Facebook Growth: Just Unbelievable

December 19, 2008

One of my friends is a banker, and he still has his job. Imagine that. More surprising is that he made the leap and signed up for a Facebook page. I recall that he was starting to see only old geese like me at his desk in the instant bank office in the mall, and he wanted young goslings to do banking with him.

Facebook, he asserted, was a happening thing for some of the younger loan officers at this financial institution. I know about Facebook, but like the other social networks, I am not too eager to have “friends”. Heck, I have made my way through life without friends. The one friend I had in Dr. William Gillis’ required world literature class hated me after I got the questions right on a multiple choice test and then aced the extra credit essay question. The one friend I had immediately hated me. His 80 curved out as a D as I recall. Sigh.

I was fascinated by the headline “Facebook Now Growing by over 600,000 Users a Day – And New Engagement Stats”. With a base of 140 million unverified users, that’s a heck of a growth rate. I find it unbelievable. You must read this post on Inside Facebook here.

Now let’s go back to that world literature class. One student broke the curve. Modestly, it was I. Social networks follow a different mathematical trajectory; that is, the numbers are fuzzy wuzzy. For example, what’s a user? Is a user a person who creates a page and does not maintain it? Is a user a 13 year old looking for more sophisticated page layouts than MySpace.com offers? Is a user a fan boy or fan girl who posts dog pictures, trivia, and photographs for college friends? Is a user my banking friend who put up a page, and will probably never update it? Is the user a law enforcement officer looking for untoward behavior?

In the world literature class, we had a known number of students; that is, 200. That was the number of seats in the lecture hall. On the test there were 200 people and one person scored more than 100 percent. The Facebook number of 600,000 in this story lacks the type of anchoring I just provided in my anecdote about the world literature class and the test score. This 600,000 number is without foundation. In fact, most Internet usage data is alfalfa and baloney. Google is an exception. That beastie can count every single event in its purview.

Let’s assume that the 600,000 number is correct. There are about 300 million people in the US. Facebook will run out of Americans so the growth will have to come from Canada. Nope. Won’t work. Only 30 million people there with 70 percent broadband, so Canada’s population is exhausted in a few weeks. Now we’re trucking in China and India. Hmmm. Might be a challenge because of language and culture. What about the European Community? It’s about the same size as the US? At the 600,000 per day rate, that’s about a 15 month period.

I grant that Facebook is growing. I am willing to accept that it has millions of users. What I don’t accept is that Facebook is an anomaly like my test score and Google. The social systems are fragile, not well understood, and morphing quickly. Facebook itself is trying to repair its engines while the airplane is flying. I think the company has a reasonable chance of surviving. But I want the following:

  1. Baseline data, with a date and time
  2. Deltas by month over a period of time; for example, 18 months will work for me
  3. A definition of a user. The percentage of dead pages, pages recreated because the genius creating a page “forget” his / her user name and password is important, and the number of users who, like the banker, slap up a placeholder with zero intention of making changes to the content.
  4. A source for the data. Now I’m not to thrilled with the azure-chipped consulting firms prancing around the information sector, but even their analysts know enough to provide some basic data about how the numbers were conjured from Starbuck’s lattes and wanna be McKinsey consultant dreams.

None of these points appears in the Inside Facebook write up. I can’t accept this statement from the article: “In other words, Facebook’s growth is speeding up and engagement is increasing.”

My hunch is that whoever whipped up these numbers–probably not Justin Smith–would have been in the lower quartile of those taking the miserable world literature test as well.

Rigor, lads and lasses, rigor.

Okay, gentle readers, provide me with substance for Mr. Smith’s unbelievable data. Remind me that I am an addled goose. Remember, employers, investigators, and others look at Facebook pages. I wonder if these folks have pages and the 600,000 new users are mostly parents, government officials, and private investigators. Now that’s a subset of data I would like to see and verify.

Stephen Arnold, December 20, 2008


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