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Facebook Is Being Redefined by Its Developing World Users

Facebook is gaining many developing-world users, who use the site very differently from those who came before them.
July 22, 2013

Ubiquitous, essential, perhaps a little tired—all ways people that use Facebook in its home market of the U.S. can be heard to describe the social network.

Yet as Facebook’s user base continues to expand, a growing proportion of its users think of it quite differently, as a luxury brand, badge of status, and or even a place to make a little extra money. That’s due to the rapid growth in the number of Facebook users signing on from developing countries, a trend underscored by news from the company today that more than 100 million people use a mobile app the company makes for feature phones.

“Millions of people in developing markets like India, Indonesia, and the Philippines are relying on this technology to connect with Facebook, without having to purchase a smartphone,” says the official announcement, which says that the basic mobile app can be run on phones that cost as little as $20.

Little research has been done on Facebook’s growth in developing countries (and a lot would be needed to capture even some of the diversity included under the blanket term “developing world”). Two small, recent studies of Kenyan Facebook users in poor areas by Susan Wyche of Michigan State University are among the first to be published, and they provide some interesting insights.

One of Wyche’s ethnographic studies took place in rural Internet cafes, where the researchers were told that “Facebook is a luxury,” only to be indulged if someone had money to spare (here’s a PDF of Wyche’s paper). When study participants thought about social networking, the challenges of low bandwidth and sometimes unreliable electricity supplies were foremost in their minds.

The barriers of cost and infrastructure associated with Facebook led people in another community Wyche and colleagues visited, a slum of Nairobi, to see the service as for more than just socializing. They used it—with mixed success—as a way to make a little money, look for jobs, market themselves, and seek remittances from friends and family overseas. (This reminded me of a recent report on people in Kuwait using Instagram to sell things and run retail businesses.)

Facebook is going to get a lot more users like those met by Wyche as its efforts to boost usage worldwide, like the so-called “dumb phone app,” continue. It will be more interesting to see if Facebook will modify its features and services to fit with the way people in developing markets use the social network. Creating features that appeal to all of Facebook’s users worldwide will be a challenge.

Should it want to, Facebook could even become a powerful tool for efforts to improve the lives of people in poor areas, where the site is gaining traction. The company has already dabbled with using social engineering to boost organ donations in the U.S. (see “Thank God for Facebook: When Platforms Proselytize”). There’s no shortage of similar experiments that could be run in places with more fundamental health problems, where Facebook’s status as a luxury could make it very influential.

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