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Facebook extends reach with half-billion worldwide users

File photo of the Facebook homepage.

File photo of the Facebook homepage. Credit: AP

Some people may watch a little television if they wake in the night. Jim Reed, of Oceanside, reaches for his BlackBerry and posts comments to Facebook.

He goes back on to the social networking site first thing in the morning. And again when he goes out for breakfast and lunch, when he's killing time before an appointment, or sitting at a traffic light. He checks it, he estimates, 100 times a day.

Reed, 63, is a retiree, a former Nassau County deputy commissioner and tireless volunteer for organizations and causes. And he has over 1,700 names on his Facebook "friends" list - a tiny slice of the site's membership, which Wednesday, according to co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, reached a major milestone: a half-billion active users worldwide.

"It's addictive," Reed said of the site he has used for about three years to dispense congratulations, friendly banter and notices of upcoming events. Nothing very personal, he said, but "it's brought a lot of joy to me."

Reed illustrates the reach and hold now exerted by Facebook, born in a college dorm six years ago as a network for students. Zuckerberg, 26, now sits atop a private company that has doubled the membership it claimed just a year ago. While the majority are young (about 60 percent are under 35), the over-55 category is one of the fastest-growing U.S. segments, up by 922.7 percent, or over 9 million users, in 2009 - and by another 3 million so far this year.

"It added 300 million [active users] in a little over a year and a half and in this day and age with so many options, to be able to do this is amazing," said Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia University School of Journalism dean of student affairs and digital media professor. "They've changed the way that people communicate."

Growth hasn't come without controversy: Concern over privacy this past spring forced Facebook to back away from changes that made more user content public.

But the uproar didn't interfere with Facebook's role as the dominant social network; it has outstripped MySpace and is still ahead of relative newcomer Twitter. It's where friends and friends of friends announce personal news, get messages, post photos, do business, play games, rally for causes, find old classmates and lovers, keep in touch. Time waster or life-changer, for many Long Islanders, Facebook is now simply an unquestioned embed of daily life.

Helping to map lifestyles

For Barbara Branca, 62, it was a life-changer. She's a poet and band singer who is communication manager for an environmental program at Stony Brook University, and Facebook has connected her to widening circles of poets, musicians, old friends and environmentalists. "I'll be giving three different poetry readings in the next few months because of Facebook," she said. Because of it, she's writing more poetry, and without it, "I wouldn't have had the audience it looks like I'm starting to get."

She added: "I find it's a powerful thing. You can reach a lot of people in a very short time."

But Facebook's appeal goes beyond its utility: It's a place to peer and to preen, a gateway into the lives of others and a platform on which to perform. "You can be a Peeping Tom," said Louise DiCarlo, 49, of Stony Brook, who has hundreds of Facebook friends and thousands of Twitter followers. "You don't have to be invited into the house, you can look in the window."

And she can "friend" the kind of people she'd never meet socially.

'Everyone is a journalist'

In terms of Facebook as a platform, "everyone is a journalist, a commentator," said Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst with eMarketer, an online site analyzing Internet trends for businesses. " . . . I think people get a sense of self-worth by seeing how many of their friends notice and comment and like what they post."

She confessed that she occasionally has dreams about her status updates, the pithy posts users write (sometimes several times a day) describing a thought, state of mind, or what's new, that show up automatically in their friends' Facebook newsfeed. "I wake up in the morning and wonder what I'm going to say about myself," she said.

Facebook's popularity, however, is explained by its utility: for connections, for amusement, and increasingly for business.

Yet even as adults and companies are making themselves at home on Facebook, some teenagers have begun to look elsewhere. Gabrielle, 16, a Locust Valley High School student who asked that her last name not be used, said she now prefers Tumblr, a micro-blogging network where users can be anonymous.

"Tumblr is more of a private thing where you can post what you're really feeling," she said. On Facebook, "people post what they want people to think of them rather than being honest . . . I use it to make jokes with my friends or look at pictures in a group environment, but I really don't use it for anything else. It's kind of tedious. It just gets old."

But Facebook is definitely not tedious to Melinda N. Laterra, 25, although real life sometimes is. Her friends call her an addict for her 12-hour-a-day habit: She is on Facebook at her Northport laundry job, on the train, in her Selden apartment late into the night.

She "chats" with friends via instant messaging, plays games, joins fan pages and groups (over 3,000 of them), including the one titled "I like to turn my pillow to the cool side."

Sometimes, she said, after hours on Facebook she'll think: "I can't look at this any more and I'll walk away from it for a little while. Then I find myself wandering back because I'm bored."

Facebook gives her a sense of control. "You can communicate with people at your own limits," she said.


Facebook by the numbers

-Facebook members as of yesterday: 500 million+

-U.S. members: 125 million+

-U.S. members over 55: 13.2 million

-U.S. membership growth this year: 21.8 percent

-Members outside U.S.: 70 percent

-Photos uploaded to Facebook each month: 3 billion+

-Pieces of content shared each month (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, etc.): 30 billion+

-Average number of friends: 130

Facebook membership:

male: 43.3% 

female: 54.7% 


13-17: 10% 

18-24: 24.7% 

25-34: 25% 

35-54: 29.8% 

55-plus: 10.5% 

SOURCE: Facebook, iStrategyLabs

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