Facebook started the year with just under 150 million active users worldwide, crossed 300 million in September, and we estimate it’s on track to end the year with just over 375 million. It’s hard to comprehend that kind of growth, but to put it in perspective, there are only about 1.65 billion active internet users in the world. If you exclude the 350 million active internet users in China, where Facebook is blocked, that means that about 29% of the total worldwide internet population will be active Facebook users by the end of 2009.
With estimates calling for the global internet population to grow to 2.1 billion in 2012, potentially to 2.5 billion by 2015, could Facebook reach 1 billion active users in the next five years? In order to achieve that mark, Facebook would need to achieve nearly 50% penetration of Internet users in almost every country outside of China.
In order to get there, Facebook will need to show strong growth in all regions of the world. Today, Facebook continues to increasingly saturate some western markets, where in many cases over 30% of the entire national population is active on Facebook (in Iceland it’s 51%; Norway is at 45%; the UK is at 36% and the US is at 32%). At the same time, Facebook is beginning to tip major international markets where it is unseating popular incumbent social networks.
For example, the user growth curve is concave up in Brazil and India, where Orkut has been dominant for years, and Facebook continues to gain ground in Germany, where StudiVZ sites have been the most popular for a while. In southeast Asia, Facebook has exploded in recent months, which doesn’t bode well for Friendster and other networks in the region. However, growth has been slower in Russia, where Vkontakte has maintained local dominance – Facebook has only 670,000 active users in the whole country.
Note: all data sourced from Facebook’s advertiser tools.
Of course, Facebook’s approach to crowd-sourced translations of its web service and, more recently, any website through Facebook Connect, has played a major role in Facebook’s international growth over the last couple of years. Today, Facebook is available in more than 70 languages, with dozens more on the way. While we still hear complaints from some users that translations in localized versions of Facebook are not quite up to snuff, the quality does seem to be improving overall.
Facebook’s mobile efforts have played a significant role in the company’s international growth over the last couple of years as well. Facebook has quietly built apps for many mobile devices and struck deals with dozens of local carriers to facilitate Facebook’s spread around the world. While we don’t know exactly how many of Facebook’s active user count comes from its variety of mobile platforms and apps, we do know stats on some mobile apps and that overall, Facebook’s mobile audience has tripled in the last year. The company had 65 million mobile users as of early September, according to internal numbers it made public then.
While we expect Facebook to continue pushing both of these efforts forward in the years ahead, Facebook’s growth will still be fundamentally driven by the viral nature of the product. As more people join Facebook, the service becomes increasingly valuable to those already on Facebook, making it increasingly difficult for competitors to stop Facebook in its tracks. We are not seeing any signs of decreases in Facebook’s total audience size in any country that we track (except China of course and, last month, Cyprus). Thus, we believe it’s quite possible that the rate at which Facebook approaches 1 billion active users will be most affected by the growth rate of the Internet population overall.
If Facebook does reach that point, it will be in a position to shape a number of other industries, and it will also be subject to a number of other pressures. Search, media, entertainment, telecom, shopping, and payment companies will all be watching Facebook closely, as the company’s continued growth will likely mean significant things for their future. Facebook will also become subject to new kinds of international regulations and political pressure, particularly as it is increasingly used in ways that national governments would like to have more control over.