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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.

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The site is expected to launch a pilot program in early September. On the Diaspora website, the network's founders, three 20-somethings and one 19-year-old who met at New York University, say that it is their "one and only goal to get Diaspora in the hands of every man, woman, and child at summer's end." It's an intentionally quixotic statement, of course. But it does raise the question of what exactly it would take for millions of Facebook users to decamp for a different site. A giant security meltdown? A crippling computer virus?

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In recent months, tech reporters have played up a series of gaffes and missteps from Zuckerberg, including an incident at the D: All Things Digital conference in June, where the Facebook CEO seemed to be thrown off-balance by a series of questions on user security.

Several news outlets also reported that Zuckerberg has openly disparaged the intelligence of Facebook users and questioned whether Joe Facebook Member actually cares that much about his online privacy. The image that has emerged of Zuckerberg in the press is of a shaky, sweaty executive, uncomfortable with tackling the thornier issues and insensitive toward the consumers that have made him one of the wealthiest men in the world.

But Daniel Castro, a senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, says that Silicon Valley gossip about Zuckerberg will ultimately have little impact on Facebook's bottom line.

"I don't think the average user is thinking of [Zuckerberg]," Mr. Castro says. "They're thinking of themselves. And their friends."

Castro sees the future of Facebook as a transition from simple social network to fully functioning platform – a site that members will eventually use for everything from chatting to watching movies to searching for the latest entertainment news.

Facebook has already begun to move in that direction. In April, Zuckerberg introduced a new "open graph" initiative, which allows users to flag – or "like" – content outside the Facebook site, even when they're not signed into the social network. The tagging functionality essentially turns the whole Web into an extension of Facebook – and provides Facebook comprehensive data on the behavior of its users, which could later be sold to advertisers.

"One comparison here might be to [America Online], which was such a large service provider at one point that if you weren't on AOL, you weren't really part of the online community, and you were missing out on something," Castro says. It's an interesting analogy, because, as Castro admits, "things didn't play out too well for AOL." That company reached its peak membership in the 1990s, before widespread broadband access obviated the need for an expensive and slow dial-up connection, and AOL slid into a decade of precipitous decline.

Facebook, of course, is unlikely to be derailed by innovations in Internet service technology – or, for that matter, by gripes about Zuckerberg's public persona. But as author Mezrich notes, the site does have the potential to run into a much more vexing problem. "At some point, Facebook's growth is going to have to level off," Mezrich says. "Because, let's face it, there are only a limited amount of people on the Internet."