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Facebook has a big forking problem

Over at Facebook central, you can only imagine the anguish in the conference rooms. The good news so often comes with a disastrous implication. User numbers are just climbing, and climbing, and climbing. Revenues are climbing as well (apparently), but Facebook is privately held, so who knows whether they're even breaking even. Those who know don't tell; those who tell don't know.
Like so many .coms, Facebook has to keep the numbers rising like crazy, otherwise they'll feel the wrath of negative buzz, which could cast them into the Wilderness 2.0 to join MySpace, Friendster and Geocities as they huddle together for warmth, consoling themselves that they're still market leaders in Malaysia, or Croatia, or Surinam.

And while Facebook pushes all the buttons it can to drive numbers, they have to desperately find more actual income to stem the scarlet arterial spray of the running costs of their platform - including looking for another $100m in financing to cover new datacentre space.

Facebook is particularly beset with many blessings that are also curses. The first is that more and more older people are using Facebook - it's no longer just for kids. According to recent numbers from fb's boss, they've reached 250 million users, of which 180 million are outside the US. And the biggest growth in users over May/June comes from middle aged ladies (45-54) and what our American friends delight in calling “seniors” (55+).

Blessings? Curses?

So while the old fb sweet spot amongst the 18-25s actually shrank very slightly in June, the older, mostly “professional age” population is just booming.

Blessing? Lots more people. Curse? The older folks coming to MySpace is what made it seriously uncool for the kids, who started to defect in droves once their mom started posting tagged photos of them as babies and their teachers and the cops started checking out their profiles to see what they were up to.

Blessing? Facebook pages (once called “fan pages”) are becoming a place of choice to promote businesses and brands. Curse? Facebook built its business on providing social connection, and increased commercialisation is a double edged sword that the zuckerbergista are largely making a hash of (Beacon, anyone?).

Blessing? Older people who work are a great demographic, and they start to bring their business network closer to this social platform. Curse? Facebook is fundamentally a personal social platform, and as some have discovered, personal and professional should not mix (forget the Kyle Doyle “Sickie Woo” story, it's a hoax).

And here's the problem

And now we come to the big forking problem.

Many people that have had their Facebook profiles for ages, filled with all sorts of personal stuff that they'd prefer work colleagues, bosses or clients to not see (embarrassing drunk party pictures uploaded and tagged by indiscrete friends not being the half of it). This applies just as much to junior accounts staff as the head of Britain's military intelligence.

And so, as their professional world comes closer to their personal, many users are doing what any person with half a brain would do. They're creating a new “work friendly” profile separate from their personal one, because Facebook's privacy features mean if you're in, you're pretty much totally in. If you want to interact with someone, you have to friend them, which means they get to see all about you, and what your friends are saying you did last summer.

Having multiple profiles is, of course, a violation of Facebook's terms of service, but Facebook will have to come up with a better solution to stop the practice of two accounts than just saying “bad boy, you're terminated”. Maybe a “private” and a “professional” profile setting where you can friend someone as a mere associate, or double-friend them as a bosom buddy. Now I can connect with business associates more readily, and help give LinkedIn a heart attack...

But sure as nuts, if Facebook doesn't do something about this, there'll be a huge fork in the user base - lots of single accounts splitting into multiples.

Suddenly the staggering growth figures will look less impressive, and market confidence will founder on what Facebook's real numbers are. More directly, Facebook will face the problem that every IT manager knows well… endless duplicate accounts that chew up server space, clog up administration systems and confuse everyone.

If Facebook's biggest single cost is data centre and bandwidth, the last thing they want is a forking user problem. And the last things users want is a forking Facebook problem.

About Roger Hislop

Roger Hislop works for SA's leading Internet Service Provider in the new business and innovation group. He's also a writer. He can bang out a gadget review in a tick, a deep and thoughtful analysis piece in two ticks, and a complete innovation strategy in three. His main interest is in telecoms and Internet tech, with a sideline in DIYing his own audio electronics. Contact Roger on and follow @d0dja on Twitter.
Kate Elphick
Great article-
Definitely food for thought. One other trend I am seeing is a lot more activity on FB since the economic crisis. People seem to have a lot more time on their hands.
Posted on 7 Aug 2009 12:44