Facebook Fails to Outstrip Rival
Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)
Last October, the number of active users of the world’s most popular social network Facebook reached 1 billion, accounting for more than half of the world’s Internet population. But in Russia, Facebook is unable to overcome the country’s homegrown copy, VKontakte.
“Our long-term aim is to reach a certain level of penetration in the market: Fifty percent of Internet users, but what percentage of users we have now I’m not allowed to tell you,” said Yekaterina Skorobogatova, Facebook development director for Russia.
According to research by the Sarafannoye Radio social marketing lab, Facebook, which launched a Russian-language version in 2008, occupied eighth place in the rating of the 20 most popular social networks in Russia in 2009, and climbed up to the fourth position the year after that.
“Russia is one of the few countries where there is a local search engine that occupies first place in the country, and its own top-ranking social networks,” said Roman Frolin, an Internet expert and blogger, in an interview with Golos Rossii radio station.
“I think that in the next three to five years, foreigners will be able to claim only third or fourth place on the Russian market,” he added.
Experts agree that many people in Russia prefer VKontakte to Facebook due to the fact that the former allows users to share music and videos — often in contradiction of copyright legislation — and for its simpler interface.
Stanislav Usoltsev, a software engineer and independent developer who attended a presentation given in St. Petersburg at the end of last year by Facebook engineers as part of the company’s tech-talk program, said he used Facebook first of all as a communication platform, and also creates Facebook-based applications.
“I prefer Facebook to all other social networks, because there are many scientific communities there with decent people, unlike VKontakte, which is filled with sex and pornography-themed groups; the audience on Facebook is more educated, I guess; it is a whole different level,” said Usoltsev.
Russia’s Internet market is the biggest in Europe, making it an attractive target. In October, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s creator and chief executive, traveled to Russia to meet with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who made the Internet and technology buzzwords during his tenure as president from 2008 to 2012.
The product originally built for U.S. users is now popular far beyond that country. According to the Los Angeles Times, eight out of ten Facebook users are outside of the U.S. But while in the U.S. Facebook has confidently defeated other market players such as MySpace — a major social platform until 2006 — in other countries, this has proven less easy to achieve.
In Europe, Facebook has powered past the formerly dominant British network Bebo and German StudiVZ, but in major markets such as Russia, Japan and South Korea, the company has signed up less than 50 percent of Internet users, according to ComScore statistics.
Another big issue for Facebook is that even today, in the century of democratization, many countries block access to the Internet and Facebook. Facebook is blocked in Iran, Syria, Bangladesh, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and, last but not least, China, the most populated nation in the world.
Globally, the main question for Facebook now is not how to get more users, but how to make them stay online and be more active.
“During all these eight years that Facebook has existed, we were focusing mainly on the growth of users; now we are focusing on the support of quality,” said Alexei Maikov, a Facebook software engineer from Russia currently working in Seattle, Washington who came to Russia at the end of last year to give lectures as part of Facebook’s tech-talk program.
The team of Facebook engineers went on to visit other Russian cities after Moscow and St. Petersburg with the aim of encouraging young and talented developers to collaborate with the company via internships, joint research, grants and possible future recruitment.
According to Maikov, the main task for him and his colleagues is support of the platform for other computer engineers developing their applications on the basis of Facebook, focusing on mobile devices, and extending Facebook’s Internet marketing via sponsored stories and other types of advertisement.
“Mobile devices are developing faster today than any other kind, and Internet access is embedded even in TV sets and cars. We want Facebook to work in all of them, so, for example, when you liked a song on your home computer, it will then be played in your car automatically,” said Maikov.
Facebook’s managers agree that the network’s future lies in mobile devices, and this policy is also followed in Russia. Last year, Facebook established a partnership with Russian mobile network operator Beeline, which now provides free-of-charge Internet access to smartphone owners when they are using the Facebook application.