Facebook, the social media giant that is in the midst of launching a huge initial public offering, needs the developing markets of the world to keep growing.

Penetration rates remain relatively low for Facebook in the emerging countries (with some notable exceptions). If the company is able to expand in countries with vast populations and rising middle classes with easy access to computers, Facebook could eventually become the largest corporation in the world.

Perhaps they are already on their way.

Two of Facebook’s three biggest existing markets (by number of users) are India and Indonesia.

According to Facebook Statistics, the social media network has more than 43-million users in Indonesia -- but that translates into only a 17.7 percent penetration rate. By contrast, in the U.S. (where Facebook has 156-million users and remains the largest market), the penetration rate is 50.2 percent.

Almost 3.9-million Indonesians joined Facebook in just the past six months alone.

Facebook Statistics further indicates that the largest age group using the network in Indonesia are youths between the age of 18 and 24 (accounting for some 17.7-million users). Almost 60 percent of Indonesian users are male (far less than the 73 percent figure for men in India).

Thus, the upside in Indonesia is tremendous for Facebook.

However, Indonesia presents some unique challenges for Facebook -- the country is rapidly growing economically, but it is still at its core a conservative Islamic nation where free expression and media openness are not guaranteed. Moreover, many Indonesians are poor (the majority of the population live on less than $2 per day).

Authorities in Indonesia are reportedly concerned that free internet access for its people will not only expose them to such taboo matter as pornography, but also to politically charged content that is found all over the web. Some Islamic clerics have even called for a ban on the internet, suggesting that sexually suggestive material available on the web will lead to more promiscuity.

Muhammad Al-Khaththath, head of an Islam umbrella group, told Agence France Presse: “If Facebook is used for positive activities, like sharing useful knowledge and announcing job opportunities, then it’s good. But accounts that promote negative lifestyles, pornography and atheism should be banned. I use it to share information about Islam and also organize protests.”

For the moment Facebook and the internet appear to be one in the same thing to many Indonesians. Many don’t even bother with other websites.

Danny Oei Wirianto, co-founder of social networking site MindTalk, told AFP: “Since access to Facebook is made so easy by pressing one button on a mobile phone, many people who are not familiar with the internet do not realize that Facebook is part of the internet.”

AFP noted that while internet penetration via computers is below 10 percent in Indonesia, the soaring popularity of Smartphones has allowed mobile internet penetration to climb to 57 percent.

Indeed, the internet “is the cheapest form of entertainment here,” said Daniel Tumiwa, country manager of Multiply, a southeast Asian social networking site.

Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has his own Facebook page, boasting more than half a million “friends. Even some top Muslim clerics (who were initially wary about the service) have their own Facebook pages as well. including Chairul Tanjung of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest religious authority.

 Julian Sukmana Putra explained in a column in Asia Tech News last year why Facebook is so popular in Indonesia. Among other things, he cited the nation’s communal culture.

“Facebook facilitate Indonesian people to connect with families, friends and important people in their lives easily,” he wrote.
“That is why people love it so much.”

Another factor is the tendency of Indonesia, particularly the young, to follow popular trends.

A more prosaic reason is simply the huge increase in mobile internet subscribers -- numbering some 200-million and growing.

It is indeed a safe bet to assume that Indonesia will continue to play a dominant role in Facebook's continued global growth story.