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Facebook Goes for Bigger Pond

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Facebook will soon relax the strict registration rules that have made the social network what it is. Soon, anyone and everyone will be able to join. Until now, users had to have either an email address from either their college or approved workplace domain, or, for high school students, had to receive an invite from someone at their school.

This expansion was supposed to be live tomorrow, but after last week’s furor the company is now trying the tactic of announcing major changes before rolling them out. So, today’s news is just that this will happen sometime soon. This is Facebook’s big play for the mainstream, and it’s clear the company is a bit nervous.

The plan is to allow new users to register to one of Facebook’s 500-odd geographic regions. Once registered, users are only able to interact with those in their region. For instance, as a current member, I can see the profiles of the 17,412 people in Facebook’s San Francisco network (or at least what they’ve chosen to display to that group). I can also see people who are part of the my work (GigaOM) or school (Dartmouth) networks. But for everyone else — even those within the Silicon Valley network, for example — all I get is their name, profile pic, and network affiliations — unless we’ve explicitly said we’re friends.

Facebook has around 9.5 million users, but it hasn’t given itself much room to grow beyond that. Up to now its big expansion pushes were every August and September when a new class enrolled in college — but those numbers are still tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up for MySpace every day. The loosened restrictions, of course, come with the risk of further alienating users who were put on edge by last week’s News Feed over-share experience. They could also seriously dilute Facebook’s committed user base by bringing in lots of casual explorers.

Furthermore, new users won’t be getting the same Facebook experience as early members, because they’ll be thrown into the vaguely defined geographic networks. The only time I care who else lives in San Francisco is when I’m reallybored.

However, the larger vision here is to more accurately replicate members’ offline connections. “A social network is something that exists in the real world,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a recent interview. “After college, people continue to use the site, and they want to use it with people around them.” The move isn’t about exclusivity, although it’s true that the type of colleges with .edu accounts and the type of companies that give their employees email addresses tend to be more elite. Now, the hordes of people who only have access to proletarian Hotmail and Yahoo accounts will be able to sign up.

Just like with News Feeds, important to this change is the degree of control Facebook users feel they have over their profiles and networks. Facebook is acutely aware of this fact, and has all along built privacy options into the spine of its system. The tests will be how well that spine can hold up to the coming tidal wave of signups, and whether new users will be content with a watered-down version of the site.

7 Responses to “Facebook Goes for Bigger Pond”

  1. I think that Brian is exactly right. Facebook has been forced into it’s current position because investors are looking for a big payday. I think this will open the door to competitors. Speaking of competition – I just read a great review written by Pete Cahsmore today over at on a new facebook competitor that titled “ – An Excellent Facebook Alternative”… You can Check out more on this..

  2. Zuck’s first (and second and third) company priority is Growth, because along with stickiness (how often and how much an average user is on the site, a metric where facebook rules), growth decides which social network will be relevant.

    Facebook can’t grow fast enough since it has saturated it’s eligible, core demographic. This plan has been in the works for over a year, with the questions revolving around how to track fraud and group people meaningfully.
    The uninformed will holler again about privacy, but they should go complain instead to myspace, which as noted in my book, opens up all user information to just about everyone. Facebook will likely not change how college networks work. It may allow unvalidated friends to accept invitations, but would almost certainly track the referral/registration history, to be able to prune away bad branches of the invitation tree.

    As a closed network, Facebook has gained success by modeling real life networks, towards which is also narrowing its focus. Real life networks have a large geographic component, and they naturally include friends outside of school or work associations. However, I also have many people here in my geography who are not my friends, and who I don’t want to share in my information. As the book describes in detail, people closeness categories or some other meaningful way of sorting my “real friends” away from everyone in artificially bloated networks is increasingly necessary. I do not know that Facebook has a planned solution for this problem.

  3. Brian McConnell

    Growth for growth’s sake.

    If Facebook had not taken on institutional funding at such a high valuation, they would not be burdened with such high growth expectations and could be content to dominate the college market for many years.

    Bill Gates once said something every entrepreneur should memorize, that every business has a natural size.

    Maybe they’ll get this right, but they run a big risk of becoming a case study in how high expectations can cause an otherwise great company to make bad decisions by focusing on growth over focus.