If you managed to wade through to Page 44 of Facebook's prospectus, you'd discover that the company provides a definition of an "active user" — and it is unlikely to be what you expected.
Facebook counts as "active" users who go to its Web site or its mobile site. But it also counts an entire other category of people who don't click on facebook.com as "active users." According to the company, a user is considered active if he or she "took an action to share content or activity with his or her Facebook friends or connections via a third-party Web site that is integrated with Facebook."
In other words, every time you press the "Like" button on NFL.com, for example, you're an "active user" of Facebook. Perhaps you share a Twitter message on your Facebook account? That would make you an active Facebook user, too. Have you ever shared music on Spotify with a friend? You're an active Facebook user. If you’ve logged into Huffington Post using your Facebook account and left a comment on the site — and your comment was automatically shared on Facebook — you, too, are an "active user" even though you’ve never actually spent any time on facebook.com.
I mean, come on. The distinction the article is trying to draw is that "active" does not mean using Facebook.com: it means using Facebook somewhere on the Internet. Is that really so inaccurate for Facebook to include? If you're going to never visit Facebook.com, but you're going to use the service elsewhere on the Internet, I'm sorry but you're an active user of Facebook. It means you: a) Have a Facebook account, b) Use your Facebook account on the Web, and c) Actively choose not to log out of Facebook because you're using the account.
It's not as if the article manages to get some data out of Facebook that says a significant portion of 845 million users are not accessing the Facebook website from their desktop or mobile browsers. I find that very unlikely, but even if millions of Facebook users never visit Facebook.com, would it really be that big of an issue? Their actions are still being shared on the social network, and are thus most likely being shown to their friends and subscribers. This is a good thing: advertisers can monetize these Facebook users because their content is still being posted to Facebook.com.
At least the article admits this much, noting that both Facebook's Like button on third-party websites and Facebook Connect integration which lets users of third-party Web sites sign in through Facebook and share information "is valuable, even if it isn't easily monetized." Both provide Facebook with data that it can then offer to advertisers who want to target specific groups of users with their marketing campaigns.
The article also argues that other tracking firms have found different numbers than the ones Facebook provides. Disregarding that this is of course completely expected, given that everyone uses different methodology, let's see what all the fuss is about. Nielsen is given as an example of a company that found Facebook has fewer unique U.S. users to Facebook.com than Facebook says it has.
Oh, really? Well, two can play that game. Google, Facebook's arguably biggest competitor, also found some different data. Back in August 2011, when Facebook still said it had 750 million monthly active users, Google said Facebook had 870 million unique users. Discrepancies in data can go both ways: you can't just pick the numbers that are lower and disregard the ones that are higher.
In summary, Facebook users visiting Facebook.com directly benefit the company while Facebook users using Facebook elsewhere on the Web indirectly benefit the company. This is why Facebook includes both types of users, not to mention there's most likely a huge overlap. It's really that simple.
This seems to be the second NYT article in a row that is criticizing Facebook with a very weak argument. The social network has tons of flaws, so I find it very odd that the publication finds it necessary to find new ones, when there are so many old ones that haven't yet been fixed.