Facebook's Amazing Growth in the Developing World

The social network's users are increasingly located in Latin America, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

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An Egyptian activist holds up a laptop in Cairo's Tahrir Square shortly after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. (Reuters).

The story of Facebook's rise began in the U.S., but today it is mostly told elsewhere, with more than 80 percent of users living in foreign countries, and more than half of the company's revenue coming from outside of the U.S. Much of Facebook's success -- and the high valuation that earned it $16 billion yesterday on its first day of public trading -- comes from its international expansion. Facebook now has higher market penetration -- meaning it is used by more potential members -- in some parts of Latin America and even the Middle East than it does in the U.S.

It's a trend that appears likely to continue, with Facebook increasingly a service not just for rich, developed countries, but for people in the still-developing societies of Africa and Latin America and the Middle East, where it can sometimes play a slightly different role. In part, it's a story about the change in platforms, as more users access Facebook from smart phones, which are fueling the network's growth in African and Asian countries such as Nigeria or Thailand, where a home computer might be too expensive and where public infrastructure can make at-home broadband difficult to secure. It's also about the urbanization of the developing world, which means that more users have access to the internet cafes that dot the world's rising cities.

Though Facebook's remarkably international rise is of course largely due to the fact that people like using their website, some of its greatest successes in foreign markets say as much about those countries and the people in them as they do about Facebook itself.

Some of the fastest-growing Facebook markets are in the developing world, where more people are living in cities, have greater access to technology, and are looking for more ways to connect with family members across countries that sometimes lack the sort of transportation or communications infrastructure that we enjoy in the developed world. Here are just a handful of the 22 countries that have seen their number of Facebook users grow by over 50 percent in just the last three months: Republic of Congo, Mexico, Malaysia, Tanzania, Russia, Colombia, Iraq, and Yemen, which grew the fastest.

According to Facebook's official estimates, its highest market penetration is a staggering 85 percent in Chile, Venezuela, and Turkey (the company estimates 60 percent penetration in the U.S. and UK). These countries are among the per-capita wealthiest in the two regions that have seen some of the most impressive user growth rates: Latin America and the Middle East. Facebook has five million and three million users in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, respectively, meaning that one-in-five Saudis and four-in-ten Emiratis have registered accounts, a remarkable statistic for a country where animal husbandry was one of the most common professions only 50 years ago.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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