If Facebook were a nation, it would be the world’s third largest behind only China and India. Hundreds of new people join every hour. And at the helm stands fresh-faced self-made billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, who still wears T-shirts and jeans to work just as he did in 2004, when he co-founded the addictive social-networking site in his Harvard dorm room at age 19.
Since then, Facebook has morphed from college fad to global communication force, as one onlooker called it; its record 600 million subscribers can’t be wrong. Harvard dropout Zuckerberg, who turns 27 in May, now has an estimated $6.9 billion net worth, which exceeds Steve Jobs’ net worth and ranks him as the 35th richest American, according to Forbes.
The impact of Zuckerberg’s decision to leave college to pursue this passion has been huge, from affecting world events—Facebook initially helped keep protesters connected during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia—to serving as an online scrapbook or simply keeping people in touch. When a blizzard hit this past winter, one American University class improvised a virtual lecture on Facebook. When a neophyte senator Barack Obama ran for president, he enlisted Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, Zuckerberg’s former college roommate, to launch a strong social-media campaign, which played a significant part in his victory. Facebook is “the easy passport” to finding friends past and current without an email address or phone number. As Pace University clinical professor of marketing Paul Kurnit puts it: “It’s about me, about us. It is the personal website that few of us could possibly build on our own.”
Get this: People now spend more time on Facebook than on all of these combined: Google, Yahoo, YouTube, Microsoft, Wikipedia and Amazon. “Think about that for a moment,” Ben Parr wrote at Mashable.com. “Facebook is the Web’s No. 1 timesink.”
Zuckerberg is akin to a Thomas Edison or an Alexander Graham Bell of the 21st century. He’s “right up there with Bill Gates and the great movers of the digital age,” for bringing into being “something as important and revolutionary as Facebook,” says Paul Levinson, author of New New Media (2009, Allyn & Bacon) and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University.
Differentiating Facebook From Its Rivals
It’s not that Facebook was the first social-media site; instead, it brought social media to a broader audience by making it easy for new people to come on without feeling like they were out of their depth immediately, says Andy Smith, who co-authored The Dragonfly Effect (2010, Jossey-Bass) with his wife, Jennifer Aaker. “Facebook made it so that everyone’s page looked pretty much the same. In some ways, it was boring. That was an early complaint. Like, here’s the place where your picture goes and here’s where you post [a public message to all friends]. It looked sort of like an Amazon page, a file folder. What that also meant is there was a lot less distinction between someone who has been there forever and has a trillion friends and someone who hasn’t.”
Facebook also differed from early rival MySpace, as well as the comments sections on many websites, in that Facebook didn’t allow users to pretend to be other people—no fake names; that’s one of Zuckerberg’s core ideas. “When you’re actually accountable for what you’re saying to someone you care about,” Smith says, “you behave differently. I think it’s one of the fundamental secrets that he found here.” “Facebook really has become an essential part of many aspects of our lives,” says Fordham’s Levinson, “ranging not only from keeping in touch with friends and meeting people, but talking about television shows that we saw the night before, responding to political events, providing information on health issues.” The site or something like it “will, I think, be part of human life for a long time.”
Reuniting long-separated family members is a common theme among Facebook success stories, such as that of Megan-Marie Kera Duprey-Roy of Vermont. “I found my older brother and my older sister that I haven't seen in almost 17 years. They are both here on Facebook, and now we’re visiting and chatting away all the time. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg,” she wrote on the official Facebook Stories page (stories.facebook.com). Verjean Peace, another user, publicly thanked Facebook for helping her locate her husband’s father and brother. He hadn’t seen them for 32 years. When the brothers finally chatted by phone, she wrote, “I must tell you, it was very hard holding back the tears.”
A Culture of Sharing Contrary to the portrayal of Zuckerberg as an insensitive, angry genius in the Academy Award-nominated film The Social Network, many who know him say he’s anything but angry. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, agreed in his piece in The Daily Beast: "He is even-tempered, generally upbeat, if prone to silence, and highly self-confident.”
About the movie, Zuckerberg said on The Oprah Winfrey Show, "a lot of it is fiction, but even the filmmakers will say that. They’re trying to build a good story. And I can promise you, I— this is my life, so I know it’s not that dramatic.”
Instead of being obsessed with a former girlfriend and getting into elite Harvard “finals clubs” like the movie character, the real-life Zuckerberg, Kirkpatrick noted, has been with the same steady girlfriend for years and was uninterested in the clubs. Instead, his mind was elsewhere. “He had concluded that sharing and transparency would redefine the Internet and was determined to experiment with software that exemplified his ideas.”
Within the vast, airy, open floor plan of the Palo Alto, Calif., corporate headquarters, Zuckerberg famously sits at a desk alongside other staff members.
Zuckerberg is the winner of our SUCCESS 2010 Achiever of the Year Award
Stenciled on various walls is the “hack,” which in Facebook parlance means brainstorming. sit close to one another. The goal is a high-energy culture invites staffers to interact and weigh in on products for the ever-expanding functions of Facebook, which is based on the idea of sharing—such as sharing pictures, messages and video. (Zuckerberg uses the word “sharing” so often, wrote Simon Garfield, a writer for The Guardian, “that I wonder if I am talking to a machine.”)
Facebook is not driven by the leadership style of Mark Zuckerberg,” says Pace’s Kurnit. “It has become a runaway success function of Zuckerberg’s tremendous insight into what people want, how they relate and what socializing means online. kind of a ‘build it and get out of the way’ idea.”
It’s very much a “build-it” culture, unlike a lot of big-brand companies where employees “like to think and think and think have meetings and bring in experts and plan and make PowerPoint presentations. At Facebook, it’s like: ‘Build it,’ ” says B.J. Fogg, psychologist who has taught courses on the psychology of Facebook at Stanford University, where he directs the Persuasive Technology Lab and devotes half his time to industry projects.
Build It and Ship It
Facebook has made some mistakes because of that philosophy. “They build it and ship it—and they go, ‘Oops. We need to rewind that, and we need to apologize,’ ” Fogg says, alluding to a handful of high-profile missteps. One notable mishap: A controversial advertising program called Beacon debuted on Facebook during the 2007 holiday buying season and without much warning told Facebook users’ friends what they bought on other websites.
Famously, one guy bought an engagement ring. News automatically went out to his friends—including his girlfriend. In another example, Sean Lane’s surprise gift for his wife appeared as a news headline on Facebook—“Sean Lane bought 14k White Gold 1/5 ct Diamond Eternity Flower Ring from overstock.com”— making it visible to all 720 people on his personal online network, including his wife, reported The Washington Post. “He received an instant message from his wife, Shannon: Who is this ring for? What ring? he messaged back.” (Backlash ensued. The ad program was dropped. “We simply did a bad job with this release, and I apologize for it,” Zuckerberg wrote on the company blog.)
Still, this just-do-it attitude also fosters fast successes for the continually evolving site, including one that prompted Fogg in 2007 to call his parents to say, in effect: Mom and Dad, get on Facebook. I know that sounds crazy because you think it’s just for kids. But they’ve won. You should get going on Facebook now.
What propelled him to conclude this was Facebook’s announcement it would begin allowing outsiders—third parties— to create applications that would tap into Facebook, meaning that if you wanted to, say, start a website for getting people to talk about their pets, you no longer needed to go the uncertain route of starting a website that you might call TalkAboutMyPets.com. Instead, you could spend as little as a couple hours creating a simple “Talk About My Pets” application that appears within Facebook.com and immediately have access to its millions of subscribers. If done right, in a week 1 million people might start going there to talk about pets, “which happens over and over,” Fogg says. “So why would I create my own little dotcom and try to get people to go there and struggle when I can create something on Facebook [for] very little effort and have tons of people using what I create?”
“Facebook Platform,” the name of this expanded capability, was a brilliant move, Fogg says. “It was almost like you could see checkmate was two moves away, and there was nothing that anybody could do about it” to catch up.
‘The Way of the Future’
Facebook continues to add new functions. It’s ever-evolving. Some describe it as becoming a web within the Web.
This just-do-it corporate philosophy is “the way of the future,” Fogg says. “The companies that aren’t just building it and trying it are falling behind, and Facebook is one of the best” at this technique. “The way you’re going to get your idea forward in this organization is to hack it together and show it around and see if people get excited about it.
“I would rather own Facebook than Google. It has something that nobody else will be able to create,” Fogg continues. While users could switch from Google to rival search engine Bing and be content, “What Facebook has created is unique—it’s a network of people. It’s not just a list of people; it’s people who are connected to each other and sharing. I can’t switch tomorrow out of Facebook to somewhere else and drag my hundreds of friends along with me. It’s clearly a unique asset that can’t be easily recreated or replaced.
“What they’ve created is so powerful, it’s a little frightening. It could be used for good and bad,” continues Fogg, whose lab has done work to promote peace via Peace.Facebook.com. “It’s just a private company that’s so powerful that it has a virtual monopoly on such an important aspect of life.”
Critics also point to Facebook’s power as being worthy of concern. Carl Morris of Wales-based NativeHQ.com cautions: “Facebook is a closed silo of content which, while useful at times and admittedly very seductive, does not give its members full control over their own information. It feels as if Facebook wants to create its own web, a one-stop all-in-one service which is built on—but in some ways walled off from—the World Wide Web. Facebook does not offer this portability because it likes having you locked in.”
Changing How We Live
“How many of you go to Facebook in the morning?” Fogg asks at public talks. Boom, lots of hands rise. “How many of you, before you go to bed at night, go to Facebook?” Boom, hands go up. It’s become a morning and evening ritual for many. Half of all users go to the site daily, according to the company. “That’s the power of it—it’s part of our habitual life and now part of our culture,” says Fogg, who studies behaviors.
He says Facebook has a “hot trigger”effect: It’s not just that people go to Facebook. They also obtain things they want through Facebook—whether it’s signing up for this movement or joining that political rally or reading ads. And those pitches aren’t coming from a faceless company. They come from your friends, which is way different from an ad from a company, Fogg notes.
“If you’re a company and you have somebody that daily—as a ritual—uses your service, you’re in an amazing position. There’s not very many companies that have that. And Facebook does serve hundreds of millions,” he says. Facebook has changed the way big companies advertise. For example, Ford announced its 2011 Explorer redesign pretty much exclusively on social media, particularly Facebook, says Patrick Kerley, senior digital strategist with Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C.
“If you as a company or brand aren’t already on Facebook, then you’ve fallen behind,” Kerley says, echoing other experts who stress it isn’t too late—just start now. Just because you weren’t the first mover on Facebook doesn’t mean that the next feature or functionality that the site adds can’t be the one that you use to define yourself or get attention.
More About Engagement Than Selling
One recent feature of note is Facebook Places, a sort of location-aware check-in service on which users can broadcast where they are to their friends, such as at a pizza place. “There are certainly opportunities for brick-and-mortar stores, no matter how big or small you are, to come up with ways to be leveraging this new feature,” Kerley says. Example: Facebook has been testing ads when someone checks into a location, that location can pay to have an ad sent to the Facebook user’s friends saying, for example, “Patrick Kerley just checked in at McDonald’s.
”That would appear at all my friends’ pages. That’s a crucial element Kerley says. “You’re using the fact that I enjoy this product or this service in advertising directly to my friends, saying, ‘Patrick likes this. Have you tried it yet?’ That’s a unique marketing strategy that social media allows exclusively.”
We’re moving to a marketing model in which people expect to engage with the brand or find a resource online where they can ask questions of the company. “It’s just more about engagement and building relationships,” Kerley says, “than it is simply about selling products.”
“I think there’s never been a better opportunity to get word of your business out to the world,” says Levinson, the Fordham professor. It’s easy to start a Facebook page, where you’d post images and descriptions of a business or cause. Not as easy, though, is “to have people in your organization who are actively talking to other people who may have questions. The essence of Facebook is not just passive advertising,” Levinson says. “It’s very time-consuming, but it’s worth it.”
So what does the future hold? Will Facebook end all notions of privacy? Will it continue to connect people in social uprisings around the world? Just how far will it evolve?
Principal analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group says Facebook is taking an increasing role in entertainment, collaboration and relationship building. “But it still is in its infancy and lacks both the security and safety it needs and the breadth of coverage it will eventually grow to encompass. It is the beginning of something that is already redefining how we communicate and stay in touch, but only the beginning; the best is still yet to come.”