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Revolt of The Facebook Elite

Once exclusive to students at top colleges, social networking site Facebook.com is opening its doors to the public at large. Many members are not pleased with the development.

Is this a case of growing pains on the path to profitability?

When Facebook was still "The Facebook," users needed a college e-mail address to join. But the site has been gradually opening up to anyone with a work e-mail address or a verifiable high school affiliation. The new policy is clearly meant to grow the user base.

"Expanded registrations allows for young folks today that don't fall into any of those categories," Facebook spokesperson Melanie Deitch told internetnews.com.

But many thousands of other Facebook members would rather the policy stay the same.

"It's a horrible idea to open Facebook to anyone and everyone," Jason Rodzik wrote on the page for a group called "Students Against Public Facebook Access."

Online protest groups have sprouted like mushrooms. Within the Facebook network, Rodzik is urging members to join his group, which now claims 5,754 members.

"Show Facebook we didn't like the increasing inclusiveness in the past, and we don't like their future plans to allow anyone and everyone," the group said on its page.

"After all, you don't want to have to deal with 50 creepy friend requests every day, do you?" Rodzik wrote.

Last week, several Facebook groups protested new features on the site, claiming they violated user privacy.

Now, there are several groups on Facebook such as "Students Against Public Facebook Access," and they're growing fast.

At press time, the "Official Petition Against Opening Facebook" group had counted 12,960 members. Another 4,286 Facebook members claimed they joined "Students against Facebook opening to EVERYONE!!!"

Those members may add up to a small fraction of Facebook's over 9 million members but their volume is growing fast.

Facebook's success depends nearly entirely on its users feeling that the community is its own. But it also needs to pay its bills and turn a profit.

In August, Google signed a $900 million deal to serve ads on MySpace, the social network that Web metrics firm Hitwise called America's most popular Internet destination.

Soon after, Microsoft announced its own ad-serving deal to provide display advertising on Facebook pages.

According to Web metrics firm Hitwise, of the unique visits to the top 21 social networking sites in August, 81 percent went to MySpace while only 7.2 percent went to Facebook.

One analyst contacted for this story observed that venture capitalists often hold great sway over start-ups, such as Facebook.

Deitch said Facebook's expanded registration had nothing to do with Facebook's third round of financing earlier this spring. It was, she noted, founder Mark Zuckerberg's long-term plan to expand Facebook membership beyond the elite bastions of higher education.

But for many members, that's what makes Facebook unique.

"Facebook was the country club," Facebook member Kevin Bush wrote.

"It provided something unique for the college age market. Now it wants to become the Wal-Mart Supercenter."

However, Zuckerberg himself never finished college. He quit Harvard to work on the site.