Facebook at 10: How the social network grew up, and what it should do next
On Feb. 4, 2004, Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook.com, a way for college students to seek each other out for friendship, or, you know, whatever.
Its design was as basic as its purpose. There were was no News Feed, no Timeline, no photos—save for your profile pic—and no status updates. There wasn’t even a Like button until 2009. Facebook wasn’t about sharing content back then. Times have changed.
Facebook has a much more sophisticated look on its 10th birthday, not to mention a grander mission: to connect the world to the Internet. Zuckerberg was 19 when he created The Facebook, and he and his company have matured together as he approaches his 30th birthday.
How Facebook succeeded in spite of itself
The road from rudimentary online directory to billion-dollar ad network has been nothing if not bumpy. Facebook has had not one, not two, but several epic errors in judgment in the last decade. Most, if not all, of the company’s mistakes have been privacy related.
First there was News Feed, which is now the foundation of the Facebook experience. But when it was introduced in 2006, users thought it was information overkill. Facebook got a new nickname, the ultra-clever “Stalkerbook.” The outcry prompted a note from Zuckerberg: “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.”
And remember Beacon, the creepy ad system that followed you around the Internet and published your activity to your wall? In 2007, Facebook partnered with eBay, Fandango, and a slew of other websites to track your activity on the Web and, in some cases, share that activity with your friends without your consent. The ensuing backlash was so severe that Facebook quickly let users opt out or turn off Beacon. A class-action lawsuit forced the network to discontinue Beacon in 2009.
Sponsored Stories, another ad effort that translated your Facebook likes into company endorsements, also prompted a class-action lawsuit and settlement.
But Facebook has cleaned up its act since going public. The company that encourages its employees to “move fast and break things” now moves cautiously when introducing new products and tweaking its design or privacy settings. While News Feed was introduced without so much as a warning, a newspaper-influenced redesign was scaled back and ultimately dropped after flopping with test users last year.
The next 10
Despite its very public failures, Facebook has gotten more right than it’s gotten wrong. How else has the network racked up more than 1 billion monthly active users, pulled in $2.6 billion in revenue last quarter, and fended off both its closest competitor, MySpace, and countless social networking startups?
To stay on the right track and avoid becoming a cautionary tale for future social networks, Facebook needs to keep the user experience at the forefront of every decision it makes. Ad dollars are key to keeping shareholders happy, but if Facebook should ever lose those hundreds of millions of devoted users, advertisers will flee.
Build more great experiences: Facebook in the past has thrown many, many products at the wall to see what sticks, but a lot of those products are at best secondary to the main experience and at worst clutter Facebook to the point of agitation. Zuckerberg last week said Facebook will focus on separate apps that can stand on their own, like Instagram and Facebook Messenger have succeeded in doing. Paper, Facebook’s social newsreader, hit the App Store on Monday. The app is a symbol of Facebook’s future: It’s more than just a social network, more than just News Feed.
Don’t annoy people: We understand the need for ads, but they have to be simple, unobtrusive, and easy to ignore—unless you want to engage with them. Facebook’s mobile ads have so far been just that, so clearly the network understands its responsibility to users. But this thoughtful ad rollout has also included tests of auto-playing video ads, which are a no-go. That effort should be abandoned. Auto-playing anything is a terrible idea. What if the video is violent? What if my friends just have terrible taste in videos? Many people also clamor for GIFs, but let’s remember the free-for-all that MySpace became and let Facebook stay a GIF-free zone.
Don’t worry about the kids: The media has been fixated on Facebook’s “teen problem” ever since Facebook CFO David Ebersman admitted that teens’ daily use of Facebook has declined slightly during an earnings call last October. Facebook didn’t really help matters by trying to buy ephemeral messaging app Snapchat, known for its popularity with kids, for $3 billion in cash late last year. Facebook hasn’t released any hard data on teen engagement with the social network, but it’s probably safe to assume that kids are using other social apps. Here’s the thing: Facebook doesn’t have to be popular with teens. Let them have their fun with Snapchat or Line or whatever other emoji- or sticker-based app is of the moment. When they go to college or move away from their friends and family, they’ll return to Facebook to stay in touch, share photos, and stay in the loop about major life events. If Facebook successfully manages our first two recommendations, they won’t have to worry about an exodus of users, and they shouldn’t stake the network’s future on pleasing a fickle demographic.