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Facebook to drop membership restrictions

Popular social-networking site that has mainly focused on college students is preparing to open its membership to all.

Facebook, the popular social-networking site that has mainly focused on college students, is preparing to open its membership to everyone.

The move is meant to help the site expand, but it risks undercutting one of its attractions: It has been more exclusive and somewhat more protected than MySpace, its larger and more freewheeling rival.

Started two years ago, with Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard undergraduate, as a co-founder, Facebook first restricted membership to people who had e-mail addresses issued by a college or university. It has expanded somewhat since then, allowing high school students to join (if they are invited by an existing member) along with people who work for certain large companies (if they have a corporate e-mail address).

Facebook plans to expand its membership within a month. It had planned to open its doors wider Tuesday but postponed the decision after last week who complained that the changes revealed too much personal information. The site quickly introduced new options that allowed people to control how information about them is displayed.

Facebook members create pages that often contain their telephone numbers, photographs, personal musings and comments left by friends. Unlike MySpace, which displays a member's page to any other member, Facebook shows the full profile only to a person's friends and to others in his or her "network"--a school or sometimes an employer. Others can see only limited information about a user.

Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, said that the company needed to relax its membership rules in order to keep up with its existing members after they graduate from college and get jobs. While these people have always been allowed to remain members, new friends made by the members after graduation were not always eligible to join.

"We have two years of alums already, and more than one-third of the people using the site are not in college any more," Zuckerberg said. "If we make it so other young people can use the site, it strengthens the experience for everybody."

Facebook had 6.1 million users in July, according to ComScore Networks' Media Metrix, putting it far behind MySpace, which had 30.1 million users. MySpace is owned by the News Corp., and Facebook is privately held.

Under its new system, Facebook will create new networks for 500 geographic regions, and it will allow anyone to join them. In the default setting, people in the region--like the New York City area--will be able to see the full profile of other members in the same region. Facebook has long offered a series of options that let people expand or contract the information shown to various sorts of people.

"We give people tight control over their information," Zuckerberg said. "You can say, 'I want people in my company to see the pictures in my photo album but I don't want my mom to see them.'"

Still, some social-network experts wonder how much Facebook is risking by expanding its membership.

"The point of Facebook is the exclusivity," said Aaron Cohen, chief executive of Bolt, a New York social networking site. "If they don't have that, what do they have that MySpace doesn't have?"