Facebook At 10: Amid Doubters, Company Eyes Next Growth Phase
Ten years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at Harvard, Noah Buyon was only nine years old.
Facebook started out as a site exclusively for college students, so it took Buyon a few years to find out about it. But when his older brothers got accounts, he wanted one too.
"It became kind of the cool thing to have," Buyon says. "I couldn't hold out any more — and I got it, and I've been saddled with it ever since."
That's not an entirely positive sentiment. Now that he's in college, a freshman at Georgetown University, he's been on Facebook for almost a third of his life — and that means he's spent a lot of time on there.
"I'm at the point in my use of it that it's instinctual to just create a new tab on my browser and check my Facebook, usually for no more than 10, 15 seconds, but it's just so ingrained in my daily routine," he says. "It's just one of the most potent distractions you can have."
But there's a reason he keeps coming back, he says: It's socially rewarding. Almost all of his friends are on it. It helps him keep in touch with acquaintances he rarely sees in Japan and Australia and with his parents in New York.
In other words, it's useful — and that's necessary for social media companies these days to survive, says Emily Bell, a digital media professor at Columbia University. Facebook faces competition from dozens of social networking sites and apps that want a slice of its success. If users didn't find Facebook useful, they could easily move on to a different platform.
"As we saw with Myspace, when a group of people just decide that something is better or quicker or easier, there's very low cost now to the transaction of moving between one network and another," Bell says.
The Tipping Point
Conversations about Facebook's future almost inevitably turn to Myspace. The social networking site was Facebook's main competitor in its early days, yet quickly fizzled out as users left for Facebook. To paint a monetary picture: News Corp. bought Myspace in $580 million in 2005 and sold it, six years later, for a comparatively meager $35 million.
So in October, when Facebook admitted that daily usage was declining among its youngest users — kids in their early teens — article upon article began to speculate on whether the site was on the tipping point of Myspace-like oblivion. Some said there are just too many parents on Facebook. It's not cool anymore. Teens are flocking to Snapchat and Instagram instead. (Related note: Facebook owns Instagram.)
But Bell says it might be too early to start digging Facebook's grave.
"It's one of those things where you can look at the current data around Facebook and ... extrapolate from that that Facebook will eventually die," she says. "But it does have a momentum and it does have very smart engineers and very smart strategists."
In terms of momentum, consider Facebook's size and reach: The company recently said it has 1.2 billion monthly active users worldwide, half of whom use it daily. The Pew Research Center reported Monday that 57 percent of all adults are on Facebook, which dwarfs any other social media site on the list. For teens, ages 12 to 17, the percentage is even larger: Nearly three out of four are using it.
Facebook also understands the power of photos and videos, Bell says. Almost from the start, photo-sharing was one of its fundamental functions. It's no surprise, she says, that Facebook bought Instagram, an app dedicated entirely to sharing photos and videos.
"Where you put your roots down and how easy it is to transport that network with you or transport your photographs, etc., is quite an important part of what keeps you using something," she says.
So it doesn't really need to be cool anymore to survive. At least, that's what Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during an interview with The Atlantic's editor in chief in September.
"We're almost 10 years old, and we're definitely not a niche thing at this point," Zuckerberg said to some laughter from the audience. "Those angles on coolness are kind done for us. But I've never focused on that. What I've focused on is: Are we providing something fundamental that people can rely on and use and that's valuable every day?"
And this doesn't hurt: Facebook took in $7.8 billion in revenue last year. Its advertising on both desktop and mobile is steadily growing. It just became one of the fastest companies to reach $150 billion in market value.
So it has enough money to experiment and make more acquisitions. Most recently, Facebook has released two standalone mobile apps designed, it seems, to increase engagement outside the traditional Facebook platform.
Facebook also introduced Internet.org last year, a project designed to expand connectivity to the two-thirds of the world that's not online, according to the site. Zuckerberg told The Atlantic he wants this to be part of the company's legacy.
"I don't view Facebook and the desire and need to be connected as a First World thing," Zuckerberg said. "I think we're in a good position to help lead that and push that forward, and we want to help get the next 5 billion people on the Internet and connect."
Although he didn't make the connection in that interview or in an investors meeting last week, expanding Internet access would benefit Facebook directly too, because more people would be able to sign up for it.
For now, Facebook still has a loyal customer in 19-year-old Noah Buyon. He says he could never see himself deactivating his account.
"I couldn't imagine a situation where I'd want to give up that kind of access to all these people across the world that I care about," he says.
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