Who will be Facebook's next 500 million?

The massive social network is hitting 500 million active users around the world. So where are its weak spots, and from where will the next half-billion people be "poking" one another?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read

Facebook isn't letting its milestone of 500 million active users around the world go unnoticed, with a big "Facebook Stories" user testimony promotion rolling out and normally press-shy CEO Mark Zuckerberg making a Wednesday evening appearance on the ABC World News broadcast in the form of an interview with anchor Diane Sawyer.

There will likely be a lot of talk about Facebook's roots as a wildfire phenomenon among college students in elite U.S. universities and how, thanks to its incremental spread through schools and offices and communities, there are now half a billion people flitting around on its iconic blue-and-white pages. But, looking to the future: who will the next half billion Facebook users be?

"We should expect that mainstream adoption of Facebook users in countries outside of the North America will continue to grow," Altimeter Group analyst Jeremiah Owyang told CNET. "Facebook even threatens domination in niche countries where social networks at a regional level are present."

That's been one of Facebook's biggest growth obstacles overseas: the fact that while it was spreading in the U.S., other social networks were growing fast in other countries. None of them has gotten anywhere close to Facebook's global power, but subtle cultural discrepancies and loyal user bases have meant that it hasn't been easy for Facebook to convince its user bases to make the switch. In many countries overseas, Facebook didn't start to catch on until it was available in the native language, and Facebook's translations rolled out relatively slowly. These started about two and a half years ago with a handful of European languages.

"Penetration (of Facebook into regional Internet markets) is highest in North America, at 69 percent, and Middle East-Africa, at 67 percent, and still pretty high in Latin America (58 percent) and Europe (57 percent)," explained Andrew Lipsman, senior director of industry analysis at traffic firm ComScore. "But there is still a lot of room for growth in Asia-Pacific, which currently has just 17 percent market penetration."

In Facebook's original U.S. market, reports have started to indicate that growth may be plateauing, particularly among young adults. But there are some surprisingly big, well-connected countries where Facebook still has a lot of work to do. Take a country like Germany, where Facebook has only 39 percent market penetration. A regional social network called StudiVZ has proven a formidable rival to Facebook, and German authorities' relative hostility toward Facebook's very U.S.-grown privacy policies may make things tougher. Then there's Brazil, where ComScore charts Facebook's market penetration at just over 22 percent; the Google-owned social network Orkut never caught on in the U.S., but Brazilians love it, and still haven't been completely sold on Facebook as a result.

Some of the countries that ComScore has flagged as potential areas for growth--possibly in tune with strategic efforts on Facebook's part--are Japan, with a 7 percent market penetration; Russia, with 6 percent; and South Korea, with 8 percent. There's also China, where government censors have cracked down on access to Facebook along with other social-networking sites.

We're starting to see some of the growth strategies in place already. Earlier this month, Facebook inked a deal with MOL Global, the Malaysian e-commerce company that owns would-be social-net rival Friendster, to make its Credits virtual currency more accessible in some Southeast Asian countries.

"There is definitely a path to a billion users for Facebook, but how long it takes will depend a great deal on its strategy to spur adoption in some of the larger, low-penetration markets," Lipsman told CNET. "Making a push in India right now is an example of going after what is still relatively low-hanging fruit as a large and growing market with room for continued penetration that does not have significant cultural barrier to adoption."