Can anyone stop Facebook?

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Dec. 3 2009 5:20 PM

Can Anyone Stop Facebook?

Twitter couldn't. Google couldn't …

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Nearly a year ago—in the course of cajoling people into joining the ubiquitous social network— I marveled at Facebook's astonishing growth rate: The site had just signed up its 150 millionth member, and about 370,000 people were joining every day. "At this rate," I wrote, "Facebook will grow to nearly 300 million people by this time next year." I confess, though, that I didn't think it was possible for the site to keep growing at that rate. Every hot Web site begins to fade at some point, and back then, the tech world was enamored of an upstart that was gaining lots of attention from celebrities and the media—Twitter. Even Facebook seemed scared of the micro-blogging site. In June, it redesigned its user pages to display updates as quickly as Twitter does, a move that prompted a barrage of threats to quit.

Those threats were empty. And so, it seems, was any threat posed by Twitter. Facebook's growth rate has actually accelerated during the past year. In September, it announced that it had reached 300 million members, and this week, it passed 350 million. About 600,000 people around the world now sign up every day. Twitter hasn't released any recent usage numbers, but traffic to its site is flattening. Indeed, it's likely that Twitter has fewer members than the number of people who play the Facebook game FarmVille (69 million!).

But it isn't just that Facebook is racking up a lot of members. With Facebook Connect, the company is expanding its footprint beyond Facebook.com, spidering into every far-flung corner online. You can now update your Facebook status, add comments, or chat with your friends while surfing CNN, the Huffington Post, Yelp, Digg, and Slate, among other sites. On Wednesday, Yahoo announced that it would integrate Facebook Connect with all of its services. Though Yahoo hasn't explained how the partnership will work, you'll presumably be able to share your photos between Flickr (owned by Yahoo) and Facebook or comment on stories at Yahoo News using your Facebook profile. This huge partnership will bring Facebook closer to becoming what has long been a holy grail in the Web business—a kind of universal sign-on service, the one place that stores the world's social information.

Facebook's continued rise prompts several questions. Why do people keep joining? Will it peak and begin to decline, like so many social networks that came before? And more importantly, do we want a universal sign-on service, a single Web site that stores all our relationships, comments, pictures, and status updates?

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Yes, I think we do. In fact, I'd argue that's why Facebook keeps growing and won't peak anytime soon—it is becoming part of the infrastructure of the Web, every bit as indispensible to our daily wanderings as Google or e-mail. When I pushed people to join Facebook in January, I reasoned that the site had become "a routine aid to social interaction, like e-mail and antiperspirant." In the months since, that has only become more true. It's the first place you think of to find new pictures of your nephew, to share an amusing anecdote with your college friends, or even to look for a job. The New York Times' Nick Bilton points out that Facebook's mutual-friends list transforms new relationships: "When I go to a meeting or party, I take a minute to look up who's attending and quickly explore friends we might share," he writes. "It's the perfect digital icebreaker."

Facebook gets better as more people join it, meaning that the site's very growth is its main selling point to new members. What's more, Facebook's size makes it extremely resistant to rivals and increases the likelihood that it will spread to more places online. The Web is full of annoying redundancy. I've got a username and password to post on Slate's message board, as well as ones to read the New York Times, rate movies on Netflix, and comment on pictures at Flickr. What I do on those sites usually remains there, which isn't ideal—if I comment on a Times story, I'd prefer that my friends see it along with the strangers at Nytimes.com.

Facebook Connect acts as a glue between all those duplicated features. A comment on a news site becomes the start of a conversation with your friends—which is much more interesting than what happens today. The system is a boon to Web publishers, too. Slate uses Facebook Connect to power the comments on its news aggregator, The Slatest. Every time someone posts a comment there, a link to the story appears on that person's Facebook page. In other words, it advertises the site to the commenter's friends, driving traffic back to Slate.

Facebook skeptics will note the obvious downside to the site's expansion—a potential loss of privacy. Sometimes we do things online that we don't want advertised to all our friends. Truth be told, you loved Porky's Revenge, but you'd prefer that your five-star rating stay between you and Netflix. But those situations are rare and getting rarer. The Internet has made sharing habitual; the whole point of commenting on a news story or posting a picture is to share your views and your life with the world. It's unlikely that we'll become less inclined to share with our friends.

Indeed, it is precisely our desire to share stuff that will give Facebook Connect an edge over Google Friend Connect, the search company's competing (and confoundingly similarly named) sign-on service. There are technical differences in how the two services work. Google's plan is more open—when you come across a site that uses Friend Connect, you can sign in using not just your Google login but your login to Twitter, Yahoo, or a number of other online services. This is very convenient for surfers; if I want to join a Google Friend Connect-enabled site, I don't have to bother about remembering a new log-in or password. But because it uses many different online services, Google—unlike Facebook—doesn't let you share what you do on third-party sites in one central place. That's what makes Facebook Connect so important and such a strong statement of the site's ambition. Perhaps one day not long from now, everything on the Web will be a mere extension of Facebook.

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