Facebook grows up
- 2 May 2013
- From the section Technology
Facebook's results last night painted a somewhat mixed picture - advertising revenues growing, with mobile really taking off, but profits lower than analysts had forecast.
One thing was, however, clear. This company is growing in all sorts of ways, and with that comes growing pains.
After all those anecdotal reports that "none of my friends use it anymore", and various research firms hinting at falling user figures, the hard numbers say Facebook is still expanding. Monthly active users rose to 1.1 billion, meaning 100 million new users had arrived in the last six months.
Now many of them will be in developing countries - after all so many people have already joined in places like the US and UK that Facebook is reaching saturation point. But the company insists, that contrary to reports, it is still growing in both of those countries.
In the UK, user numbers hit 33 million in December, and I'm told there has been a modest increase since then. In the US, there has also been a rise from December's 174 million monthly users, though it looks like the growth story there is nearing its end.
There has been a decline in use of the network on the desktop but that was more than made up for by the growth in mobile use, where advertising returns have proved higher. And that rapid transformation of the firm into a mobile advertising business will be the most encouraging aspect of the figures for anyone who was brave enough to buy Facebook shares at their sky-high IPO valuation last year.
Mind you, there's growth too in the cost of running the business, as more staff are taken on. The UK operation is among those expanding rapidly, as I found out this week when I met the engineer in charge of one of the firm's most important ventures, Graph Search.
Lars Rasmussen has moved to London to head up an expanded engineering operation, and he is in the process of recruiting another couple of dozen people to work mainly on the search project. (How easy that process proves will be an interesting test of the computer science skills available in the UK.)
Each of the recruits will then spend four to six weeks at a boot camp in California, learning how Facebook writes code and attending lectures by its top executives.
That sounds like an expensive process and a contrast to the early days of a business where Mark Zuckerberg just called up a few friends for all-night coding sessions fuelled by pizza.
But if the London team can then help take Graph Search to the next stage, where users will be able to comb the network's newsfeed for all kinds of information, then it will have been a worthwhile investment. So far, Facebook's limited search bar has not done anything to worry its rivals. But if it becomes a conduit to breaking news, then the likes of Twitter may have to sit up and take notice.
Like an awkward teenager, however, Facebook is finding that growing up can be painful. Yesterday's story about its refusal to remove horrifying decapitation videos, followed by a rapid U-turn, is a case in point.
Like so many other web giants, Facebook just wants to be seen as a technology platform enabling its users to do all sorts of cool stuff without any interference. But it has grown into a massive media player, where more than a billion people - many of them under 18 - come in search of entertainment.
That means a constant spotlight is being shone on the firm's policies, with parents and regulators increasingly worried about an environment where young people now spend so much time. Welcome to adulthood, Mr Zuckerberg.