While the mainstream media has well and truly caught onto to the success of the MySpace website, the leading social networking site is in danger of losing its crown, with Facebook, its prettier, more functional competitor rapidly gaining market share.

Facebook, which was created in 2004 by former Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, and only opened to non-college students last year, is attracting users at an exponential rate and is believed to be worth upwards of US$1.5 billion.

From a virtual standing start less than three years ago, Facebook had 38.8 million visits in April, compared with 105 million for MySpace, according to web-tracking firm comScore Inc. If its current rate of growth continues, Facebook could well overtake MySpace before the year is up.

While both MySpace and Facebook use the web as a means of social interaction, there is a marked difference between them. As noted by the Guardian, a paper by US academic Danah Boyd found that typical Facebook users “tend to come from families who emphasise education and going to college. They are primarily white, but not exclusively”. By contrast, MySpace “is still home for Latino and Hispanic teens, immigrant teens” as well as “other kids who didn’t play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm”.

Facebook was created by Zuckerberg and former classmates Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes for Harvard students, annoyed at the elite university’s unwillingness to produce a meaningful student directory. Word of mouth spread rapidly, with the site opening up to other Ivy League colleges two months later. Soon after, Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard to run Facebook fulltime, in the process obtaining $US500,000 seed funding from PayPal founder Peter Thiel, and later $US25 million from Greylock Partners.

In 2006, non-college students were permitted to join Facebook. Last month, Facebook announced a “new platform that lets people unaffiliated with the company build online services that operate within its website”.

The 23-year old Zuckerberg, whose stake in Facebook could be worth more than $US500 million (based on his 30% stake in the company), has been amusingly described by Business Week as “the bad boy of the internet”, possibly because his business card allegedly reads “I’m CEO … b-tch”.

Badness aside, Zuckerberg will no doubt be hoping that Facebook allows him to perhaps one day emulate that other famous Harvard dropout who likes computers, Bill Gates.