Help Wanted: Adults on Facebook
The social networking site is making a big push to attract adults the world over.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- It's already hooked America's youth, and now Facebook is set on winning the hearts of two potentially lucrative demographics: Adults and the rest of the world.
First, the adults: Facebook this week took on LinkedIn and other popular networking sites for working professionals with a new set of privacy controls that will give users greater control over who can see their profiles. Now a member can restrict who gets to see that drunken St. Patrick's Day photo - an important tool for working-age adults worried about a boss catching wind of their extracurricular activities.
In the current issue of Fortune, I wrote about ways ordinary businesspeople can use today's Internet, often referred to as Web 2.0, to their advantage. LinkedIn, with 20 million registered users, is the best of the bunch. But that could change now that Facebook, which started as a plaything on college campuses a mere four years ago, has set out to become a global tool for business.
Until now, Facebook hasn't given users many tools to limit who sees their profiles, and how much of them. The lack of such controls up to now has been the single biggest reason why many businesspeople hesitated to rely on Facebook. Those of us older than 22 understandably want and need to keep a firewall between details about us we let close friends see and the more innocuous stuff we show to co-workers.
Originally, Facebook enabled students to amass one undifferentiated group of friends who had unfettered access their profiles. Later it created two categories: people who could see your "limited profile" and those who could see everything about you. Then, in December, it allowed members to aggregate friends into any number of groups - family, friends from school, friends from work, non-friends who had cajoled you into "friending" them on Facebook, etc. But you couldn't do much with those groups except send them messages.
The new controls allow you to set different levels of access to information about you for each of those groups. For instance, close friends might get to see your cellphone number, music favorites, e-mail address and embarrassing photos of you from out-of-control parties. Work colleagues, on the other hand, might only see the basics about your education and resume - name, rank, and serial number.
If a young Fortune colleague who brought me into his Facebook crowd last week had used these controls, I wouldn't have seen the embarrassing photos of him and a girl, both looking drunk and flashing the finger. I'm already sorting my own 450 Facebook friends into sub-groups with different levels of access to my data.
Facebook appears to have learned from its recent privacy gaffe, in which it quickly backed off a new feature that let retailers alert friends when members bought something online. This new set of changes doesn't directly relate to that fracas, but it indicates that Facebook appreciates how important privacy is to users.
The site's privacy controls will continue to improve. Facebook's managers, from CEO Mark Zuckerberg on down, have made it clear they intend in time to give users even more control over their data.
Now onto that other demographic: The rest of the world. Facebook already has a sizeable presence around the globe: Two-thirds of its 68 million members are overseas. But there are hundreds of millions more to conquer.
To that end, Facebook began last month translating itself into other languages. And it's done so by applying its standard software solution-centric approach to the problem: Engineers have collected thousands of English words and phrases throughout the site and made each one a separate translatable object. Then members are invited to translate those bits of text into another language. Members then rate translations until a consensus emerges as to which translation is the best.
Facebook tested this wiki-like approach first with Spanish. The job was done by about 1,500 volunteers in less than a month. Next Facebook turned to German. This time, 2,000 volunteers completed the task in less than two weeks. In early March, Facebook invited French members to help out. They did the job in mere days. Now the peculiar Facebook action known as a "poke" becomes "dar un toque" in Spanish, "anklopfen" in German, and "envoyer un poke" in French.
The tools Facebook has built to enable translation will soon be made available for any language, even relatively small ones like Uyghur or Yoruba.
Consider the opportunity for Facebook: The site has more than tripled in size in the last year - and this was using English-only. Welcoming the world's non-English-speakers will likely enable it to expand even more quickly.