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Why Facebook enjoys explosive growth - despite its many stumbles

Facebook's staggering growth rolls over critics on issues from ease of use to user privacy.

By Matthew Shaer/ Correspondent / August 19, 2010

Facebook reached 500 million members in July, 50 percent of which log on in any given day. People spent more than 700 billion minutes on the social network each month. About 70 percent of Facebook users are outside the United States.

John Kehe/Staff

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A few weeks ago, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index ranked Facebook in the bottom 5 percent of all privately held companies in the United States. By that measure, the most popular social network in the world is less liked by the average American than the property- and casualty-insurance industry, the companies that sell tax-filing software, the food manufacturing sector, and the makers of dog food. Larry Freed, the CEO of ForeSee, the analytics company that helped compile the ACSI results, called Facebook's performance "abysmal."

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"This is a rare scenario in the American economy; usually customer satisfaction is intertwined with market success," Mr. Freed wrote in a white paper that accompanied the index. He went on to identify the various reasons that consumers – the ACSI interviewed some 70,000 of them – were dissatisfied with Facebook. Among the most pressing concerns: shoddy navigation controls, mountains of spam, intrusive advertising, annoying applications, "the constant and unpredictable interface changes," the rejiggered news feed, and problematic security and privacy controls. "There is no shortage of complaints about Facebook," Freed concluded.

The next morning, July 21, 2010, Facebook signed up its 500 millionth member. "This is an important milestone for all of you who have helped spread Facebook around the world," Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg trumpeted on the website. The tracking firm Hitwise published data showing that Facebook had for at least one week in July replaced Google as the most-clicked website in the US. Facebook revealed that its users spend a total of 700 billion minutes on the site a month, and half of all Facebook members sign onto the site at least once a day.

The obvious dichotomy at play here – between consumer dissatisfaction and staggering growth – has become the norm for Facebook, a site that as recently as 2006 was still struggling to compete with MySpace, the then-dominant social network. No longer.

Between January 2009 and January of this year, Facebook nearly doubled its membership, leaving MySpace in the dust. Meanwhile, Mr. Zuckerberg has predicted that Facebook will eventually hit the 1-billion-member mark worldwide, an unprecedented landmark for a social-media site.

And yet in the past year, Facebook has been regularly forced to tamp down waves of user unrest – over redesigns and more pressing problems, such as privacy – often at the same time the site is posting extraordinary traffic and membership gains.

This spring, for instance, a group of users organized a "Quit Facebook Day" event to lobby against changes to the security settings on the site. On May 31, more than 31,000 users reportedly deleted their Facebook profiles in protest. It was enough to grab some mainstream-media attention, but not enough to counteract Facebook's rate of expansion. According to the site Inside Facebook, membership grew that May by 7.8 million users – in the US alone.

The question now is whether Facebook can continue to stave off criticism – or, to look at it from another angle, if Facebook has become that rare Web utility, like Google and Wikipedia, that we are unable or unwilling to live without.

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