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Facebook to hit 500 million users, but meteoric rise has come with growing pains

Photo credit: Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook page

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. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham is a member of Facebook's board.)

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.

“A big part of the challenge that we’ve had is that we’ve grown from tens of thousands of users to hundreds of millions,” Zuckerberg said in a news conference on privacy policy changes last May. “It’s been a big shift along the way, and it hasn’t always been smooth.”

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.

The biggest misstep was the company’s change in privacy policy last December, which sparked complaints by privacy groups to regulators and user outrage on comments boards.

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.”

By Cecilia Kang  |  July 19, 2010; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  FTC , Facebook , Privacy  
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Comments

500 million users and it still can't break even!

The only thing worse than uncontrolled greed is a nosey government, and I don't see a break-even point anywhere on Facebook's horizon.

I'ld say it was the Tri-Lateral Commission, but we should really hold off on such a benign conclusion until Facebook's user base reaches 666 million.

Posted by: blasmaic | July 19, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

And how many of the 500 million actually use Facebook? And how many of that 500 million are dummy accounts?

Posted by: mdembski1 | July 19, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

It's really SIMPLE, folks. And it's fun!

I don't put really private info on my page. I don't post my best art work/photos on it for people to steal. I let people know just general information and I don't join hundreds of groups/pages so I won't get lots of spam in the future.

It's a fun way to stay connected to all my friends (yes, REAL friends) who live in other towns and countries.

Posted by: charley42 | July 19, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: mdembski1
"And how many of that 500 million are dummy accounts?"

---------------------------------------

All of them.

Posted by: jeadpt | July 19, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

I love how that dude is a billionaire now but still dresses like a physics grad student.

Posted by: fleeciewool | July 19, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

"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."

No it has not. I love that this comes from a newspaper with financial ties to Facebook. I still remember the article about how awful the lives of the Facebookless were. Neither I nor my spouse use it and we have no intention of doing so. Never had a problem from not having it.

These stories do give lie to the idea of a firewall between those who fund the Post and the reporters, though. Clear bias.

Posted by: cassander | July 19, 2010 8:32 AM | Report abuse

I just shut my page down after a few months.

It's boring and stupid with grown adults playing fantasy games about swapping farm animals and I was getting a lot of email spam from hookers because of it.

Posted by: areyousaying | July 19, 2010 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I don't see why Facebook have to "share information"?.

I am in the process of opening my own Social Networking site,(although mine actually has a purpose).

I don't see any need to have any information available, unless the users specifically requests it to be so.

Steve @ Socialalertme

Posted by: socialalertme | July 19, 2010 9:12 AM | Report abuse

They haven't pulled me in yet.

Posted by: forgetthis | July 19, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: mdembski1
"And how many of that 500 million are dummy accounts?"

---------------------------------------

All of them.

---------------------------------------

I specifically asked this question to Facebook, just last week.

The reason I asked was that, I set up a Facebook add, for my Business page. I was getting 100 "likes" per hour, minimum. But when asking the new members where they were from, what do they think of the ideas etc. I received no replies. 95% was based in Argentina according to facebook user stats.

The answer was a resounding no from facebook. Who say that they know of no fake user accounts, and as such would not tolerate them

I suppose we can only "believe" them.......

Steve @ Socialalertme.com

Posted by: socialalertme | July 19, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I love how the headline mentions a "price" associated with the rise of Facebook, but sees one only from the perspective of a young company.

What about the price of participation in such a mindless medium? And the idea that "the unwilling join for fear of being cut from the social fabric"? What social fabric is that? Facebook offers little in the way of true connection and takes plenty from the users trying so hard to impress others. It is a soul-robbing endeavor.

Posted by: rosefarm1 | July 19, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

With 500 M users, FB is no longer unique. It's too common and now used by the ignorant masses to be of any real cutting edge utility.

Posted by: Czer | July 19, 2010 9:49 AM | Report abuse

FB is great for sharing what is public info. But if you want to share something that is private, consider ThreadThat.com. Everything you share is encrypted end-to-end. That means SSL over the Internet and 256-bit AES encryption while at rest on the server. Lots of privacy and security options. This is a young site that has some growing up to do, but it constantly improving.

Posted by: MrPrivacy | July 19, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I just don't see it - what did humans do for all these years? I see Facebook as a fatuous exercise in narcissism.

As far as putting information on a facebook page, if you put anything of importance out there, you're an idiot.

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | July 19, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Facebook is great for keeping up with friends. For everyone who says they don't see a point I can only assume you either live right next to all your friends or just don't have any.

My friends ended up all over the place after we graduated about 5 years ago. I call them a decent amount and talk to them online but facebook lets me feel like they're still my roommates because I still know what they are up to on a day to day basis. It makes it easy for us to organize large events and organize visits. I get hear about when they're getting married and having kids.

People are too paranoid about their information. There's nothing wrong with putting info out there about what you like and dislike. Obviously don't be throwing up everything on your account as far as your private info and be careful with your privacy settings and who you're sharing it with.

Posted by: rderr27 | July 19, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

Glad to see I am not the only tech-savvy, internet user NOT a member of Facebook. Nor do I have any intentions to join. When I want to know what's happening with my family members or buddies, I call or drop a line (via email of course). What is that silly, never-ending need to have so many 'friends' that are nothing that some faceless internet nickname?

It's the biggest waste of time. I am in the IT Dept. and can see it first hand.

Posted by: cipitio | July 19, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

...By the way... I have a filter in my email setup, so all the 'Facebook/Twitter' invitations to join from 'friends' go straight to the Junk Mail.

One has to be crazy to give all kinds of personal info to join one of those sites so you are ad-targetted at will.

Wanna keep informed the rest of the world of your life? Easy, buy a domain, pay a hosting fee of $3.95/month, and do so without giving up your privacy.

Posted by: cipitio | July 19, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: cipitio
What is that silly, never-ending need to have so many 'friends' that are nothing that some faceless internet nickname?

---------------------------------------

While I am usually no defender of FB, I will say that I've been able to reconnect with people from many years ago whom I would have thought I'd never hear from again. Thanks to FB I can now see little bits of the lives of people I lost contact with 20 years ago, which just wasn't possible before. They are far from faceless; they are the source of many memories, and keeping up with them has a lot of value.

Posted by: john65001 | July 19, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

Facebook is for people who have nothing better to do.

Who cares if your high school friend is married or where your college roommate is living. If they were important you would already know.

And no one really needs to know what's going on in another person's life on a day-to-day basis over the internet.

It's unseemly the amount of information one can find out about others from Facebook.

Disconnect, join the real world, make real face to face connections.

Or join the zombie herd, turn more of your life over to Facebook, your wants/needs/desires. See what they do with that in 5 years. You'll be amazed.

Posted by: Methos_ | July 19, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Why all the hate? It's just social networking. If you don't like Facebook, that's fine. No one is making you join. Interesting how articles like this bring out the hostility in those without Facebook accounts.

Posted by: nonagon | July 19, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

It's also fascinating how many of the people knocking Facebook are also trying to replicate it AND ADVERTISING FOR THEMSELVES at the same time.

And to cipitio ... you *do* know that you can just disable the e-mail notifications, right?

Posted by: gdubgrad06 | July 19, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

Sex and age are two driving forces behind why Facebook can be an essential part of ones social life. Party invites are sent via facebook, rsvps are received, friends are connected, remembered and checked up on via facebook.

Facebook is however a closed community. It doesnt have a sense of community amongst its 500 million members, which will be its Achilles heal as the internet becomes more "collectively conscious".

Twitter is close, but they seem satisfied with where they are. Lissn looks like it has the potential with an open community and real time conversations, but it hasn't really caught on.

My prediction is by this time, one year from now, the masses of millions will be migrating to a new social network.

By December 2011, the 1st social network will have 1 billion members.

By December 2012, artificial intelligence will take over the world. Or something. :)

Posted by: richardgear | July 19, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Facebook should limit every member to one post per week. This thing of people posting about it every time they bake a cake makes the whole thing a waste of time.

Posted by: kls1 | July 19, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

"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."

I actually thought what caught Hollywood's attention is the book that the movie is based on which includes theft of ideas, deception, sex, partying, and wanting to be a celebrity.

Posted by: vtht95 | July 19, 2010 3:50 PM | Report abuse

i saw this article on Facebook.

Posted by: jayanap | July 19, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

I had an inactive Facebook account with like one picture and 3 friends (one being my daughter) and recently I reactived it so I could look at other pictures of my daughter's wedding and post my own little album. I now have like 6 friends to everyone else's hundreds of friends but I think I'd like to keep it that way because that's kind of how I live my life.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | July 19, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Oh, and there are too many people with the same name. Kind of scary because some of these people could be impersonating others and you probably wouldn't know it or be able to do anything about it.

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | July 19, 2010 6:05 PM | Report abuse

They have a search problem anyway. You can't find your friends unless you know their email most of the time. I am still not in search and I made my profile searchable in case an old friend tries to find me. There is someone else with the exact same name though!

Posted by: SusanMarie2 | July 19, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

"ritualized in our daily lives" and "daily communicators of one-line missives" indeed. I can only see stuff from my News Feed for the same day. Anything older apparently gets scattered across the universe by a transporter malfunction. Just like messages about problems to their help desk.

Maybe Zuckerberg will use some of the millions which Hollywood just threw at him to hire some competent programmers to fix the blatant software bugs in the program. Many of them have been posted for months but not fixed, like the one described above.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | July 19, 2010 8:10 PM | Report abuse

Half a billion users? Great! But we all need to heed David Vladeck, head of consumer protection at the Federal Trade Commission, when he says:
“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.”
If a site’s always changing its privacy policies, then who can know what those policies really are? I mean, why do most social-networking sites even have privacy statements? According to many of them — if you read them carefully — you don’t have any privacy. Furthermore, you give up any other rights once you join those sites, giving them license to use any content you post however they see fit.
At zeldaB, our privacy policy means just that. There are no hidden terms and conditions. Our policy is simple and easy to understand.
Check us out at www.feedzeldab.com.

Posted by: WoodyZeldaB | July 20, 2010 6:55 PM | Report abuse

While 500 million is an amazing number, we must also realize that about 70% of web users are still using it as a read-only medium. Here’s an article that discusses this missing majority.

http://startupmeme.com/the-missing-majority-on-the-web-is-complex-technology-putting-barriers-to-make-people-look-beyond-the-read-only-medium/

Posted by: kunalsen | July 21, 2010 8:46 PM | Report abuse

WoodyZeldaB:

I did check your www.FeedZeldaB.com web-site out. I also make filters that the major purpose used to be the filtering of malware and now it is tracking (but malware still has a high emphasis):

www.SecureMecca.com
www.HostsFile.org

I suggest you lose the static.getclicky.com tracker and then we can consider your web-site again. Both me and the author of the EasyPrivacy filter that is used by AdBlockPlus in Firefox rate getclicky.com as a tracker / spy.

ThreadThat.com uses s7.AddThis.com, another tracker or spy that also has general purpose uses. But when AddThis use any of their hosts with something in either the "/at/" or "/live/" first level folders is when they are most active in tracking status and ThreadThat.com does not use them, at least on its home page. If you are using my PAC filter or EasyPrivacy we will kick in and stop them.

FaceBook and Privacy are antonyms. If you want privacy you will not belong to FaceBook. If you want the social features of FaceBook you will have a dramatically reduced privacy. I get too much unsolicited sales fliers in my snail mail and SPAM in my email. I don't need any more so I need even more privacy.

If FaceBook is a fad it will fade away and if it isn't it will evolve and survive. Given how rude some people are, maybe it is the wave of the future where you can find people you like to communicate with that are separated from you by large geographic distances. Be careful what you post and think of all of it as your advertising you use to attract the people that you desire to associate with.

Posted by: hhhobbit | July 22, 2010 9:40 PM | Report abuse

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