Facebook announced several hefty changes this week at their annual F8 conference in San Francisco, changes that will make the old Facebook platform nearly obsolete in functionality.
If we can gather anything from Mark Zuckerberg's rather confusing keynote address at the conference, it's that Facebook is trying to change the way that we view online social sharing, by creating a Facebook utopia where every action, word, or application is documented and shared with our friends and the rest of the online universe.
From this year's F8 livestream, it's also obvious to see that Facebook is headed mainstream. However, even as Facebook reports its 600 millionth user, growth rates in the US and parts of Europe are slowing and growing stagnant, leading many to believe that Facebook growth in these developed countries has reached its saturation point. As the top ten countries with number of Facebook accounts quickly reaches into developing countries, it's an interesting question to ask: who, in fact, is Facebook's intended audience?
Facebook in the Developing World
In top Facebook countries such as India, Indonesia, Turkey, and Mexico, the Facebook community continues to grow in spite of the lack of computer penetration and less-than-ideal internet speeds, served instead by internet cafés and Echo mobile connections. Even though Facebook's new announcements are directed towards their users in the first world (try loading Timeline on a 50K connection speed!), that's not to say that Facebook doesn't innovate for the developing world: most users in the third world still use a low-bandwidth version of Facebook called Facebook Lite, and Facebook has also recently released a free mobile site called Facebook Zero; both platforms guard against slow internet connectivity problems common in the developing world.
Facebook in Africa
In Africa, where the number of languages rivals the number of people, Facebook is universal. To many Ghanaians, Facebook is the internet - Google, Twitter, and other major internet platforms do not yet exist (at least, theoretically). However, the way that most Ghanaians use Facebook is different from those in the US. Ghanaians are incredibly private people, and so do not see Facebook as a space for optimum sharing, as Facebook does. Most Ghanaians that I've watched play with Facebook use the platform similarly to the way they use their simple, Nokia phone: to send and receive SMSs (Wall Posts and Messages), and to nonchalantly browse through the different options available to them. On the Ghanaian version of Facebook Lite, their options are limited, consisting of their News Feed, Inbox, Groups, and Notifications. With the number of investments the government is pressing, Ghana is expected to become the IT hub for West Africa in coming years. Young people everywhere are realizing the value in computers, but still, the culture does not permit the kind of open, complex social sharing that Facebook is currently soliciting.
How Can Facebook Expand to Africa?
Africa is the new technology frontier, but in order to truly saturate an open market, Facebook needs to answer some important questions. What infrastructure does Facebook plan to put in place in order to push their new platform in Africa? How do Timeline and other new applications make sense without high-speed, broadband internet? What is the prototype of the typical user of the new Facebook, and how far do most technology-poor Africans fall from that prototype? How can Facebook bolster technology education in Africa in order to market their own product?
While I commend Facebook for their innovation and vision, in the developing world, their new model just doesn't make sense.
For more on technology in the developing world, check this out.