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Analysis & Opinion
26.04.10 Counting Connections
By Svetlana Kononova

A few weeks ago the Vedomosti business daily announced that Facebook, one of the largest social networking sites in the world, is planning to open a regional office in Moscow. Although Facebook’s press service did not confirm the information, the report has renewed public interest in the competition between social networking sites in Russia.
“We have no immediate plans to open an office in Russia,” said Elizabeth Linder, a spokesperson at Facebook’s communications department. “But we have seen enormous interest from Russian developers and partners, and we are working closely with them to create the best possible Facebook experience for people in Russia.”

“Facebook fulfills a very basic human need: to connect and share with real people. We have found that people everywhere – including in Russia – discover Facebook, invite their friends to join, and quickly incorporate Facebook into their everyday lives. More than half of our users around the world access Facebook each and every day. As more people in Russia join Facebook, we will continue to do what we can to serve the needs of users, advertisers, and developers,” she continued.

At the moment Facebook has more than 400 million active users in more than 180 countries, including one million users in Russia. The average user has 130 friends and creates 70 pieces of content each month. There are more than 100 million active users currently accessing Facebook through mobile devices. More than 25 billion pieces of content (web links, news stories, blog posts, notes, photo albums, and so on) are shared each month.

In spite of the rapid growth of Facebook worldwide, independent analysts believe the company will probably not replace the largest Russian social networks. “Facebook can find a specific segment on the Russian Internet, but it could not fully lure away the audience of the Russian services,” said Elena Anikeeva, a consultant analyst at J’son & Partners Consulting. “The pages of a Western giant would primarily attract people who can communicate in English and have friends abroad,” she added.

According to a recent survey conducted by J’son & Partners, there were 25 million active users of Russian social networking sites at the end of 2009. The leading projects are Vkontakte.ru, which is visited by 17.7 million people every month and MoiMir@Mail.ru, whose users number 15.6 million.

According to recent data from TNS Gallup, over 80 million messages are sent, over 12 million photos uploaded and over 1.8 million new videos uploaded through Vkontakte daily. The average user views 150 to 180 pages per day. About a half of users are younger than 25 years old, and 67 percent of them live in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The most popular social networks in the former Soviet republics are Russian services such as Odnoklassniki, which has 15.2 million active users, Vkontakte and MoiMir. The most visited communication platform in Belarus and Ukraine is Livejournal. The high demand of these communication services in the former Soviet republics could be explained by the close social links between citizens of Russia and other post-Soviet countries, as well as the common use of the Russian language in these countries, say experts.

Although some of Russia’s closest neighbors are developing their own national platforms, it is difficult for them to compete with the largest Russian networks, which have millions of registered users and many different services.
Both Russia and the former Soviet republics are very promising markets for developing social networks, analysts contend. “We expect the Russian audience for social networking sites to double by the end of 2013,” Anikeeva said. “This growth will come mostly because of new users.”

The fastest development is expected in those former Soviet countries with less than six million social networking users at the moment, such as Belarus, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. The number of active users in these countries could rise forty percent each year up to 2014.

The rapid growth of social networks in Russia and the former Soviet countries offers fantastic opportunities for the commercialization of traffic, say experts. “Nowadays social networks receive income from advertising, paid services (gifts, personal pages’ design, rating raising), games and other applications,” Anikeeva explained. “The trend is a dramatic growth of the audience and income from games in social networks. This segment of the market could probably account for a significant part of profit this year,” she continued. Nonetheless, the success of commercialization strategies in a particular country depends on the mentality of the population, the availability of convenient payment methods for users, the quality of services, people’s incomes and many other factors which need to be taken into account, experts stress.

Although social networks were initially designed to connect people with their friends, relatives and colleagues, nowadays they have become more than just another communication service. Information about millions of people is available to everyone, and can be used for various purposes. For example, many employers find social networks a convenient instrument for finding information about staff and potential employees.

“Human resources officers and security services of large companies often use the Internet to check candidates,” said Alexey Zakharov, the president of recruitment Web portals, SuperJob.ru. “Whereas security services check the loyalty of an employee or search for dirt on them, the human resources officers more focus on activity of a recent or potential worker in professional communities.”

However, a poll conducted by a research centre at SuperJob.ru found than only seventeen percent of employers use social networks to find candidates. Most respondents said that HR-managers cannot do that because they do not have access to social networks in the office: many companies in Russia ban access to communication platforms from work computers to increase staff efficiency.

Social networks can be instruments of political strife as well. Some of the victims of a recent sex-scandal targeting Russian opposition figures were first contacted by honey-trap models through Vkontakte.

Social networks are also popular targets for spammers and computer viruses. But even these drawbacks cannot dent the popularity of communication platforms – especially in Russia, which is home to the most active social network users in the world. The average Russian user spends up to seven hours monthly contacting friends through social services – more than twice the global average.

The future growth of social networks in Russia is not in question. However, large “general purpose” networking sites may eventually give way to more specialized platforms connecting people with similar interests, professions and hobbies, analysts predict.
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