Facebook Goes for Bigger Pond

Facebook will soon relax the strict registration rules that have made the social network what it is. Soon, anyone and everyone will be able to join. Until now, users had to have either an email address from either their college or approved workplace domain, or, for high school students, had to receive an invite from someone at their school.

This expansion was supposed to be live tomorrow, but after last week’s furor the company is now trying the tactic of announcing major changes before rolling them out. So, today’s news is just that this will happen sometime soon. This is Facebook’s big play for the mainstream, and it’s clear the company is a bit nervous.

The plan is to allow new users to register to one of Facebook’s 500-odd geographic regions. Once registered, users are only able to interact with those in their region. For instance, as a current member, I can see the profiles of the 17,412 people in Facebook’s San Francisco network (or at least what they’ve chosen to display to that group). I can also see people who are part of the my work (GigaOM) or school (Dartmouth) networks. But for everyone else — even those within the Silicon Valley network, for example — all I get is their name, profile pic, and network affiliations — unless we’ve explicitly said we’re friends.

Facebook has around 9.5 million users, but it hasn’t given itself much room to grow beyond that. Up to now its big expansion pushes were every August and September when a new class enrolled in college — but those numbers are still tiny compared to the hundreds of thousands of people who sign up for MySpace every day. The loosened restrictions, of course, come with the risk of further alienating users who were put on edge by last week’s News Feed over-share experience. They could also seriously dilute Facebook’s committed user base by bringing in lots of casual explorers.

Furthermore, new users won’t be getting the same Facebook experience as early members, because they’ll be thrown into the vaguely defined geographic networks. The only time I care who else lives in San Francisco is when I’m reallybored.

However, the larger vision here is to more accurately replicate members’ offline connections. “A social network is something that exists in the real world,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a recent interview. “After college, people continue to use the site, and they want to use it with people around them.” The move isn’t about exclusivity, although it’s true that the type of colleges with .edu accounts and the type of companies that give their employees email addresses tend to be more elite. Now, the hordes of people who only have access to proletarian Hotmail and Yahoo accounts will be able to sign up.

Just like with News Feeds, important to this change is the degree of control Facebook users feel they have over their profiles and networks. Facebook is acutely aware of this fact, and has all along built privacy options into the spine of its system. The tests will be how well that spine can hold up to the coming tidal wave of signups, and whether new users will be content with a watered-down version of the site.