How Facebook Is Creating Its Next Few Billion Users

It is focusing on emerging markets

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JOEL SAGET / AFP / Getty Images

Facebook announced last year that it’s leading a squad of technology companies in a campaign to get the world’s estimated 4 billion disconnected people onto the Internet — and new data from Pew released Thursday show exactly why that’s so important to the company. In a new study on emerging nations’ adoption of the Internet and mobile technology, Pew found that among 24 nations studied, there’s a large gap between the percentage of people who regularly have access to the Internet:

Pew Global Internet

Pew Research Center

However, it also found that once people in a particular country have regular Internet access, they quickly become avid social networking users:

Pew Internet

Pew Research Center

Facebook already has a staggering 1.15 billion users — but many of the people with an Internet connection and a desire to sign up for Facebook have probably already done so at this point, save the young who aren’t old enough for an account yet. Thus, the Facebook-led connectivity project,, is a play by the company to avoid sluggish user growth by going out into the world and creating Facebook’s next few billion users in emerging markets.

Indeed, Pew’s own analysis of its data makes it clear that Facebook has a golden opportunity in those countries:

The most popular way in which people [in the countries studied] use social networking is staying in touch with family and friends. A near-universal median of 96% among social networking users across the 22 countries analyzed say they use [social networking services] for this purpose (Pakistan and Uganda are excluded due to insufficient sample size). Sharing views about pop culture is also common, with a median of 73% saying they use social networks to post opinions on music and movies.

That sounds a lot like how we all use Facebook, no?

Facebook’s biggest hurdle, however, will continue to be bridging the smartphone gap: The vast majority of cellphone owners in emerging markets own a feature phone, not a smartphone — which is why Facebook has long been targeting those users with a pared-down text-based version of its platform.

Global Smartphone Ownership

Pew Research Center

If Facebook and the other companies take anything away from Pew’s latest research, it should be this: Save a few outliers, Internet usage is “strongly correlated” with income. “Generally, the higher a country’s [Gross Domestic Product] per capita, the higher its percentage of internet users,” found Pew.

Internet Income

Pew Research Center

That leads to a chicken-and-the-egg problem that’s hotly debated in the social sciences: Does improving connectivity lead to greater GDP growth, or does greater GDP growth lead to better connectivity? Facebook is betting on the former, having already spent more than $1 billion on infrastructure improvements throughout emerging markets. If Facebook can get more people connected to the Internet, it hopes, it can get more people connected to Facebook, too.