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.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Facebook wowed investors last week with its high mobile ad revenue and growing number of users. This week, the company is celebrating something else: its 10th birthday.
That's right, Facebook turns 10 today. It's grown from a sensation for college students, to a site with more than 1.2 billion users worldwide.
NPR's Emily Siner reports on how it might keep those users coming back for the next decade.
EMILY SINER, BYLINE: Ten years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook at Harvard, Noah Buyon was only nine years old. It took him a few years to find out about Facebook, but when his older brothers got accounts, he wanted one, too.
NOAH BUYON: It became kind of the cool thing to have. I couldn't hold out anymore, and I got it, and I've been saddled with it ever since.
SINER: Saddled with it, because Facebook has taken a lot of time out of his life, maybe even too much time. Now that Noah's a freshman at Georgetown University, he's been on Facebook for a third of his life.
BUYON: I'm at my 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 engrained in my daily routine. It's just one of the most potent distractions you can have.
SINER: But he says it's also very socially rewarding. It helps him keep in touch with friends in Japan and Australia, and with his parents back home.
In other words, it's useful. And Emily Bell, a digital media expert at Columbia University, says that's good news for Facebook, because if users don't find it useful, it's pretty easy to move on to a different site.
EMILY BELL: 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.
SINER: Facebook faces a lot of competition now from small social media companies that want a slice of the pie. And in October, the company admitted that the daily usage was declining among its youngest users: kids in their early teens.
That information led to speculation on Facebook's demise. Some say there are just too many parents on Facebook. It's not cool anymore. Teens are flocking to Snapchat and WhatsApp instead.
But here's Emily Bell.
BELL: What I wonder about, though, is whether, you know, we're now in a phase where it would be - it's going to take quite a lot to kill Facebook, just the more useful it becomes and the harder it becomes to stay away from it.
SINER: Facebook's size and reach are unprecedented for a social network. The Pew Research Center reports that 57 percent of all adults and nearly three out of four teens are on Facebook. That's a big network to just leave.
Bell says Facebook also understands the power of sharing photos and videos. That became more evident when Facebook bought the photo-sharing app Instagram. Things like that make the site very sticky.
BELL: Where you put your roots down and how easy it is to transport that network with you or, you know, transport your photographs, etcetera, is quite an important part of what keeps you using something.
SINER: And let's not forget: Facebook just reached $150 billion in market value. So it doesn't really need to be cool anymore to survive.
BUYON: At least, that's what CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The Atlantic in September.
MARK ZUCKERBERG: I mean, yeah, we're almost 10 years old, right. So - and we're definitely not, like, a niche thing at this point, right? I mean, there, so...
ZUCKERBERG: So, I mean, those angles on coolness are kind done for us. So - but I've never kind of focused on that. What I focused on is: Are we providing something fundamental that people can rely on and use and that's valuable every day?
SINER: For now, Facebook still has a loyal customer in 19-year-old Noah Buyon. When I asked if he could see himself deactivating his account, his response was resounding.
BUYON: No, never. And I say that so adamantly because I couldn't imagine a situation where I'd want to give up that kind of access to all of these people across the world that I care about.
SINER: Ten years from now, when Facebook turns 20, he says he'll still be checking his newsfeed.
Emily Siner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.