Happy birthday, Facebook; or, how everything old is new again (is old again)

Did you hear? Facebook is 10 today. I read about it on my Facebook news feed. To celebrate, the social network put together a personalized video for all its users, reminding everyone (or at least myself) that it has an extensive record of yours and everyone else’s life.

Check your video out over here.

In the spirit of looking back, NYT put up a link to its first article on thefacebook, published back in December 2004. It’s charmingly quaint:

“At the beginning of the year you had people checking every five minutes to see if they had any new friends,” said Isabel Wilkinson, a Princeton University freshman from New York City. “I like to think it’s subsided a little, but it’s still heinous in terms of procrastination or wasting time. Last night I couldn’t sleep, so I went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes.”

Diversions include profiles and photos you can update whenever the mood hits, lists of favorite movies and books, semi-imaginary groups to join online, course lists, political views, relationship status, and, most important, lists of everyone’s friends both at your school and at any others people care to cite. It’s like the Swiss Army knife of procrastination.

(Note that the story was filed under New York/Region. Little did we know it will take over the world…) Reading it makes you realize that Internet time functions like dog years – one year in human life equates to seven dog years, and one year IRL equates to, say, five in virtual space. That makes Facebook 50 years old, when the usual life expectancy for an online/digital venture is much shorter.

It took a while to hit the stride, money-wise, but hit it Mark did. No longer is Facebook just an online space for some 1.2 billion people to keep in touch with friends and share news with one another (even as that remains the top reason why people joined the network) – it is also, finally, a money-making machine, currently valued at $150 billion in the stock market, with profits hitting $523 million in 2013. Over 90% of its revenue (and profit) comes from ad sales. Its acquisition, Instagram, started featuring ads from popular retail brands last fall. Paper, its latest news reading app, will no doubt have its share of ads in time to come. Together with its Twitter-on-Xanax features – posts from top publishers / celebrities you liked or followed, plus trending topics – Facebook is really, simply, traditional media coming to you over the internet. Content plus ads plus context. And like traditional media, it is financed by companies trying to sell you stuff.

Turns out, the traditional media companies had this formula figured out before. The new media companies are going through the same process – Twitter, with a business model based on serendipity, is clearly trying to put some solid numbers into it by introducing what they must presume to be serendipitous ads (promoted tweets/trending topics) to its users. Soon they will be rolling out a commerce feature, which would allow users to buy goods for sale directly from a tweet – just as Flipboard and Pinterest and Instagram also wish to do. Content plus ads plus context, with the opportunity for immediate sale. Perhaps that is the biggest difference between old and new media.

twitter commerce

Here’s where Twitter and Facebook may find themselves at a distinct disadvantage in comparison to a retail site such as Amazon. The same problem has already manifested itself – people want different apps/sites/spaces to do different things. It’s like in an apartment: you have a bathroom, a bedroom, a living room. Nobody really wants to live in a studio and do everything in full view of everything else. Seeing a photo of my sister’s baby on Facebook is unlikely to make me think of buying a chair, or whatever it was that Facebook was selling through its Physical Gifts feature last year. Same goes for Twitter, though the low engagement required for Twitter may work better for impulse buys and other “lite” purchases. Amazon, on the other hand, is a retailer; that it has been integrating social features into it has only helped its cause, but only because it started as and remains a commercial site, while everyone is trying to go from social to commerce.

But who knows what the next ten years will bring. New media isn’t so new as being a different path to the same pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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