Monday, March 30, 2009

Is Facebook Growing Up Too Fast?

Is Facebook Growing Up Too Fast?
Published: March 28, 2009
New York Times

WHEN Facebook signed up its 100 millionth member last August, its employees spread out in two parks in Palo Alto, Calif., for a huge barbecue. Sometime this week, this five-year-old start-up, born in a dorm room at Harvard, expects to register its 200 millionth user.

That staggering growth rate — doubling in size in just eight months — suggests Facebook is rapidly becoming the Web’s dominant social ecosystem and an essential personal and business networking tool in much of the wired world.

Yet Facebook executives say they aren’t planning to observe their latest milestone in any significant way. It is, perhaps, a poor time to celebrate. The company that has given users new ways to connect and speak truth to power now often finds itself as the target of that formidable grass-roots firepower — most recently over controversial changes it made to users’ home pages.

As Facebook expands, it’s also struggling to match the momentum of hot new start-ups like Twitter, the micro-blogging service, while managing the expectations of young, tech-savvy early adopters, attracting mainstream moms and dads, and justifying its hype-carbonated valuation.

By any measure, Facebook’s growth is a great accomplishment. The crew of Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s 24-year-old co-founder and chief executive, is signing up nearly a million new members a day, and now more than 70 percent of the service’s members live overseas, in countries like Italy, the Czech Republic and Indonesia. Facebook’s ranks in those countries swelled last year after the company offered its site in their languages.

All of this mojo puts Facebook on a par with other groundbreaking — and wildly popular — Internet services like free e-mail, Google, the online calling network Skype and e-commerce sites like eBay. But Facebook promises to change how we communicate even more fundamentally, in part by digitally mapping and linking peripatetic people across space and time, allowing them to publicly share myriad and often very personal elements of their lives.

Unlike search engines, which ably track prominent Internet presences, Facebook reconnects regular folks with old friends and strengthens their bonds with new pals — even if the glue is nothing more than embarrassing old pictures or memories of their second-grade teacher.

Facebook can also help rebuild families. Karen Haber, a mother of two living outside Tel Aviv, logs onto Facebook each night after she puts the children to bed. She searches for her family’s various surnames, looking for relatives from the once-vast Bachenheimer clan of northern Germany, which fractured during the Holocaust and then dispersed around the globe.

Among the three dozen or so connections she has made on Facebook over the last year are a fifth cousin who is a clinical social worker in Woodstock, N.Y.; a fourth cousin running an eyeglasses store in Zurich; and another fifth cousin, living in Hong Kong selling diamonds. Now she shares memories, photographs and updates with them.

“I was never into genealogy and now suddenly I have this tool that helps me find the descendants of people that my grandparents knew, people who share the same truth I do,” Ms. Haber says. “I’m using Facebook and trying to unite this family.”

Facebook has also become a vehicle for broad-based activism — like the people who organized on the site last year and mobilized 12 million people to march in protests around the globe against practices of the FARC rebels in Colombia.

Discussing Facebook’s connective tissue, Mr. Zuckerberg recalls the story of Claus Drachmann, a schoolteacher in northern Denmark who became a Facebook friend of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Denmark’s prime minister. Mr. Drachmann subsequently invited Mr. Rasmussen to speak to his class of special-needs children; the prime minister obliged last fall.

Mr. Zuckerberg says the story illustrates Facebook’s power to cut through arbitrary social barriers. “This represents a generational shift in technology,” he says. “To me, what is interesting was that it was possible for a regular person to reach the prime minister and that that interaction happened.”

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