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Facebook hits 1 billion users

You know what's cooler than a million users? A billion users. And now Facebook has just that.

Yep, the social network birthed in a Harvard dorm grew in eight short years to a membership that it says accounts for nearly one-seventh of the world’s population. Not fake users or bots — which Facebook tracks closely — but real humans who actively engage on the social network, a company spokesperson told TODAY.

Just so we’re clear: As of Sept. 14, one in seven people on this planet has been classified by the company as an active Facebook user. 

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared the milestone in an exclusive interview with Matt Lauer, which aired Thursday on TODAY. 

"I mean, it's just — an amazing honor," Zuckerberg said of his social network’s monolithic membership when he sat down with Lauer last week at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, Calif. "To be able to come into work every day and build things that help a billion people stay connected with the people they care about every month — that's just unbelievable."

No hyperbole there. Since Facebook launched, the social network’s seen 1.13 trillion "likes" and 140.4 billion friend connections. 219 billion photos are currently being shared, while 17 billion check-ins have been made. Since the music listening app launched in September 2011, 62.6 million songs have been played 22 billion times — that's around 210,000 years of music.

And while Zuckerberg may have a responsibility to investors to publicly boast Facebook’s accomplishments, this gives us an opportunity to wrap our heads around exactly what 1 billion means.

How big?
If Facebook were a country, it would have the third largest population, right behind China (1,347,350,000) and India (1,210,200,000), and ahead of the United States (314,500,000).

If steampunk Facebook existed in 1804 — precisely when the world population hit 1 billion — everyone on Earth would have a profile: Thomas Jefferson, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Jane Austen ... and every other living soul. 

Rock Center: Zuckerberg defends Facebook as it reaches 1 billion users

What may be more staggering than the "1 billion users" milestone is how quickly Facebook reached it.

"I don’t think in the history of the world that there's been a single medium that's amassed a billion users as fast as Facebook did," Steve Rubel told TODAY.com. As vice president of all-encompassing public relations firm Edelman, Rubel is a well-regarded expert in the many ways we consume information, and what that means on a large scale. 

Radio, television, even mobile phones — Rubel notes none of these were adopted at the rapid global rate comparable to Facebook’s eight-year rise. "Considering I struggle to think of anything that touches as many people as much as Facebook does," he said. "Maybe water ..."

True enough, if you're not on Facebook now, you are — quite literally — not participating in the global conversation, which is taking place on Facebook. It's your friends, your family, your employers, your interests and that's just in the United States. Everywhere, as we continually see, Facebook aids all sides of revolution.

As Zuckerberg told Lauer, "There's no way that when we were getting started with (Facebook) that I would have ever thought that, you know, myself or any of the people around me would be able to — to be a part of something like this."

The average Facebook user worldwide — now around age 22 — would've been about 14 when Zuckerberg famously launched the first version of Facebook in 2004. As the Aaron Sorkin-penned movie "The Social Network" depicts, thefacebook.com was first available only to Harvard students, before rolling out to other Ivy League schools in the U.S. and Canada.

Whether cunningly planned or by accident, exclusivity was a successful strategy. By opening first to upwardly mobile students, the word spread organically. Early Facebook offered a clean, well-ordered alternative to the glitter GIFs and chaos of MySpace, the the social media leader of the time. People wanted in.

So in 2005, Facebook opened its doors to high school students in the U.S. and six other countries, including Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia. And, in a politically savvy move, a few choice employees at high-tech companies including Apple and Microsoft were also invited to join.

Matt Harnack / Facebook

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks to TODAY's Matt Lauer.

Then, in 2006, your mom was allowed to join — along with everybody else age 13 and older. Things quickly got interesting.

Story: Mark Zuckerberg confirms: 'I wear the same thing every day'

Going global
By December 2006, Facebook had reached 12 million users. (An earlier version of this story citing statistics provided by Facebook reported that by January 2006, Facebook reached 25 million users.) At that time, Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States as the top five countries signing up for the social network. The average Facebook user was 19 years old, and had 598 Facebook friends.

In a reverse British invasion, Facebook saturated the U.K. in four years, stomping both MySpace and Bebo. By 2010, Facebook accounted for more than 50 percent of the U.K.'s Web traffic, according to Hitwise. (Neither Bebo nor MySpace accounted for even 2 percent.) While membership in the U.K. has since leveled of at 32 million members, it is the sixth highest amount of Facebook users, according to Socialbakers, a social media analytic firm.

The first countries to adopt the social network have leveled off — the U.S. itself started to slow down at 150 million in 2011. Pretty much everyone who’s going to join has joined, because "younger people can’t use it and some older people never will," noted Jan Rezab, Socialbakers CEO.

Outside the United States however, "growth is huge," said Rezab. Brazil, India, Indonesia and Mexico join the U.S. as the top five countries currently engaging with Facebook. Further, Rezab noted, Facebook has handily overtaken the native social networks in other countries. The only notable exceptions are China, where Facebook is not allowed, and Russia, where VKontakte has 290 million users, over Facebook’s 6.7 million. 

Russia is also the largest Internet market in Europe, so it's no mystery why Zuckerberg would have visited the country earlier this week. While there, he met with Russian prime minister Dmitri A. Medvedev, a vocal fan of technology.

But the next great territory for Facebook might lie elsewhere. In fact, the next billion Facebook users may rely on mobile technology. "There’s a lot of potential in Africa," Rezab said, especially since it's a region where many don’t have computers but they do have phones. Mobile phones are largely credited with Facebook’s explosion — there are more than 600 million mobile Facebook users, and that number is growing at a rapid rate.

Pew Research Center

Facebook triggered a global hunger for social networking. The Pew Research Center mapped it out in February, and the findings were astounding. In addition to the expected high levels of engagement from the U.S., Britain, Spain and Germany, there were even some countries — Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt — where having Internet access almost automatically means social network membership.

Growing pains
With extreme growth comes extreme headaches — for both Facebook and its users. Civilian users wrapped their heads around a new social ettiquette, uploading our real world quirks to online and expecting Facebook to referee. And to both earn money and serve a growing and diverse demographic, the once streamlined social network which users flocked to for a sense of privacy not afforded on MySpace has changed.  A lot.

In its march toward global acceptance, Facebook pummeled Flickr to become the biggest photo-sharing outlet on the Internet. The now-ubiquitous "like" button lives all over the Internet. Timeline and Open Graph allow users to advertise not just what they "like," but what they're reading, watching and listening, too.

With all this action, it's no wonder Facebook is now the focal point of our Internet privacy fears. Earlier this year, Facebook finally reached a settlement with the FTC stemming from it's privacy rollbacks in 2009. That's when Facebook made much of your previously private "personal information" widely available to the public and third-party advertisers.

According to the FTC complaint, Facebook "deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public." The FTC settlement didn't make Facebook roll anything back — you must actively "opt out" to lock down what privacy remains. Going forward, however, the settlement requires Facebook, in part, to give "consumers clear and prominent notice and obtaining their express consent before sharing their information beyond their privacy settings."

Throughout, Zuckerberg and Facebook have maintained dedication to their product.

"Our responsibility as a company is just to do the best that we can and build the best products for people," Zuckerberg told Lauer, echoing assertions he's made over the years when consumer advocates called out the site over user privacy and users griped about every service addition and site redesign. "And if we build the best products," he told Lauer, "then I think that we can continue leading in this space for a long time."

Industry watchers such as Edelman's Rubel say it would take a real game changer to usurp Facebook from its social media dominance — a zombie apocalypse perhaps, or Google Glass, the search giant's high-concept glasses that promise to make social media integration wearable, and thus, more mobile than the mobile phone.

As we await that possible Google Glass future, Facebook is already locking it down with purchases such as mobile photo sharing network Instagram, cementing its hold on the increasingly popular photo sharing aspect of social media. The tiny, powerful computers in our pockets are the next frontier for social media, and as Zuckerberg told Lauer, Facebook is on it.

"The future is really gonna be about mobile, right? And the opportunities for growth there," Zuckerberg explained to Lauer.

When queried by Lauer about whether Facebook is still playing catch-up in the mobile area, Zuckerberg quickly pointed out, "Well, we do have the most used mobile apps. There's five billion people in the world who have phones. So we should be able to serve many more people — and — and grow the user base there." That confidence may border on bluster, but if anybody can do it, Facebook can.

Watch Matt Lauer's interview with Zuckerberg on Oct. 4 on Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Helen A.S. Popkin goes blah blah blah about the Internet. Join her, won't you, on Twitter and/or Facebook. Also, Google+.  

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