Facebook turns 10, no longer a minnow, no longer ‘new media’

Facebook, the world’s biggest social network with 1 billion users, celebrates its first decade this February, but challenges remain in the coming years. EPA/How Hwee Young

Facebook turns ten this month, but so what? Google celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. Even though it has been through several redesigns and relaunches, MySpace is already 11, having been established in 2003.

Flickr, Digg and Wikinews will also turn 10 this year, all launched in 2004, the same year when Mark Zuckerberg first launched “The Facebook” as a social networking site for Harvard students. Renren, dubbed the Facebook of China, is not far behind, having been established in 2005 by Stanford Business School and MIT graduate Joseph Chen.

But despite the relative youth of Facebook, its 10th anniversary is significant for a number of reasons, which are worth reflecting on as the behemoth of social media reaches this milestone.

Facebook launched in 2004 as a service connecting students at Harvard, and then, at other universities and schools in the United States. Facebook

First, Facebook and its fellow social media can hardly be called “new” any longer, as much of the academic and industry literature does. The titles of a plethora of books like New Media by Terry Flew, The Handbook of New Media by Leah Lievrouw and Sonia Livingstone, New Media: A Critical Introduction by Martin Lister and colleagues, to name just a few, are sounding a little out of date.

As New York University media scholar and author Lisa Gitelman says, what are referred to as new media “cannot be accurately described as new”. It is time to look beyond the novelty of social media and social networks.

The Facebook factor

What Facebook has achieved in ten years has propelled it past most media rivals and demands attention and respect. Zuckerberg’s creation passed the milestone of one billion active users in October 2012, becoming the largest social network in the world and one of the most patronised sites in history.

Facebooked has become a verb in the English language. More than most other social media, Facebook has created the global phenomenon of “selfies”.

At a practical level, major political parties and politicians including US presidents and leaders like Kevin Rudd have begun using Facebook as a major electioneering platform. Corporations routinely establish Facebook pages in the same way that they published corporate brochures a decade ago.

Facebook in 2007, when it launched an iPhone version as well as Facebook apps. The site reached 50 million users that year. Facebook/Hugues Valentin

Most significantly, Facebook has sent a message to the traditional mass media and journalism, marketing, advertising and public relations professionals, as well as corporate management. Media are no longer one-way, top-down, elite controlled communication spaces. They are sites for two-way, interactive communication open to anyone with an internet connection.

While recognising that a “digital divide” still exists (for instance, among low socioeconomic groups and remote indigenous communities), Facebook affords voice equally to “citizen journalists”, activists, critics, marginalised voices, shy teenagers and work-at-home mums, as much as it does to powerful governments and corporations.

More than any other media to date, Facebook has enabled and empowered what Alvin Toffler prophesised as the prosumer (consumer and producer of information), or what researcher Axel Bruns calls the produser (producer/user).

But it is not all plain sailing for social media and networks – and it will be even less so during the next decade for market leaders like Facebook.

Satisfying users and shareholders

Facebook no longer has the appeal of novelty. It is no longer a darling of the IPO market. It is no longer a hangout for young people. Thirty-somethings, forty-somethings and even grandparents are posting and “liking” and “lurking”. Facebook is now part of the establishment – more than that, it is a global market giant. It has joined Microsoft and Google among the world’s largest and most powerful corporations.

Facebook in 2010, when it reached 500 million users but caused controversy over a series of privacy-related concerns. Facebook/Mathew Sanders

With that comes additional pressures and responsibilities, as Microsoft learned and Google is learning. Keeping one billion customers satisfied is much more difficult than maintaining the loyalty and support of a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand “early adopters” who are prepared to take a few risks and suffer a few hiccups for the chance to try something new.

The drive for continuing growth to satisfy shareholders and the drive to monetise traffic and transactions will increasingly force Facebook to exploit its market position, content on its site, and even its users (for cross-marketing other services and products).

It has already run into controversy several times over its privacy policies and come close to alienating its users. The launch of auto-play video ads in December 2013 might have been “long awaited” by advertisers, but have been “long feared” by users, as Todd Wasserman wrote in Mashable recently.

One the eve of its 10th birthday, Facebook announced the first of a number of new “apps” being developed by its Creative Labs Unit – a news reader that allows users to read and share stories called Paper.

But one birthday party-pooper emerged quickly. The co-founder and CEO of FiftyThree, Georg Petschnigg, pointed out in his blog that his company launched a successful application with the same name in 2012.

Facebook now faces the challenges of being a market leader, required to balance the commercial demands of its shareholders and the expectations of watchful anti-trust legislators, consumer groups, and one billion internet users who could cause its downfall as quickly as they created its success.