Background On Facebook

Arguably one of the most influential SNS websites on the internet, is a comprehensive and encompassing clustering of networks based on universities and colleges, high schools, work places, and geographic areas.  These membership networks are independent of one another but based on the same interface and systems of interaction. Intersections and overlaps between each network are possible but they often have crucial and intentional barriers to access in between.  Started originally in February of 2004, Facebook hit its first tipping point in the late summer of that year with the introduction of groups and public posting ‘walls.’  A second surge in growth resulted from Facebook’s introduction to the global public – the site went from consistently hovering around 14 million unique visitors per month to over 26 million (Lipsman 2007c).  In the span of a little over 3 years - from 2005 to 2008—the user count has grown over 20 times in size.1  Facebook has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. They started out in September of 2005 with what seems like a mere 3.5 million members (Arrington 2005) and grew steadily as they added more college networks to eventually encompass them all. In the span of just half a year (July 2006 to February 2007) the site grew from 7.5 million registered accounts to nearly 18 million (Abram 2007). By May that spring they had hit 24 million and closed the summer with 39 million in September (Wakabayashi 2007). As of May 2008 collectively Facebook claims over 80 million members (users who have returned to the site in the past 30 days, a better measure than those of MySpace who count the millions of porn bots) and remains one of the fastest growing websites on the internet (Facebook Press Room 2008a).  Sources vary, but University network membership saturation ranges between an average of 85% and 95% (Golder, Wilkinson, and Huberman 2006, Arrington 2005, Ellison, Steinfeld, and Lampe 2005, Jones and Soltren 2005, Facebook Press Room 2008b) for most schools; the last network-based count for the UIllinois Network placed a 92% membership rate among the undergraduate population.2  Responses from the survey featured in this paper estimate something closer to a 97% coverage though this number is likely inflated due to several factors,3 most notably the survey’s deployment over the web.  Regardless, the sheer number of users and level of penetration makes the site a pretty big deal.

At the time of this writing the Facebook company has over 500 employees spanning their offices in Palo Alto California, New York, and London and are looking to hire more application developers.  Their board of directors includes the founder, Mark Zuckerberg, Jim Breyer, of Accel Partners, and Peter Thiel as well as observers David Sze of Greylock Partners and Paul Madera  of Meritech (Facebook Factsheet 2008).


Facebook ranks as one of the most visited websites on the internet, with sources claiming as high as the 3rd most visited based on page views, and they now account for at least 1% of all time spent on the internet (Freiert 2007b, Abram 2007, 2008).  Among college students the website is an even more common stop than Google and outpaces MySpace by a significant margin (Anderson Analytics 2007).  More than 60% of members log in daily and many sign on multiple times a day while the average visitor spends over three hours of time on the site each month (Holahan, Hof, and Ante 2007, Arrington 2005).  The most common activities (based on time spent) overall are in descending order: browsing profiles, interacting with applications, browsing pictures, joining or visiting groups, searching for members and groups, and joining and browsing networks (Freiert 2007a). In 2007 most users were between the ages of 12 and 24, however nearly an equal number amass in the age demographic of 35 and up (Lipsman 2007a, 2007b).  The website in its entirety boasts more than 16 million page views and well beyond 600 million searches per month (Lipsman 2007a, Abram 2007).  The most recent count of average daily visitors is nearly 15 million, with the vast majority (85%) connecting from the US and Europe (Lipsman 2007b).  The UIllinois network is by comparison relatively large, weighing in at over 62,000 profiles4.  Facebook is the most viewed website by both females (69%) and males (56%) ages 17-25 in the United States, even surpassing (eMarketer Survey 2007).  Facebook has essentially hit full saturation amongst most colleges and commands a high usage rate in many western nations.  It continues to expand internationally and diversify its audience by adding more and more country-based networks.

An early study by the HP Information Dynamics Laboratory answered the critique that simple membership and login rates are inaccurate predictors of SNS popularity by measuring the use of the Facebook message system and finding intense patterned activity (Golder et al. 2005).  The study further illuminated the regularities of time use of college students and their respective social lives.  In all, Facebook commands a hefty sum of users, many of whom use the site quite intensively.

Potential Worth

In addition to the pervasiveness and popularity of Facebook its potential worth is considerable. Facebook started off in the summer of 2004 with 500,000 dollars in funding from Peter Thiel and by May of 2005 had raised 12.7 million dollars in capital with Accel Partners (Facebook Factsheet 2008, Accel Partners website 2005).  They later received 27.5 million from Greylock Partners and higher bids from the aforementioned investors (Facebook Factsheet 2008). In March of 2006 Business week reported on negotiations for a possible Viacom acquisition of the site. According to the article, the company declined an offer of $750 million and it was rumored that the asking price was as high as $2 billion (Rosenbush 2006).  As tensions escalated in 2007 surrounding Google’s Open Social5 the corporate behemoth Microsoft invested an equity stake in exchange for exclusive rights to handle ads for Facebook globally.  Microsoft spent 240 million dollars for a 1.6 percent stake, which came from a valuation of Facebook totaling 15 billion dollars (Sloane 2007).  Facebook’s true value is a subject of great debate6; as with most businesses estimating worth becomes a tricky political matter.

The Facebook dataset presents an untold potential for authentic and elaborate detail on college student (and increasingly internet users at large) habits, interests, and marketability.  The information garnered from analysis of Facebook is arguably superior to what any broad data collection or survey on the college student population could pray to collect.  Participants voluntarily present information about themselves instead of being asked or forced to do so by researchers.  As the social science realm comes to regularly recognize the importance of studying social networking on the internet, it is likely Facebook will become a common source of data for observation.

The Facebook Experience

Facebook has a different feel than most websites, even ones that might be considered similar like dating websites or professional job seeking networks.  The entire system is organized around exploring and engaging other participants.  The idea is to help you access and display as much information about yourself and others as you want and at the same time pursue connections between the heterogeneous mess of people, components, and ideas.  Facebook is a source of information, place of communication, and, as is proposed and flushed out later in this paper, a multifaceted arena of identity performance.  It is fundamentally a socio-technical mesh; a blending between human actors, echoes of abstract individual personalities and social perspectives, and code-powered, semi-automated visual interfaces.  Access is mediated by both cell phones and computers of all types.

Upon logging on visitors are greeted with the impression of activity by looking at the newsfeed, their latest application updates and the published shifting statuses of their friends.  On some level it’s almost comparable to the buzz of a city (Stutzman 2007a) or the front page of a newspaper. One can see some of what’s going on amongst their friends on the site and do things like track specific recent changes in their friend’s profiles or upload new media to share with their classmates.  A student might chase down classmates or find that person they ran into on the quad earlier, or seek the social hub of a campus group they’ve just joined. Often all it takes is an impartial set of information – a first name and a major, a year and a club membership, an email address or AIM handle – to find specific people in the system.  In most cases this sharing of media, identities and knowledge is desirable.  Students can keep in touch with family members and distant friends, see pictures of someone they wish to take out on a date, or download the latest song their buddy many miles away composed in his bedroom.  The process is much easier than it would be to normally accomplish such tasks without the help of Facebook largely because just about every venture in social exchange is a function available through the system.  Facebook is notably conducive to one-sided activity and browsing, or ‘stalking’ as most users refer to it.  Surely most of the aforementioned tasks have run rampant throughout programs and websites for years prior, but with such high logon rates, deep integration, and the ability for anyone to conduct them unbeknownst to others as well as in an overt fashion, one can safely say the intensity has changed.

Over the summer of 2007 Facebook spilled into the global scene, and expanded its user base to include many types of people beyond students (Lispman 2007c).  Within the US various adult populations began to employ the network for post-college social grooming, such as searching out old classmates and as a sort of dating service and tool to sustain long distance relationships (Daily Telegraph 2008, Stevens 2008), 7 and the Web 2.0 and business community has begun to adopt it as a new job search and business networking tool (Rosenbloom 2008). After all, employers usually check up on potential employees online, why not overtly search on Facebook too?  And the group that’s probably roused the most ruckus is the substantial number of older adults, such as parents and administrators, concerned with watching youthful users.

Studies have begun to surface showing just how important Facebook can be in the production of social capital.  For instance, Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe (2006) have explored the influence of the SNS in terms of both bridging and bonding capital.8  Results from a multiple regression analysis of a survey disseminated to the MSU undergraduate population indicate that Facebook has a significant impact on students’ ability to maintain bridging social capital at college.  General internet use, as compared, did not make a significant difference in determining social capital.  The social capital scores of students who reported low satisfaction with MSU life and low self-esteem were most positively impacted by intensity  of Facebook use.  Interestingly enough white students were more likely to benefit in this way than non-white students, which when held in consideration with Mayer and Puller’s (2007) finding that social networks did not show a great deal of connections between racial groups, could suggest a new disparity for digital divide research.  Eszter Hargittai (2007) echoed this possibility in her work surveying student perceptions of SNS in finding that certain racial populations preferred certain networks more than others.  Ultimately having more friends who use Facebook, using Facebook to connect with offline contacts, and using Facebook for fun accurately predicted rates and trends of bridging social capital, but not bonding social capital (Ellison et al. 2006).  In short, students who use Facebook actively may have an advantage in regards to social capital, or more properly framed, the few not on Facebook will be at a relative disadvantage. 

This doesn’t directly suggest that Facebook is the sole accountable factor for student satisfaction and well-belling (in fact the students might not be on Facebook because they are fed up with school or depressed) but it does implicate it as a significant one.  As Ellison notes in her paper’s general discussion, the relationship between Facebook and social capital does not determine causation – students bring with them a plethora of connections and resources to the SNS environment and consequently take away new ones.  The likely reality is that the two worlds are interconnected and coproducing of one another – invariably linked and dependent reproducing both weak ties, potential and realized, as well as strengthening social bonds.

Most publications, regardless of it they are news media or academic articles, fail to accurately capture the essence of these exchanges, nor do they often bring attention to the positive uses of SNS, just the nightly news doesn’t talk about all of the good things happening on the same night of a crime.  Yes, as we so often read in the newspaper or in privacy evaluation reports there are mishaps and negative interactions that occur as a result of Facebook.  Little work has focused explicitly on what drives behavior on Facebook (both in terms of individuals and the system itself) and investigations into the intricate values and meanings within the system are deemphasized in the face of shocking (even if occasional or exaggerated) downsides.  If Facebook has become a centralized and essential element of the college social engagement experience and provides a boon to social capital then it also likely also holds many other beneficial aspects and intriguing quandaries still yet unexplored.

Over time Facebook has experienced a complicated evolution of privacy controls and options outside of the initial separation of networks and original educational email ID requirement.9  Participants were initially only able to adjust what types of people (such as friends or faculty) could see their profile but these options were later expanded to include direct control over what areas were released to others, even down to a specific individual basis. 
The privacy controls and expectations Facebook users have today were hard earned over time.  The introduction of the ‘Newsfeed’ wrought a near-catastrophic response when user habits were published overtly for the first time to the general populace (boyd 2006).  Users could logon and see exactly who their friend broke up with the night before and the pictures another friend put up five minutes ago.  The community rebelled against this change levying all sorts of complaints and threats – many of them even disabled their accounts in response.  After a bit of a “calm down” (almost condescending) response by Mark Zuckerberg (2006), the solution came in the addition of more privacy options.  Users were given the ability to adjust who saw information about them on the newsfeed and of what type. They could now customize their newsfeed to tell them about the activities and interactions of the people they cared most about.  Despite Facebook’s relatively recent focus on addressing privacy concerns and fears in regards to the non-adult user population (Kelly 2007), which was likely in response to numerous complaints accrued over the last year and even a subpoena for information from the State Office of the Attorney in New York (Giannone et. al 2007), a new controversy exploded on the scene right around the time of this paper’s writing. 

Beacon,10 a name that will forever live in infamy in the minds of Facebook privacy advocates, was a service meant to be invisible to general users that would keep participants informed of their friend’s browsing activities on the general internet (but only for sites that were participating).  The main issue with Beacon’s deployment was that it was opt-in by default, and allowed no ability for users to opt-out globally.  This effectively meant marketers, friends, stalkers, and really anyone in between could very plainly see a given user’s activities on websites such as  After a bit of a slow start and numerous efforts by groups around the web including bloggers and petitions managed to capture Facebook’s attention and provoke an official apology from Mark Zuckerberg (2007).  The difference this time, however, is that the effort wasn’t just on account of Facebook users, but to a larger media and web community collective (Stutzman 2007b).  As Facebook has grown up into a large company they have become increasingly accountable for their actions.  Previously they may have been able to quickly implement changes that posed a threat to user privacy without suffering any major repercussions, but because the audiences has moved so much beyond just the college student population this is no longer as possible.  This is further evidenced in the increasingly diverse and customizable set of privacy controls—both for user profiles and application control.

Origins of Success

Facebook’s omnipresence among college students is beginning to spread to new populations. The network is continually growing at a high speed internationally and the company itself has become a recognizable corporate presence.  Its success and popularity relative to Friendster and LinkedIn (and in some ways, MySpace) this author attributes to three primary factors: (1) a modular network organization built on pre-existing communities, (2) a concise and consistent but malleable and effective interface, and (3) a Permanently Beta structure.

Facebook is built on separate but similar networks capable of limited interaction with one another.  The original foundation of the site was supported by college networks—during Facebook’s formation only people with valid university email addresses could acquire an account.  This promoted the perception of a safer environment, dominated by undergraduates and with few unknown outsiders.  Back in the early years, 2004 and 2005, Facebook was a place of openness.  Fred Stutzman describes it as “the perfect community, a digital place they felt so comfortable with that privacy didn't enter the equation. It would have been as weird to use privacy in Facebook ca. 2005 as it would be to walk around with a bag over your head on campus today.” (Stutzman 2008b).  The community for the online connections was already in place offline, and students experiencing the transformation of college both want and need to meet new people.  Combined with the consequential trust and thus high level of information exposure Facebook achieved a rather unique disposition.  This is no mere trivial accomplishment.  Studies at the time lent support to claims of a trust-filled network showing that compared to traditional methods of identity exposure, such as online directories, Facebook “fosters a more subjective and holistic disclosure of identity information” (Stutzman 2006: 1).  Facebook bestows a broad definitions to friendship, and the distinctions become all the more essential because on the same college campus one has a span of friends from best to barely met.  Other SNS such as LinkedIn and Friendster also have contacts—in many cases many of the “friends” on these networks have no consistent face-to-face relations with the person who “friended” them.  It’s almost like an open internet rolladex, full of weak and strong ties, all of which can be categorized and mediated specifically if the user so desires.

Later, high school networks were added as students learned of the site from their older siblings and wished to become involved—indeed many students now meet each other even before coming to college by joining their college Facebook network as soon as they get their new email.  As the first Facebook generations moved on to graduate the team introduced geographical and workplace networks (effectively becoming global) so that people could stay in touch in their lives post-college and people all around the world could start to weave their own Facebook webs.  Nearly all of these real-world social networks were already in place; Facebook just extended their services to them with additional semi-permeable networks.  From the get-go users had easy access only to those people in the networks they belonged to, thus discouraging cross-network connections between strangers and fostering an impression of a safe digital space filled with just your friends and peers.  The power of and comprehensive trust in Facebook, as well as its sustainability, is rooted in real world boundaries (college campuses, high schools, work places) and boasts greater possibilities of meeting the friends of friends.  Back in 2005 the best calculated average mean per-user friend count for Facebook users in general stood at about 144, with a median of roughly 180 (Golder et al. 2005).  The numbers dropped dramatically once you passed the 250 mark – however the averages overall have probably increased in time with the network. Regardless if one considers these numbers for a moment they are confronted by the immensity of the proportion.  The average Facebook user has a social network of strong, moderate, and weak ties of over one hundred people.  Everyone is connected—to Facebook and each other.  Kevin Bacon had better look out.11  The closed network system (person from network A cannot view more than a thumbnail and name of person from network B) renders a perceptibly secure environment.  Designed to match pre-existing community networks from the face to face world this network organization has been critical to ensuring Facebook’s success.

The contemporary youth population tends to access the internet in bursts and with multi-tasking—little time is spent in one specific place and many users perform more than one task at once, even without thinking about it consciously (Wallis et. al 2006, Azzam 2006).  This kind of mentality impacts the way users view and access websites and thus many effective websites for this audience are designed to capture attention with feature-driven and easy to access interfaces.  Facebook fulfills this need better than most: virtually every feature it contains is intuitively interactive in some manner and customizable.  New features are added frequently (almost every few months) and users who find themselves bored quickly can always find something new, be it a feature introduced by the Facebook team or just an update to a friend’s profile or a new event.  Applications provide a springboard for users to bring even more interactivity and customizability to their profiles and pages.  MySpace and other sites can claim the feature driven functionality too, however none of these sites have a great deal of ease of use blended with modularity inherent to their design. MySpace in particular is infamous for its customization, which when placed in the hands of nontechnical, often untrained artistically (at least professionally) users (presumably teens) results in messy pages with poor graphic layout, difficult to read and see combinations of color, and non uniform organization of information.12  There have even been contests challenging searchers to find the worst MySpace page.13 For the most part Facebook’s interface themes stay consistent (easy to read, organized, etc…), while the content of its features do not.

The third major reason (postulated here) for Facebook’s success is that its concept design is predicated on a Permanently Beta format.  The term Permanently Beta was coined by Gina Neff and David Stark (2002) and refers to dynamic open-feedback motivated systems where the producer and consumer of a system or software become one.14  This means that not only can the system change, but it has always been changing, will always be changing, and this perpetual state of transformation lets the system achieve and ride trends and flows better than others previously known.  User profiles, applications, networks and the connections between them are in a constant flux and this context creates a service that is not only natural to its users, but desired.  Users are in many ways as in control as the system creators and moderators – the exact usages of the site are not defined and this purposed design is crucial to the network’s success.  The environment stands in stark contrast to the consistent and hegemonic forms of old media and marketplace dominated by hierarchy.   This is not to say that all users have the same level of influence or power within a system but instead that it is distributed and determined differently then it may be in closed system formats.  This notion is explained more extensively as it relates to Science and Technology Studies theory in Cyborging of the Mind in a Permanently Beta Ecology (Ginger forthcoming 2008).

Substantive Influence and Sociological Importance

One needs only to talk to any given American15 undergraduate student to unearth tangible, substantive cultural impacts of Facebook.  Everyone has a story, or in all likelihood a whole manifold of experiences, narratives, and interpretations of the system.  In some ways it’s like a social local newspaper—only you can play with it.  If language is a signifier of pertinence, then just as ‘to Google’ and ‘to Photoshop’ have become verbs in the vernacular, ‘to Friend’ and ‘to Facebook’ have risen to this status on account of Facebook16.  Students have assembled extensive investments in the system and many have developed dependencies17 in varying forms—communications and news, extension of personality, community awareness and involvement, and initiation and continuance of both personal relationships as well as group membership.  Indeed, many students are learning to visit Facebook as much as email and update their Facebook status like they do instant messenger away messages.  As mentioned earlier, these high usage patterns are a logical consequence of the bridge between offline and online connections (Ellison et al. 2006) and the relationship between the once mostly separated worlds has become strongly coproducing.

The potential avenues for influence are numerous, especially among youth in the US.  Outside of science and technology studies, many subsets of sociology have traditionally considered internet technology as peripheral or incongruous.  However, education and research have a great deal to learn from the incarnations, uses, interpretations and social movements of new media.  As sociology concerns itself with informing people of the social shifts of the future we ought to pay attention to the influences Facebook will accrue, especially as it becomes nominally interlaced into the everyday life and expands its influences across the globe.  Facebook echoes, extends, and may even transform the interactions of the face-to-face world and has implications for the many social groups18 traditionally of concern to sociology.  The ramifications of this claim insinuate that examination of Facebook ought to intersect with all subsets and variations of sociology be they areas like transnational studies and demographics or methodologies such as historical comparatives, content analysis, quantitative data collection, or ethnographies.  Studying social networking services and Facebook are imperative to contemporary Sociological study.


[1] Based on comparisons between news reports.

[2] Collected April of 2006 during the time period when you could only join the UIUC network with a valid University ID.  Facebook search queries pass data in the URL query strings – recognizing which variables correspond to each parameter I could set the page display range at a higher index manually, allowing myself to see the last profiles available on the network and gaining an accurate count of UIUC Facebook member profiles.  I performed a search for all students listed as undergraduates and divided this number by the total number of undergraduate students listed on the quick facts page on the UIUC home site.  Accounting for a 1% inflation rate for students with multiple profiles, drop-outs, transfers, graduated members (at the time only a small number had not updated their profiles to reflect their alumni status), I came up with the estimate of 92% which I first documented in Social Computing Phenomena, a paper written in May of 2006.  Facebook later altered search results to display only the first 500 of a given category.  I have yet to determine a new inclusive method of counting.

[3] Students may be more likely to respond to a survey about Facebook if they are already Facebook members.  Intensive and interested Facebook users are also probably more likely to be active internet users who check their email frequently, as Facebook sends many emails and is considerably easier to operate with broadband.

[4] UIllinois statistics page on July 2008

[5] OpenSocial is a set of common APIs for building social applications across many websites and consists of both JavaScript APIs and Google Data APIs.  Find more information at

[6] In fact a panel of business-world (non-academic) Facebook experts argued about it so much at the 2007 Graphing Social Patterns conference that it gathered a bit of fame on the web:

[7] Unfortunately I have no publication to specifically back what I’m saying, it’s a little compilation of material from one of researcher danah boyd’s answers to my questions at the ASIS&T annual conference.

[8] Find out more about controversial subject of social capital (and the bridging and bonding model) at Wikipedia:, where numerous perspectives can be well represented.

[9] New registrants were originally required to use an email address ending in .edu, thus keeping the network closed to anyone without a university-based email account.

[10] Which officially dubs itself a business solution that “Enables your customers to share the actions they take on your website with their Facebook friends.”

[11] Kevin Bacon is the subject of a trivia game entitled Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which is based on the idea that due to his long and relatively diverse screen career, any Hollywood actor can be linked to another in a handful of steps based on their associations with Bacon.  See

[12]This is not to say the Facebook is necessarily better than MySpace. CMC researcher danah boyd suggests that the design of each system in many ways reflects its user audience.  She explains that “the look and feel of MySpace resonates far better with subaltern communities than it does with the upwardly mobile hegemonic teens” (boyd 2007c).  MySpace works well in allowing users to render flashy, confused, or deviant displays of profile information and its community capitalizes on this opportunity.  Users replace their names with inside jokes and reports of their current status and yearn to find original ways to express themselves within the system.  Facebook caters to a more textbook graphic layout and information management structure – which ought not to be judged as intrinsically superior but well positioned to serve the needs of its audience and thus successful.  As the cost of entry into the world of media design drops dramatically we’re likely to see a number of shifts in norms and expectations for the presentation of graphic media.  These days virtually anyone can go create their own easy to manage website with Google Page Maker.  While MySpace profiles might often be something like a web page tossed into a blender, they’re quite possibly representative (on some level) of the new ‘cool’ in web design.

[13] Check ZeFrank’s July 2006 Ugly MySpace page contest at for a good laugh.

[14] The concept knows many names, including interactive adaptive management, responsive organization, and more.

[15] And British and Australian and many other nationalities.  Facebook isn’t as widely spread or adopted in other countries.

[16] The terminology of course varies by social networking service.  Users might “MySpace” one another or “Friend” one another there too.  Other SNS are more formalized, like “adding contacts” on LinkedIn.

[17] Not dependencies in the sense of Psychological addictions, but everyday typical social and communicative needs become dependent on Facebook.

[18] Gender and sexuality, race and ethnicity, ability and mental illness, class and geography, age and education, and countless others.


See the Full References page.