Liveblogging World War II: January 10, 1941
Trouble In the House of Google?

What Future Does Facebook Have?

The key question that everybody has when they go to the world wide web is a simple one: "What do I need to know?" Different web companies give different answers to that question:

  • Wikipedia: You need a summary overview sketch of a particular person, place, thing, or event that you already have in mind--and we will provide you with such a sketch, written by a tag time of altruistic left- and right-libertarians and by some people who care too much about the topic.

  • Google: You need to know what pages on the internet have been most linked to by others and that contain keywords that you already have in mind.

  • Facebook: You need to know what your friends and your friends of friends already know that you do not.

Facebook thus has a different answer--and it may well be a better answer.

David Gelles:

Facebook’s grand plan for the future: After the public presentation I join Zuckerberg... for 40 minutes he talks animatedly.... “If you look five years out, every industry is going to be rethought in a social way,” he says. “You can remake whole industries. That’s the big thing.” His ambition, it turns out, is not simply to make Facebook an influential technology company, but the most important company in the world. “You can integrate a person’s friends into almost anything and make [it] instantly more engaging and viral,” he told me. “You care so much more about your friends. It’s not an intellectual thing. It’s hard-wired into humans that you need to focus on what the people around you are doing. It’s this very visceral, deep thing. That, I think, is the structural thing that is going to make it so that all these industries change.”

Zuckerberg uses the word “social” a lot, and it’s not always obvious what he means.... To Zuckerberg, a more social world is one where nearly everything – from the web to the TV to the restaurants you choose to eat at – is informed by your stated preferences and your friends’ preferences, and equipped with technology that lets you communicate and share content with people you know....

Zuckerberg seems at ease. “The fear is behind him,” said a friend of Zuckerberg’s. “Until a year ago, he thought this might be the next Google, but he wasn’t sure. Now he’s sure. The fear is gone.” Facebook’s soaring user base and booming revenues are, strangely, not really what is behind this shift in disposition.... Facebook is no longer merely a social network, where users check out updates from friends, glance at photos and play some games. Rather, it is making moves to be an essential part of the entire online experience. The company is becoming people’s homepage, e-mail system and more....

“They made this very ballsy decision to transform themselves from a place where everyone came to – a destination – into a service that lets me take my information everywhere,” says Sam Altman, chief executive of Loopt, a location services company that works with Facebook. Facebook colours this as a win-win for the sites with which it works. By giving sites such as The Times of India and access to Facebook’s graph of friends, it allows them to draw in new traffic and easily acquire new users. When movie review site Rotten Tomatoes integrated with Facebook, the number of reviews on the site doubled. Facebook, of course, benefits too. By implanting its links and cornflower blue “f” logo on millions of pages, the company is enmeshing itself deeper into the fabric of the web, one site at a time....

If Zuckerberg is to be believed, we are rapidly moving from a world where the web doesn’t know who you are, to a world where the web knows exactly who you are. “What we’re imagining is very different,” says Chris Cox, who dropped out of Stanford to join the company in 2005 and is now one of Zuckerberg’s closest lieutenants. “If you imagine a television designed around social, you turn it on and it says, ‘Thirteen of your friends like Entourage. Press play. Your dad recorded 60 Minutes. Press play.’” In other words, the world will be experienced through the filter of one’s Facebook friends.

Zuckerberg points to companies such as Zynga (built on Facebook’s Platform) and Quora (a question and answer service founded by former Facebook employees, which relies almost exclusively on Facebook for users) as examples of companies building around social “from the ground up”. “The real disruption is going to come from people who are rethinking these spaces,” he said.... But seeing as Facebook alone is the keeper of the most comprehensive social graph on earth, what they really mean is building new companies and services around Facebook. And while this may sound hubristic, it reflects Zuckerberg’s belief that Facebook’s map of human relationships is among the most important developments in business history. “That, I think, is the strongest product element we have,” he said. “And [most] likely one of the strongest product elements that ever has existed.”...

Industry veterans stress that Facebook may not be the only identity one has on the web. “I think there will be a couple of different identities on the web,” said John Donahoe, chief executive of Ebay. (Ebay, which owns PayPal, works closely with Facebook.) “Facebook will be one of the identities you carry with you. The identity we’re focused on with PayPal is your monetary identity. It’s not one where you want to share all your information.” And while Facebook has the early lead, the changing nature of social structures makes this an inherently dynamic industry. “The fluidity of social networks is one of the reasons it’s not entirely clear that Facebook will be the be-all and end-all,” says one prominent social media executive. So far, however, no credible alternative has caught on...