Marco della Cava, USA Today
SAN FRANCISCO - The calendar may say 2014, but in tech culture this week actually marks the year 10 A.F - After Facebook.
Whatdid we poor humans do before the advent of Mark Zuckerberg's collegiatebrainstorm? Let's see, we smiled when we "liked" something, we dialedthe phone to "update" friends and "tagging" was a kids' game.
Theupside of those innocent pre-social media times: intimacy. The downside:intimacy. If you wanted to reach a huge group, it meant sending ane-mail with a cc list that looked like the phone book.
Then cameteenage Zuck and his shrewdly rolled-out vision for a new kind ofdigital club where you played bouncer, all with a Machiavellianbackstory that eventually merited its own Oscar-winning movie, The Social Network.Facebook haters crowed after its hyped IPO last May quickly went sour,but the company has bounced back with a fiscal vengeance.
By theend of 2013, its turbo-charged stock had made founder Zuckerberg, 29, a$31 billion man thanks to $7.9 billion in annual revenue, a 55% jumpover 2012. Fueling such growth was rapid mobile adoption, which lastquarter accounted for 53% of all advertising and paves the way for abullish new year.
At the heart of this business boom is a service that over the pastdecade has revolutionized and expanded - for better or for worse - theway humans interact. A million of us liked the site in 2004, then 250million five years later. Today, Facebook has 1.2 billion users. Even ifthe site were to disappear or wildly reinvent itself in the nextdecade, our habits are forever altered.
"The biggest impact ofFacebook was that it broke us out of e-mail jail," says Paul Saffo, alongtime Silicon Valley futurist. "E-mail implied you had to reply,Facebook did not. E-mail is formal, Facebook is a salutation. E-mail yousend, Facebook you broadcast. It's simply a new social medium for whichwe're still learning the social norms."
While Facebook hasspawned plenty of unappealing habits - oversharing perhaps topping thatlist - its genius was in creating a platform that allowed people toconnect over long distances and reconnect over lost years. It tappedinto a yearning that grew with the geographic scattering of the nation'sworkforce.
Your childhood neighborhood may be but a memory, but it could gather once again on Facebook.
"Inthe recent past, if you left people physically for a job or marriage,you simply moved on, but Facebook made maintaining those relationshipeasy," says Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and author of theforthcoming book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
"Theimportant takeaway from Facebook's rise is that people have a desire toconnect broadly," she says. "For the longest time, technology limitedcommunication to one on one; just think of the telephone. But now ourworlds are complicated networks that overlap. The implications of thathave yet to be fully realized."
Thatmay well be, but most of today's Facebook users aren't too concernedwith the sociological ramifications of a shift in human communication.They're just glad they can keep grandma or little Billy posted on what'snew.
"I lived in California and my grandmother lived in upperMichigan, and I had felt really badly about losing touch until she got alaptop and signed up for Facebook," says Kristy Campbell, 46, acommunications director at Juniper Networks.
"Our world opened upto her. She attended my daughter's graduation and prom via Facebook, andwhen she suddenly passed away. I was left with a digital record of ourinteractions that I will never take down," says Campbell, who also usedthe site to create a network of divorcees that helped each other throughthat life change. "I really don't remember life before Facebook."
Forevery Facebook user who may have gotten tired of maintaining their pageand quit, countless testimonials speak to the network's transformativeeffect.
Ann Friedlander, 65, of West Palm Beach, Fla., haschildren in Hong Kong, Connecticut and California. Without Facebook, shesays, "I'd never know what they're up to or see photos of mygrandchildren."
She also used the site to get back in touch with childhood friends inNew Jersey and, more poignantly "discovered, through Facebook, that aneighbor died on 9/11 trying to rescue someone."
In remote MorroBay midway down the California coast, Kelly Lipton, 64, uses Facebook toease her sense of isolation, which is amplified by hearing issues. "Ifind Facebook is a good way to keep up," she says. "I love it so much Ican't believe it."
And while much has been made of late about howyounger generations are fast migrating away from Facebook to newersocial networking sites and apps, Bella Maestas, 15, of Hillsborough,Calif., loves the way Facebook helps her tackle homework with classmatesand stay connected socially.
"In a way, it takes the place of thediary," she says. "It also leaves a mark of you on the world. Everyonewants to be known, noticed and remembered."
WhetherZuckerberg knew he was tapping into something as universal as a need toreach out and be remembered is unknown. But, by all accounts, amissionary's zeal permeated the initially small Silicon Valley officesof Facebook as the company built momentum.
"It was prettyremarkable when I started (in late 2004), still a living room operationin Los Altos Hills," says Ezra Callahan, 32, who joined the team justout of Stanford and was employee No. 6.
He left in 2010 and took"a year to recover." The all-in intensity was such that employees wereencouraged to live as close to work as possible.
"You were given a$600-a-month stipend if you lived within a mile of the company, andhalf of us qualified," he says. "It was intentional. We were a family.The value of having such a close culture was it made people want to stayand work harder."
Peter Sealey, a former marketing director atCoca-Cola and Columbia Pictures, joined Facebook's board of advisers afew years after its launch. "Even then," he says, "you could immediatelytell these people were working on something that would have a profoundimpact on society."
Sealey says to him Facebook's future wasself-evident when he took into account technologist George Gilder's law,which states that the value of a network goes up with the square of thenumber of users.
"Today, the Catholic Church has 1.2 billionmembers, and so does Facebook, in just 10 years," he says. "Humans havean ingrained need to have a tribe and to share among that tribe. Myspacecould have won this battle, but Zuckerberg just built a more convenientand familiar service."
Speaking of the Harvard dropout (he's ingood company: so was Bill Gates), it's clear Zuckerberg doesn't intendto rest on his laurels or his cash.
"We can do a better job"informing members about newly added features, Zuckerberg told USA TODAYat a company event in Menlo Park in December. "We have focus groupsexplaining what we intend to do, but we still catch a lot of people bysurprise."
Facebook's willingness to be flexible with its approachwhen it has to be will be key to its future, says Bret Taylor, thecompany's former chief technology officer who oversaw integration withApple's iOS software as well as the adoption of the famous Like button.
"Facebookcould be very different in 10 years, but I see it being around, becauseit's not afraid to change often," he says, offering as example thecompany's purchase of photo-sharing site Instagram for $1 billion lastApril.
"There are interesting parallels in Google buying YouTubeand Facebook buying Instagram. I was at each company when that happened,and both were criticized for overpaying," he says. "Both turned out tobe good deals. It is hugely important in moving forward to show awillingness to be bold."
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
As for thefuture, there was some buzz recently about a Princeton University studythat said Facebook was akin to a viral outbreak that would mercifullyabate, losing 80% of its peak user base in the next few years.
Facebook'scheeky response was to offer a "report" by its data scientistspredicting that "Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all."
Jibes andparries aside, Facebook's next decade is likely to be more tumultuousthan its culturally dominant first 10 years. A recent YPulse surveyrevealed that 65% of those under 18 thought Facebook was "losing itscool factor."
But regardless of this cultural patriarch's future,the best way to judge Facebook's impact is the same way we ultimatelyassess the job of any parent - by their kids, which in social mediaterms include Twitter, SnapChat, WhatsApp and international successessuch as Japan's Line and China's WeChat.
Facebook taught us thatthe Internet could be used to share our lives in a way and with a scopethat was novel, and just as the dominant communication tool of themoment was growing ponderous.
"Remember when America Onlinestarted, and you'd hear that ping and the voice said 'You've got mail,'?Well that soon had turned into, 'Argh, I've got mail,' " saysauthor Boyd with a laugh. "Then Facebook came along, and all of asudden, 'Oooo, there are all my friends!'
"There may be a lot ofshiny new (social media) apps out there now, but Facebook's impact wasas extraordinarily important as AOL's. AOL opened up people to theInternet. Facebook opened up people to each other."