Facebook is climbing toward 700 million active users worldwide, according to a new report. However, that overall rise is tempered by an apparent user decline in the United States and Canada.
According to an analysis by Inside Facebook, a blog that tracks Facebook's growth and news, the number of U.S. users dipped in May by 6 million, to 149.4 million. Canada declined by 1.52 million during the same period, to 16.6 million. Russia, the United Kingdom and Norway also lost users, but not to the same extent as North America.
"Going forward, we'll be watching closely to see what longer-term trends emerge," Inside Facebook's Eric Eldon wrote in a June 12 posting. "Bugs in the Facebook advertising tool that we draw this information from, seasonal changes like college graduations, and other short-term factors, can influence numbers month to month and obscure what's really happening."
He also noted that Facebook inevitably hits a saturation point within a given country: "By the time Facebook reaches around 50 [percent] of the total population ... growth generally slows to a halt, as we've noted before." The social network has made up for some of that inevitable slack with "big gains in heavily populated developing countries like Mexico, Brazil, India and Indonesia."
Facebook itself felt compelled to issue a statement on the matter.
"From time to time, we see stories about Facebook losing users in some regions," read the company's note issued to media July 13. "Some of these reports use data extracted from our advertising tool, which provides broad estimates on the reach of Facebook ads and isn't designed to be a source for tracking overall growth of Facebook. We are very pleased with our growth and with the way people are engaged with Facebook."
That growth has come at the expense of some controversy. Some 7.5 million of the network's users are younger than 13, according to projections by Consumer Reports. That technically violates its terms of service for users, who are required to be 13 or older.
"Despite Facebook's age requirements, many kids are using the site who shouldn't be," Jeff Fox, Consumer Reports' technology editor, wrote in a May 10 statement. "What's even more troubling was the finding from our survey that indicated that a majority of parents of kids 10 and under seemed largely unconcerned by their children's use of the site."
Consumer Reports' numbers reinforce a larger trend of relaxed parental regulations on minors' social-networking use. An online survey of roughly 1,000 adults by Liberty Mutual's Responsibility Project found that some 17 percent of parents had no problem with a preteen using a social network, up from 8 percent in 2010. Some 11 percent of parents used a social-networking Website in the name of a minor child or infant.
Facebook's rapid growth has also attracted the attention of other tech giants. Research firm comScore recently suggested Facebook posted 31.2 percent of the 1.1 trillion display ads in the United States, outpacing Google, which notched up 2.5 percent of display-ad impressions. Google continues to hold around 95 percent of the market for text-based search ads, although its acquisitions of DoubleClick and YouTube suggest the company realizes the ultimate importance of display ads to its bottom line.
Google arch-rival Microsoft stands to benefit substantially from Facebook's growth, now that data from the latter's section of social plug-ins-including the increasingly ubiquitous "Like" button-have been integrated more deeply into Microsoft's Bing search engine. Microsoft owns a small share of Facebook, and the two companies announced a social-search partnership in October 2010.