Started only three years ago by a US university student, Facebook is exploding in popularity. South Africans are signing up in droves and changing the way they interact.
When someone mentioned Facebook over dinner a couple of weeks ago, I thought, great, that’s all the world needs, yet another social networking website crammed full of pimply, horny teenagers. But being the curious type, I dutifully accessed the site the next day, created an account and logged on. Now I’m addicted.
Facebook was started as a dorm room project in February 2004 by Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg. He soon relocated the company to Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, after tens of thousands of university students swarmed to the site. By the end of 2004, Facebook had 1m active users on its network.
Today that figure is 25m, with more than 100 000 new members joining daily. Facebook is the sixth-most trafficked website in the US, with more than 40bn page views a month. It operates the number one photo-sharing application on the Web, with 1,8bn photos stored on its servers. Facebook is also one of the world’s “stickiest” websites, with people spending an average of 20 minutes on the site daily. More than half of the active users log on every day.
Interestingly, SA has taken to Facebook more than most nations. Despite a relatively low penetration of Internet users, SA is sixth in the Facebook universe, after the US, Canada, the UK, Norway and Australia, based on the number of registered users.
One reason the site may be so popular in SA is that so many South Africans live and work overseas. Facebook makes it easier to stay in contact with loved ones.
The attraction of Facebook is clear: it allows people to communicate easily with their friends and associates using the Web. Users regularly update their profiles, post photographs, share their thoughts, arrange parties and join interest groups and other social networks. The system shows which users have mutual friends. It can even let others know what music you’re listening to.
Says one local Facebook addict: “You can compare it to a reality show of sorts. It gives you an immediate snapshot, a window into all of your friends’ lives at any particular point.”
Another user says it has allowed him to make contact with people with whom he had long lost touch. The system, he says, provides a way for him to communicate with a large group of friends immediately.
Facebook special interest groups also make it easy to get in touch with former school friends or work colleagues, read about what they’re doing or check out their latest digital photo albums.
Facebook is less garish in its design than MySpace, making it more usable, and has therefore attracted an older audience. According to the company, its fastest-growing demographic is the over-25s. I was surprised to see how many friends and colleagues were already using the system when I signed up.
Facebook is not without its detractors, though. Some argue that the website provides a great way for government agencies to keep track of people. Conspiracy theorists have even suggested that Facebook is a proxy for the Central Intelligence Agency, which, they say, uses it to mine data on US citizens.