SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Facebook now counts one of every two Americans as a user, would rank behind only China and India in population if it were a country and has an estimated value of more than $30 billion, larger than that of Starbucks.
What could possibly be next for a website that was created in a Harvard dorm room six years ago? Try a Hollywood film, "The Social Network," that opens nationally on Friday and is already prompting discussion of Academy Awards.
Many of the film's details are contested. But the very notion that average moviegoers will go to a film built around the history of a tech company underscores the extent to which Facebook has become a cultural mainstay.
"Facebook is more than just a geek phenomenon. It's very mainstream," said Dave McClure, a former executive at Web payment company PayPal and now an investor in tech start-ups.
The world's largest social network, Facebook allows people to connect with their real-world friends and acquaintances online and do everything from sharing baby photos and personal news to playing electronic versions of Scrabble.
Grandmothers, politicians and rock stars are among the more than 500 million people using the service worldwide. That helped it surpass Google Inc as the website on which Americans spend the most time every month.
Facebook taps into a basic need that people have to connect with each other, said David Weinberger, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
"Humans are an innately social species," said Weinberger. "We flock to social networking sites as it if was natural, because it is natural."
Under the direction of Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's 26-year-old co-founder, the company has grown from a service available only to college students into a Web powerhouse, navigating a series of sticky privacy issues along the way.
It has become so big and popular, say industry analysts, that it poses a financial threat to established Internet businesses like Google and Yahoo Inc.
Still privately held, the company will not sell stock to the public any sooner than 2012, Facebook board member Peter Thiel said recently. A brisk market in private shares of Facebook already exists, with the company valued at more than $30 billion, according to recent trades on Sharespost, one such secondary market.
Thiel believes the new movie -- which he said "contains a lot of inaccuracies and petty lies and distortions" -- will nonetheless add to Facebook's influence.
"It is actually going to encourage young Americans to move to Silicon Valley and to try to start great new companies. So I think the movie will do a lot more good than evil," he said.
Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney