Surprise Hits: Facebook sneaks up behind MySpace -- and sprints past

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Although it seems obvious in hindsight, the widespread adoption of social networking -- and the supremacy of Facebook in particular -- were far from guaranteed. It's not every day that a product of the ivory tower connects so easily and quickly with the public at large. But once in a while, lightning strikes.

Started in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook was initially open only at Harvard University (undergraduate enrollment: 6,700), where he was a sophomore. But soon after its launch, other Boston-area schools wanted in -- so Zuckerberg expanded the site, taking Facebook on its first baby steps toward today's social-network dominance (total Facebook users today: 200 million and counting).

Facebook's early growth was stunted by restrictions on who could join, in contrast with rival MySpace, which allowed for open access. Over time, Facebook was expanded from its initial college-student base to high schools, and then to selected corporations, and finally to anyone with an e-mail address. Now the company says its fastest-growing demographic is users 35 and over, and more than two-thirds of its members are out of college.

In early 2008, estimates calculated twice as many users on MySpace as on Facebook. In less than a year and a half, though, Facebook's reach has more than tripled while MySpace has flatlined. Facebook's ubiquity is all the more impressive considering its lack of corporate backing, especially since News Corp. (NWS) bought MySpace in 2005. Today, MySpace faces the prospect of substantial layoffs, further strengthening Facebook's charge -- at least for now.

What's next for Facebook? Rumors of interest from cash-rich tech companies have swirled for some time; with its unparalleled user base, the site could have bidders lining up for a chance to reach so many people. Could Google (GOOG) or Microsoft (MSFT) ultimately offer enough cash to cement Facebook's transformation from cloistered college site to the jewel in a worldwide online property? Maybe. Zuckerberg's personal page says he's really just interested in "trying to make the world a more open place by helping people connect and share." So far, his effort seems to be working out better than anyone thought.

James Cullen has had a Facebook account since 2006, and this is the first time he could pass off Facebook surfing as productive. He also edits and writes at CollegeAnalysts.com.

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.

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