Facebook is on a roll

There are a lot of Facebook fans among the N4N audience, so you're bound to find worthwhile Newsweek's look at the growing up of the increasingly popular social utility.

The story takes on such topics as Facebook's growth and potential . . .

Everyone knows that Facebook is the online hangout of just about every college student in the nation as well as the inevitable source of photos of nominees for the Supreme Court in 2038 cavorting in their underwear as youths. But the student population is only a beachhead in the vast ambitions of Facebook. Its people claim that more than half its 35 million active users are not college students, and that by the end of this year less than 30 percent of Facebook users will sport college IDs.

Anything goes in the spirited Facebook world. Just about everybody updates his or her status line with pithy, haiku-ish and often profane precision. For only a dollar you can send a friend a "gift"—an image of a cute item like a polka-dot thong, a champagne glass or sushi. Thousands of groups form daily: sufferers of cancer, conjunctivitis or bad taste. People who scale public buildings in Princeton. Supporters of every politician imaginable. Facebook last year took down the student-only sign and instituted an open-enrollment policy. The idea is that as more people do this—and invite their friends to join the fun—there will be a mass movement to access the world through the interests of, and interests in, the people you know personally. Karel Baloun, an engineer who worked at Facebook until last year, recalls vividly the baldly stated prediction of one of the company's cofounders: "In five years," he said, "we'll have everybody on the planet on Facebook."

That's far from a given: just because older people sign up, there's no evidence yet that it's ubiquitous in their lives the way Facebook is in the school world. Nonetheless, "Facebook has emerged as the 'it' service and company ... It represents the next logical progression," says former AOL CEO Steve Case (via the messaging system on Facebook, where Case has been digitally hanging out of late; he's even friended Bill Gates). Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old Harvard dropout who started the site, is high tech's new prince. Having turned down a reported $1 billion offer from Yahoo last year—and enduring the taunts of bloggers who predicted that he'd rue the day—Zuckerberg in May took Facebook in a new direction: he opened up the Web site to thousands of developers, who can now unilaterally install applications designed to take advantage of Facebook's people connections. This, along with an astonishing growth rate of 3 percent a week, has triggered a Facebook mania in the Valley. Early investor Peter Thiel, who sits on Facebook's board, believes that a measly billion dollars for this 300-person company spread over three buildings in downtown Palo Alto, Calif., is a risible sum. Instead, he compares Facebook's current price tag to that of MTV, which he values at about seven or eight billion bucks. "Between the two, I'd want to own Facebook," he says. Not that it's for sale. Thiel and other Facebook folk are now talking about an IPO in perhaps two years that would almost certainly be the biggest public offering since Google.

. . . not to mention the genius of founder Mark Zuckerberg . . .

The nub of his vision revolves around a concept he calls the "social graph."

As he describes it, this is a mathematical construct that maps the real-life connections between every human on the planet. Each of us is a node radiating links to the people we know. "We don't own the social graph," he says. "The social graph is this thing that exists in the world, and it always has and it always will. It's really most natural for people to communicate through it, because it's with the people around you, friends and business connections or whatever. What [Facebook] needed to do was construct as accurate of a model as possible of the way the social graph looks in the world. So once Facebook knows who you care about, you can upload a photo album and we can send it to all those people automatically."

Zuckerberg believes that this is what makes Facebook so compelling: as your friends join Facebook, that part of the social graph—the part that matters to you—moves into the digital fast lane and you're getting more out of your connections than you ever could have imagined. (Of course, since your friends on the graph are connected to other people, you have the advantage of seeing their friends, and expanding your circle.) Unlike services like the giant MySpace—which at more than 70 million users still wins in raw numbers—Facebook is not a place where emerging stand-up comics, hip indie bands and soft-porn starlets try to break out by tagging thousands of people as virtual friends. Zuckerberg even says Facebook isn't intended as a venue to seek out new people, though certainly it's possible to locate promising strangers whose relationship status is "anything I can get." (Proof of concept is Aaron Byrd, who as a Texas-born Harvard senior searched through Facebook networks looking for women named Grace—hey, he likes the name—lighting on a pretty U of Georgia sophomore. First he friended her and then, reader, he married her.)

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