- Illustrations by Mr Crispin Finn
- Words by Mr Henry Farrar-Hockley
If it feels like yesterday that you shared your inaugural status on Facebook (my inspirational first post: "Must organise birthday drinks soon"), think again. This month the quintessential social media platform is celebrating a decade of pokes, likes and friend requests, an epoch in which it's matured from student start-up to global powerhouse. When Facebook went public in May 2012, its market valuation of $104bn was the largest in internet history. Today that figure is $150bn, and the network has 1.23 billion active users in more than 200 countries.
It's difficult to imagine a world without the social media that has become such an integral part of our connected consciousness. In 2014 we have social platforms catering for everything from ephemeral messaging (Snapchat) to casual matchmaking (Tinder) via typography (Notegraphy). Yet back when Facebook founder Mr Mark Zuckerberg was a computer science sophomore at Harvard, there were precious few ways to connect online with a potentially unlimited audience.
It's difficult to imagine a world without the social media that has become such an integral part of our connected consciousness
Even if you haven't seen Mr David Fincher's biopic The Social Network (spoiler alert: the geek inherits the earth), you're probably familiar with the fundamentals of Facebook's birth: how on 4 February 2004 Mr Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com from his Harvard dorm, along with fellow students Messrs Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. That he had already been employed by twin brothers Messrs Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Mr Divya Narendra to code their elite social networking platform harvardconnection.com, and how the subsequent lawsuit they filed against him for $140m for theft of intellectual property was eventually settled for 1.2 million Facebook shares and $20m in cash, all while Facebook continued to widen its reach, first to other Ivy League colleges, then high schools and select international universities.
After it took the decision to open the site to anyone over the age of 13, Facebook went global in 2007 - passing the 50 million active user mark by October, and leading to an unprecedented 43% of British companies blocking their employees from logging in to the site at work. So what is the appeal? The ease with which you can simultaneously connect with (and more than occasionally show off to) friends, colleagues and random holiday acquaintances, for one. The ability to maintain complete control over who has access to your profile, another.
It has also hugely simplified the parameters of dating by encouraging us to declare our relationship status ("It's complicated") and routinely "poke" fellow Facebookers while we're at it. The platform has served as a legitimate political tool, too: President Barack Obama's successful 2008 electoral campaign has been widely attributed to his shrewd use of digital media - his White House campaign spent $643,000 on promoting his Facebook page alone - while the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 used the site to organise pro-democracy rallies.
The flipside of this new era of connected sharing is a screen addiction we've never really grown out of, a subconscious urge to check our social media streams with obsessive frequency. Facebook parties became the new theme of parents' nightmares. Stalking proliferated. And corporate HR teams quickly realised they could screen potential candidates through their (often unsecured) Facebook albums. Interviewing for a job in 2007 meant a potentially awkward lunch hour explaining stag weekend snapshots to stony-faced interrogators.
Like any ambitious start-up, Mr Zuckerberg and co were keen to work out how and when to monetise their concept without ceding control. The fate of Facebook's two immediate rivals at the time hinged on their willingness to sell out: the music-centric Myspace, created by Messrs Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, struggled to retain its cachet following an inflated $580m acquisition by News Corp, while Friendster (dubbed the first ever social network) did the opposite by spurning a $30m buyout by Google - a decision considered to be one of the biggest own goals in Silicon Valley history. (It was one of many poor management decisions that saw it slip into the ether.)
Eleven companies would make acquisition offers for Facebook, ranging from Yahoo's tentative $1bn proposition to Microsoft's $15bn attempt, all of them to be rebuffed. Mr Zuckerberg insisted he wasn't interested in money (hence the site never once having considered a user paywall). As it was, the cash-strapped social network didn't have to wait long for funding. Angel investor Mr Peter Thiel, a German-born Californian behind the launches of PayPal, YouTube and LinkedIn offered a $500,000 investment in 2004 in return for a 10.2% equity stake. His straightforward advice to Mr Zuckerberg: "Don't f*** it up."
Social media thrives on the cult of the new, which makes this 10-year-old start-up a veritable relic
The following year Mr Jim Breyer, a venture capitalist with Accel Partners, took Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook president Mr Sean Parker to Michelin-starred The Village Pub in Woodside, outside Palo Alto, where he offered them a $12.7m investment in return for 15%, a stake now worth $9bn. (Mr Breyer ordered a $400 bottle of wine; the underage Mr Zuckerberg drank Sprite.)
It was only when the company had accumulated 500 shareholders that it relented and filed an IPO. Despite being described as a "cultural touchstone", the sale was initially beset by technical glitches and accusations of inflated stock prices. The share value plummeted from $38 to $17 but has since recovered to record a peak of $61 as of last month.
Today the familiar blue and white homepage is a little more cluttered: there's a Twitter-style "trending" column that selects culture, sport and news stories based on your most frequently used keywords, plus apps, a rolling timeline and sponsored ads (advertising is the company's principle source of revenue - it is now second only to Google in the global ad market). The dated poke button has thankfully been buried in a sub-menu. Otherwise it is much unchanged. I still check in at least three times a day.
Despite its unrivalled success, Facebook's detractors are lining up to predict its demise. Social media thrives on the cult of the new, which makes this 10-year-old start-up a veritable relic. A Princeton research paper released in January went as far as comparing the use of the social networking site to the "spread of infectious disease", using woolly Google search modelling to predict that it will shed 80% of its audience by 2017. Facebook wryly responded that, using the same methodology, Princeton would have no students by 2021, and the world no oxygen by 2060.
It's also true that the all-important teen demographic has had its head turned by novel interpretations on the social media theme such as the cross-platform multimedia messaging service WhatsApp (which processed 27 billion messages in a single day last June) and Jelly, a start-up from Twitter co-founder Mr Biz Stone that enhances the tried and tested Q&A format using photos. But reports of teenagers abandoning the site in their millions are greatly exaggerated. Although the number of 16- to 19-year-olds on Facebook has recently dropped by 3%, those using it on their mobiles has risen over the same period. Mr Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has plans to expand his connected universe further by finally tapping into China's vast - if closely monitored - internet space, which is coincidentally also home to Facebook's closest rival, WeChat (more than 600 million users and rising).
While he has made Facebook the indispensable PC social networking site, just how well he can translate that success to mobile remains to be seen. The era of "an inbox for everything" has made way for standalone apps with a singular, specific purpose. Facebook already has the ultimate photography tool in Instagram (a cool $1bn acquisition in 2012). Now it reputedly plans to unleash a full suite of mobile apps this year, beginning with Paper, a personalised news aggregator that was launched on 3 February in the US that provides a slick, image-intensive mix of curated news stories, status updates, photos and video. Mr Zuckerberg has described his intent to make Facebook "the best personalised newspaper in the world". What's not to like?
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