million people.

INSKEEP: That's amazing when he says that, because what he's saying is your expectation of privacy is the problem here. Don't expect me to adjust my website to protect your privacy if you're going to be on Facebook. You need to get used to the idea that all your information is out there.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: And to be fair to Facebook, they do give you tools to adjust your privacy settings. But it is so complicated for people who are new, or even people who've been using it for a long time to kind of keep adjusting.

INSKEEP: What's the biggest danger to Facebook?

Prof. SREENIVASAN: The biggest danger, I think, is the idea that somebody could come along with a new social network that allows people to have better control of their privacy. It is a possibility that that can happen, but I'm not betting on it immediately.

The other thing is that it could just not be cool anymore. Part of the thing that kids are complaining about is that their parents are on Facebook, and so it's no longer cool. But he's managed, by all these changes, to keep that younger demographic engaged. And then when they grow up and become, you know, office-goers and stuff, then they value Facebook.

So we're going to see this kind of battle to keep it cool, but keep it useful.

INSKEEP: Sree Sreenivasan of the Columbia Journalism School.

Thanks very much.

Prof. SREENIVASAN: My pleasure.

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