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Has Facebook Become the Internet?

The social network’s worldwide reach is leading to some serious confusion

(Felix Hug/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Over 40 percent of the world has access to the internet, but, as Quartz reports, millions of users “have no idea they’re using the internet” at all. As Facebook spreads its tentacles worldwide, it appears to be influencing the ways in which users see the web—so much so that many of those internet users confuse the two.

When Helani Galpaya began to study how Indonesians use the internet, Quartz explains, she ran into a strange conundrum. Her surveys showed that Indonesians didn’t use the internet. But nonetheless they talked about Facebook in focus groups. And another researcher in Africa couldn’t square his results, either: the number of respondents who said they used Facebook were consistently three to four percent higher than those who said they used the internet.

Intrigued by this discrepancy, Quartz commissioned surveys in Indonesia and Nigeria to see if they could replicate the results. They found that "at the very least...a few million of Facebook’s 1.4 billion users suffer from the same misconceptions.” And that could point to a big problem, since users who first encounter the internet through Facebook seem not to realize that the internet exists at all.

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.

Facebook participates in Internet.org, a partnership with major mobile companies tasked with bringing affordable internet to all. But Internet.org’s app only provides free access to Facebook and a few other services, meaning that some smartphone users in developing countries never realize that Facebook isn’t the internet. And commentators like the Guardian’s John Naughton note that “if the price of giving everyone internet access is total domination by Facebook, it’s not worth it.”

Quartz itself admits that its survey, which only confirmed results in Indonesia and Nigeria, is incomplete. But given reports that global mobile data use is expected to rise nearly 60 percent in 2015 alone, it may be time for a conversation about not just whether the internet is brought to the developing world, but how.

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