Probably the only thing more impressive than the growth of the value of Facebook is it’s growth in audience, which is currently in the region of 600 million members:

Growth in the number of Facebook Members

Growth in the number of Facebook Members

There have been two main stages in Facebook’s growth, the early part where it was slowly gaining acceptance and traction, and then the massive increase in memberships over 2009-11, where it added more than half a billion members to it’s user base.

Of course, this type of growth could not continue forever, and over time, the rate of new members joining has begun to slow somewhat:

Facebook Monthly Growth Rate

Facebook Monthly Growth Rate

It’s important to note that a the current growth rate of 3.5% still means that Facebook will add another 100 million members every 5 months or so, but over time, the opportunity for further growth will stabilise because of a major limiting factor: the online population of the world.

In a lot of major countries, Facebook’s penetration has already pretty much reached it’s peak – in the UK, Canada, USA, Italy, Malaysia, and Australia it is already well above 40% of the total population:

Market Share of Facebook

Market Share of Facebook

(Source: Digital Stats Blog)

There are some pretty huge opportunities though – India and Brazil might currently favour Orkut over Facebook, and there are no reliable figures for China, which means that there is room for a few hundred million more members in the next couple of years, but where will the growth come from beyond then?

The current global online population is about 1.9 billion people or 28.7% of the world’s population (source: Internet World Stats).  However, when you discount children under the age of 13, this rises to around 45%.  In Africa, less than 11% of the total population is online, and across Asia, the number is about 21.5%, which means that there is still plenty of untapped markets for Facebook, however in many countries, usage of Facebook and other networks such as Twitter is restricted – and based on the current events in Libya and the rest of the Middle East, likely to remain so to protect regimes in those areas.

How big could Facebook get?

Assuming that the current block on Facebook being used in China is lifted at some point, and that internet penetration across the world achieves around 60% over the next few years due to improvements in local connectivity across Africa and India, there would be a total online population of around 3.6 billion people who could become members of Facebook.   Given that the UK has probably peaked in terms of membership at 45% – not everyone is that interested in poking their ex girlfriends, or playing Farmville – Facebook’s maximum user base is probably around 1.62 billion people.

Greater democratisation of web services in places like China is likely to come in the next few years due to internal pressures, and there may well be a return to the kind growth curves that Facebook has seen in the past, but I would imagine that the growth of Facebook will probably level off at around 1 billion people.  A sixth of the world’s population.

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