Facebook Is Bigger Than the Internet

It was in Indonesia three years ago that Helani Galpaya first noticed the anomaly.

Indonesians surveyed by Galpaya told her that they didn’t use the Internet. But in focus groups, they would talk enthusiastically about how much time they spent on Facebook. Galpaya, a researcher (and now CEO) with LIRNEasia, a think tank, called Rohan Samarajiva, her boss at the time, to tell him what she had discovered. “It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook,” he concluded.

In Africa, Christoph Stork stumbled upon something similar. Looking at results from a survey on communications use for Research ICT Africa, Stork found what looked like an error. The number of people who had responded saying they used Facebook was much higher than those who said they used the Internet. The discrepancy accounted for some 3 percent to 4 percent of mobile phone users, he says.

facebook3Since at least 2013, Facebook has been making noises about connecting the entire world to the Internet. But even Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s operations head, admits that there are Facebook users who don’t know they’re on the Internet. So is Facebook succeeding in its goal if the people it is connecting have no idea they are using the Internet? And what does it mean if masses of first-time adopters come online not via the open web, but the closed, proprietary network where they must play by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rules?

This is more than a matter of semantics. The expectations and behaviors of the next billion people to come online will have profound effects on how the Internet evolves. If the majority of the world’s online population spends time on Facebook, then policymakers, businesses, startups, developers, nonprofits, publishers, and anyone else interested in communicating with them will also, if they are to be effective, go to Facebook. That means they, too, must then play by the rules of one company. And that has implications for us all.

Measuring Facebook penetration versus Internet penetration is tricky business. Internet penetration numbers come from national regulators and from estimates by the International Telecommunication Union, a UN body. These are generally months if not years old. Facebook numbers come from Facebook’s advertising platform. These can be tricky, too. Some people have more than one account. Some accounts are rarely used. And some people access Facebook through phones with only the most basic of online features, in which case it is hard to argue that they really are using the Internet in any meaningful way.

facebook2In an attempt to replicate Stork and Galpaya’s observations, Quartz commissioned surveys in Indonesia and Nigeria from Geopoll, a company that contacts respondents across the world using mobile phones. We asked people whether they had used the Internet in the prior 30 days. We also asked them if they had used Facebook. Both surveys had 500 respondents each.

It would appear, on the surface, that more people use the Internet than use Facebook, a perfectly sensible outcome.

But a closer look at the data (available in full here) shows that 11 percent of Indonesians who said they used Facebook also said they did not use the Internet. In Nigeria, 9% of Facebook users said they do not use the Internet. These are largely young people; the median age of respondents with this combination of answers is 25 in Indonesia and 22 in Nigeria.

It would be silly to extrapolate this to the entire population of Nigeria or Indonesia. But the survey does provide replicable evidence of the behaviors described by Stork and Galpaya. Considering the substantial percentages—about 10% of Facebook users in our surveys—the data suggest at the very least that a few million of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users suffer from the same misconceptions. (Quartz commissioned limited surveys in just two countries; we encourage researchers and other journalists to conduct more large-scale studies.)

The effects of the misconception also are visible in the survey results. We asked respondents whether they follow links out of Facebook. In both countries, more than half of those who don’t know they’re using the Internet say they “never” follow links out of Facebook, compared with a quarter or less of respondents who say they use both Facebook and the Internet. If people stay on one service, it follows that content, advertisers, and associated services also will flow to that service, possibly to the exclusion of other venues.

At Davos this year, Sandberg told the well-heeled crowd (paywall) that in the developing world, “people will walk into phone stores and say ‘I want Facebook.’ People actually confuse Facebook and the Internet in some places.” Or as Iris Orriss, Facebook’s head of localization and internationalization, has put it, “Awareness of the Internet in developing countries is very limited. In fact, for many users, Facebook is the Internet, as it’s often the only accessible application.” (Emphasis in the original.)

facebook1Facebook is “often the only accessible application,” as Orriss puts it, but that’s because Facebook—which did not respond to requests to comment on this story—has worked to ensure that it is the easiest and cheapest to access. The company backs Internet.org, an initiative to “bring the Internet to the two thirds of the world’s population that doesn’t have it.” Yet Internet.org’s showpiece, an app now available in nearly half a dozen countries, provides free access only to Facebook, Facebook messenger, and a handful of other services (the precise lineup varies by country).

Most of these other services are well-meaning and related to development: Women’s rights. Jobs. Maternal-health information. An Ebola FAQ. The only concessions to the wider web are Wikipedia and Google search. But clicking through on a Google search result requires a data plan—and that must be paid for by the user. (Despite the name, Internet.org is not a non-profit concern, but very much a part of Facebook Inc.)

Telecom operators across the developing world also contribute to the confusion—though this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mobile web users spend a lot of time on Facebook and WhatsApp (also owned by Facebook). Mobile networks see this and offer these customers social-only plans.

In India, you can get a Facebook-only data plan for $2.50 a year (the cheapest full data plans cost about $10 a year.) In the Philippines, Facebook-only plans cost a fifth as much as data plans. In Ghana, telecom operator Tigo once sold a Facebook phone. It looked like a Blackberry with a big blue “F” as the central button. Even in America, Sprint offers a data plan solely for access to Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, there is Facebook Zero, which predates Internet.org and allows users of basic phones to access Facebook at no cost. Mobile operators have grumbled about this particular arrangement. Let them. One day Facebook will beam its services from the skies with its fleet of indefatigable, solar-powered drones.
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