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An Excerpt from The Facebook Effect

Facebook EffectPrologue

Oscar Morales was fed up. It was holiday time in his hometown of Barranquilla, Colombia, just after the 2008 new year. The gentle-spirited civil engineer with a gift for computers was spending his days at the bucolic nearby beaches with his extended family. But despite the holidays, like much of the country his thoughts were dark, and occupied with the suffering of a little boy named Emmanuel.

Emmanuel was the four-year-old son of Clara Rojas, who had been a hostage in the jungles of Colombia for six years. Her son had been born while she was held by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials, FARC. FARC held a total of seven hundred hostages, including Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, kidnapped along with Rojas during the 2002 campaign.

Sympathy and sadness about the plight of FARC’s hostages was an ever-present fact in contemporary Colombia, as was fear about what the powerful and murderous revolutionary army might do next to disrupt the country. But the case of Emmanuel had lately acquired outsized prominence in the popular press. For some time President Hugo Chavez of neighboring Venezuela had been attempting to negotiate with FARC about releasing Betancourt and others. Then abruptly in late December the guerrillas announced that they would soon turn over Rojas, her son Emmanuel, and another hostage to Chavez. In a nation exhausted from a decades-long battle with the violent guerrillas, this was a rare piece of good news. “People were longing for a gift, for a miracle,” says Morales, thirty-two. “And Emmanuel was a symbol. The whole country was feeling the promise: ‘Please let Emmanuel get his freedom. We would like that as a Christmas present from FARC.’”

But as the new year arrived, Emmanuel still hadn’t been freed. Then, in the first days of January, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe went on national television to deliver the shocking news that it appeared that Emmanuel was not even in the possession of FARC! It turned out Emmanuel had become seriously ill some time earlier, and FARC had taken him away from his mother, Clara, and dumped him with a peasant family. He was now, unexpectedly, in the government’s hands.

The nation was still on holiday with plenty of time to watch the news, which was all about poor, sick, abandoned Emmanuel. Morales’s politically engaged extended family, hanging out by day at the beach, debated what might happen next. “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so expletive] angry,” Morales says. “Forgive me for using that word but we felt assaulted by FARC. How could they dare negotiate for the life of a kid they didn’t even have? People felt this was too much. How much longer was FARC going to play with us and lie to us?”

Morales wanted desperately to do something. So he turned to Face-book. Though the service wasn’t yet even translated into Spanish, Morales spoke fluent English, as do many educated Colombians, and had been maintaining a profile there for over a year, posting his own information in Spanish and connecting with old college and high school friends. Spending time on Facebook was already a daily ritual for him.

In Facebook’s search box he typed the four letters “FARC” and hit enter. There were no results. No groups. No activism. No outrage. Groups devoted to almost everything under the sun were common on Facebook. But when it came to FARC, the citizens of Colombia had become used to being angry but cowed. In effect, the entire country had been taken hostage, and this had been going on for decades.

Morales spent a day asking himself if he was willing to go public on Facebook. He decided to take the plunge, and on the 4th created a group against FARC. “It was like a therapy,” he says. “I had to express my anger.” He wrote a short description of the group’s simple purpose — to stand up against FARC. A self-confessed “computer addict,” Morales was skilled at graphics tools, so he designed a logo in the form of a vertical version of the Colombian flag. He overlaid it with four simple pleas in capitals running down the page, each one slightly larger than the last — no more kidnappings, no more lies, no more killings, no more farc. “I was trying to scream like if I was in a crowd,” he explains. “The time had come to fight FARC. What had happened was unbearable.”

But what should he call his group? On Facebook it’s conventional to give groups names like “I bet I can find one million people who hate George Bush.” But Morales didn’t like such titles. They were juvenile. This was not a contest. This was serious. Yet he liked the idea of a million. A famous Spanish song is called “One Million Friends.” One million people against FARC? The word voices sounded more literary. One million voices against FARC — Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC. That was it.

After midnight on January 4, Morales created the group. He made it public so that any Facebook member could join. His personal network included about one hundred friends, and he invited them all. He was tired. At 3 a.m. he went to bed.

At 9 a.m. the next morning he checked his group. Fifteen hundred people had joined already! “Woooooooo!!!” Morales howled in delight. This was an even better response than he had expected! That day at the beach he told his extended family about the group and asked them to invite their own Facebook friends to join. Most of them were avid Facebook users as well, and they hated FARC, too. By the time Morales returned home in the late afternoon, his group had four thousand members.

“That’s when I said to myself, ‘Okay, no more beach, no more going out.’” He was ready to get serious. “I felt, ‘Oh my God! This is what I want! A committed community around the message.’”

A Facebook group has a “wall,” where members can post thoughts, as well as discussion forums that allow organized, long-lasting conversations among many members. Morales soon bonded with several people who were posting there with special vigor. They exchanged instant messaging and Skype addresses and cell-phone numbers so they could continue their conversations offline.

As more and more Colombians joined the group, members started talking not only about how mad they were about FARC, but what they ought to do about it. On January 6, just the second full day, a consensus on the page was emerging that the burgeoning group should go public. By the time it hit eight thousand members, people were posting on the discussion board, over and over, “Let’s DO something.”

Late on the afternoon of the 6th, his newfound Facebook friends, especially two he was speaking to by phone, convinced Morales that he should propose a demonstration. When he did, the idea was received on the wall and discussion board by acclamation. By the end of the day the group, still operating only out of Morales’s upstairs bedroom, had decided to stage a national march against FARC. It would be February 4, one month after the formation of the group. Morales, who was used to being left out of things since he lived in a provincial city, insisted the march take place not only in Bogota, the capital, but also many other places throughout the country, including of course his hometown of Barranquilla.

So Morales created an event called the National March against FARC. He and his co-organizers, several of them already as consumed by the project as he was, immediately got pushback from unexpected quarters. Members in Miami, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, and elsewhere argued that it should be a global demonstration. Morales didn’t even realize people living outside Colombia had joined the group. These Colombian émigrés were on Facebook partly to stay in touch with things back at home. They wanted to be involved in this movement, too. So it became a global march.

What ensued was one of the most extraordinary examples of digitally fueled activism the world has ever seen. On February 4, about 10 million people marched against FARC in hundreds of cities in Colombia according to Colombian press estimates. As many as 2 million more marched in cities around the world. The movement that began with an impassioned midnight Facebook post in one frustrated young man’s bedroom led to one of the largest demonstrations ever, anywhere in the world.

Facebook’s very newness helped Morales’s demonstration garner attention in Colombia. Though several hundred thousand Colombians were already using Facebook, it had not appeared on the radar of the average citizen. So when the press began covering plans for the upcoming demonstration, its stories focused heavily on the astonishing impact of this strange American import and the “Facebook kids,” as many articles and TV and radio programs called them. Though Morales and his co-organizers were mostly in their early thirties, the country was also captivated by the possibility that younger people were not cowed by FARC.

Once Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Colombia’s political establishment saw this Facebook uprising emerge, they did everything they could to make it a success. After a week or two the local army commander began providing Morales with three bodyguards and a car, which he used through February 4. Mayors and city governments throughout the country worked closely with demonstration volunteers to grant march permits.

But what remains remarkable is the way so many Colombians on Facebook signed up on the group under their real names. By the day of the march there were 350,000. Despite decades of fear and intimidation, Facebook gave Colombia’s young people an easy, digital way to feel comfort in numbers to declare their disgust.

Even after news about the march had become a daily drumbeat in the press and the website had turned into a key promotional tool, Face-book remained central. “Facebook was our headquarters,” says Morales. “It was the newspaper. It was the central command. It was the laboratory — everything. Facebook was all that, right up until the last day.”

Morales himself had volunteered to coordinate the local demonstration in Barranquilla. He expected about 50,000 people to show up. In fact 300,000 did, about 15 percent of the city’s population. They filled more than ten city blocks. At exactly noon, Morales read a statement that the group had jointly agreed upon. It was broadcast on television all over Latin America. Demonstrators gathered even in remote places like Dubai, Sydney, and Tokyo. On local TV news, one woman was interviewed in the crush of the Bogota march. Had she been personally injured by FARC, the interviewer asked? “Yes, because I am Colombian,” she replied. Morales and his group members had tapped into frustrations deep in the collective national psyche.

While pressure from President Uribe has played a major role in weakening FARC, the demonstrations seem to have struck their own blow. In a sign that the guerrillas were acutely aware of the impending march, on the Saturday before it took place they announced that they would release three hostages, all former Colombian congressmen, as a “humanitarian” gesture. Ingrid Betancourt and fourteen other hostages were rescued in a commando operation by the Colombian army in July 2008. In interviews she recalled listening to a radio in the jungle on February 4, surrounded by her FARC captors. She said she was deeply moved when she heard the demonstrators chanting in unison, “No more FARC! Freedom! Freedom!” Then the guerrillas couldn’t stand it and turned off the radio. Oscar Morales is telling me about this in a coffee shop in Manhattan in late 2008. As he does, his voice catches. Tears well up. His group and the subsequent demonstration made him into a national and international celebrity. But the conviction and concern that fueled his creation of Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC remains alive. Today he devotes his entire life to the anti-FARC crusade.

Though Facebook was not designed as a political tool, its creators observed early on that it had peculiar potential. During the first few weeks after it was created at Harvard University in 2004, students began broadcasting their political opinions by replacing their profile picture with a block of text that included a political statement. “People were using it back then to protest whatever was important,” says Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. “Even if they were just upset about a minor issue with the school.” People from the beginning intuitively realized that if this service was intended as a way for them to reflect online their genuine identity, then an element of that identity was their views and passions about the issues of the day.

“The Colombia thing,” says Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder, “is a very early indicator that governance is changing — [and of how] powerful political organizations can form. These things can really affect peoples’ liberties and freedom, which is kind of the point of government. . . . In fifteen years maybe there will be things like what happened in Colombia almost every day.”

Now, two years after Morales’s stunning success, one can find Facebook-fueled activism and protest in every country and community where the service has caught on — and that is pretty much all of them in the developed world. Facebook, along with Twitter, famously played a role in the revolt against the outcome of the mid-2009 elections in Iran. As New York Times foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman pointed out, “For the first time, the moderates, who were always stranded between authoritarian regimes that had all the powers of the state and Islamists who had all the powers of the mosque, now have their own place to come together and project power: the network.” It was on Face-book that defeated Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi told his followers when he thought it was time for them to go into the streets. And when a young woman was tragically killed during one of those protests, it was on Facebook that video of her murder emerged, to be shared worldwide as a symbol of Iranian government repression. The Iranian government, embarrassed, tried several times to shut off access to Facebook. But it is used so widely in the country that it was difficult to do so.

How could Colombia’s anti-FARC movement go from A to Z — from one man in his bedroom to millions in the streets — so quickly? Why should Facebook turn out to be a uniquely effective tool for political organizing? How did founder Zuckerberg’s decisions at crucial moments in the company’s history increase its impact? And in what ways do its unprecedented qualities help explain the rapidity with which Facebook has become a routine part of the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world? As the rest of this book will explore, many of the answers lie in a set of phenomena I call the Facebook Effect.

As a fundamentally new form of communication, Facebook leads to fundamentally new interpersonal and social effects. The Facebook Effect happens when the service puts people in touch with each other, often unexpectedly, about a common experience, interest, problem, or cause. This can happen at a small or large scale — from a group of two or three friends or a family, to millions, as in Colombia. Facebook’s software makes information viral. Ideas on Facebook have the ability to rush through groups and make many people aware of something almost simultaneously, spreading from one person to another and on to many with unique ease — like a virus, or meme. You can send messages to other people even if you’re not explicitly trying to. It’s how Un Millon de Voces Contra Las FARC grew so fast from its very first night.

Any member who joined was merely making a statement about himself — “Yes, I am against FARC.” A new member was not necessarily saying “send this information to my friends,” he was just joining the group. But as each new person joined, Facebook took that information and distributed it to the News Feeds of that person’s friends. Then when those people joined the group, Facebook reported that news to their friends’ News Feeds. Something like Morales’s anti-FARC campaign that taps into a latent need or desire can spread virally with lightning speed, making groups huge overnight.

Large-scale broadcast of information was formerly the province of electronic media — radio and television. But the Facebook Effect — in cases like Colombia or Iran — means ordinary individuals are initiating the broadcast. You don’t have to know anything special or have any particular skills. Twitter is another service with a more limited range of functions that can also enable powerful broadcasting over the Internet by any individual. It too has had significant political impact.

This all may be either a constructive or a destructive force. Face-book is giving individuals in societies across the world more power relative to social institutions, and that may well lead to very disruptive changes. In some societies it may destabilize institutions many of us would rather stay the same. But it also holds the promise — as is starting to be shown in Egypt, Indonesia, and elsewhere — of posing challenges to long-standing repressive state institutions and practices. Facebook makes it easier for people to organize themselves.

There’s no reason why the self-organizing component of the Face-book Effect only need apply to serious gatherings, of course. In mid-2008 a Facebook group organized a huge water fight in downtown Leeds, England. And in September 2008 more than a thousand people spent twenty minutes or so smashing each other with pillows in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They heard about the pillow fight on Facebook. Public pillow fights became something of a fad around the world as Facebook-empowered young people embraced a new way to blow off steam.

The Facebook Effect can be no less powerful as a tool for marketers, provided they can figure out how to invoke it, a topic we will explore in greater depth later. Similarly, the Facebook Effect has potentially profound implications for media. On Facebook, everyone can be an editor, a content creator, a producer, and a distributor. All the classic old-media hats are being worn by everyone. The Facebook Effect can create a sudden convergence of interest among people in a news story, a song, or a YouTube video. One day recently I had been working on this book and hadn’t paid any attention to the news. I happened to see that a friend’s News Feed read “Dow up 3.5%.” I would in the past have received that information from Yahoo News, or from radio or television.

The games business, one that is playing a big role in Facebook’s development, has already figured a lot of this out. The best games take advantage of the Facebook Effect, with the result that some games are played by as many as 30 million members per week. PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo Wii were the platform choices of the previous generation. Now, however, all the video-gaming consoles are starting to build in Facebook connectivity as well.

As Facebook grows and grows past 500 million members, one has to ask if there may not be a macro version of the Facebook Effect. Could it become a factor in helping bring together a world filled with political and religious strife and in the midst of environmental and economic breakdown? A communications system that includes people of all countries, all races, all religions, could not be a bad thing, could it?

There is no more fervent believer in Facebook’s potential to help bring the world together than Peter Thiel. Thiel is a master contrarian who has made billions in his hedge fund betting correctly on the direction of oil, currencies, and stocks. He is also an entrepreneur, the co-founder, and former CEO of the PayPal online payments service (which he sold to eBay). He was the very first professional investor to put money in Facebook, in the late summer of 2004, and he’s been on the company’s board of directors ever since.

“The most important investment theme for the first half of the twenty-first century will be the question of how globalization happens,” Thiel told me. “If globalization doesn’t happen, then there is no future for the world. The way it doesn’t happen is that you have escalating conflicts and wars, and given where technology is today, it blows up the world. There’s no way to invest in a world where globalization fails.” This is a bracing thought, coming as it does from one of the world’s great investors. “The question then becomes what are the best investments that are geared towards good globalization. Facebook is perhaps the purest expression of that I can think of.”

I had only been marginally aware of Facebook until a public relations person called me in the late summer of 2006 and asked if I would meet with Mark Zuckerberg. I knew that would be interesting, so I agreed. As Fortune magazine’s main tech writer in New York, I routinely met with leaders of all kinds of technology companies. But when this young man — then just twenty-two — joined me at the fancy Il Gattopardo Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan, it was at first hard to accept that he was CEO of a tech company of growing importance. He wore jeans and a T-shirt with a line drawing of a little bird on a tree. He seemed so unbelievably young! Then he opened his mouth. “We’re a utility,” he said in serious tones, using serious language. “We’re trying to increase the efficiency through which people can understand their world. We’re not trying to maximize the time spent on our site. We’re trying to help people have a good experience and get the maximum amount out of that time.” He showed no inclination to joke around. He was very focused on commanding my attention for his company and his vision. And he succeeded.

The more I listened the more he sounded like one of the successful — and much older — CEOs and entrepreneurs I talked to regularly in my job. So I casually told him I thought he seemed like a natural CEO. In my mind it was a huge compliment, one I did not give lightly. But he acted insulted. His face scrunched up with a look of distaste. “I never wanted to run a company,” he said a few minutes later. “To me a business is a good vehicle for getting stuff done.” Then for the rest of the interview he continued to say the kinds of things that only focused and visionary business leaders are capable of saying. From that moment I was confident Facebook’s importance would grow. I wrote a column after the meeting called “Why Facebook Matters.” The following year my coverage of the company in Fortune deepened when Zuckerberg invited me inside the company to do an exclusive story about its groundbreaking transformation into a platform for software applications created by outside entities. That announcement began to change how the world perceived Facebook. By the end of 2007 I had begun to believe Facebook would become one of the world’s most important companies. If that was the case, shouldn’t somebody write a book about it?

Now a 1,400-person corporation based in Palo Alto, California, Facebook has revenues that could reach $1 billion in 2010. Zuckerberg, now twenty-six, remains CEO. As a result of his determination, strategic savvy, and a fair dollop of luck, he maintains absolute financial control of the company. If he didn’t, Facebook would almost certainly today be a subsidiary of some giant media or Internet company. Buyers have repeatedly offered astounding sums of money — billions — if he would agree to sell it. But Zuckerberg is more focused on “getting stuff done” and convincing more people to use his service than he is on getting rich from it. In keeping the company independent he has kept it imbued with his own ideals, personality, and values.

From its dorm-room days, Facebook has looked simple, clean, and uncluttered. Zuckerberg has long had an interest in elegant interface design. On his own Facebook profile he lists his interests: “openness, breaking things, revolutions, information flow, minimalism, making things, eliminating desire for all that really doesn’t matter.” Despite the founder’s interest in minimalism, however, there is much about Face-book that inclines toward excess. Facebook is all information all the time. Each month about 20 billion pieces of content are posted there by members — including Web links, news stories, photos, etc. It’s by far the largest photo-sharing site on the Internet, for instance, with about 3 billion photos added each month. Not to mention the innumerable trivial announcements, weighty pronouncements, political provocations, birthday greetings, flirtations, invitations, insults, wisecracks, bad jokes, deep thoughts, and of course, pokes. There’s still a lot of stuff on Facebook that probably really doesn’t matter.

Popular though it may be, Facebook was never intended as a substitute for face-to-face communication. Though many people do not use it this way, it has always been explicitly conceived and engineered by Zuckerberg and colleagues as a tool to enhance your relationships with the people you know in the flesh — your real-world friends, acquaintances, classmates, or co-workers. As this book explains in detail, this is a core difference between Facebook and other similar services — and has introduced a particular set of challenges for the company at every turn.

The Facebook Effect most often is felt in the quotidian realm, at an intimate level among a small group. It can make communication more efficient, cultivate familiarity, and enhance intimacy. Several of your friends learn from your status update, for example, that you’ll be at the mall later. You don’t send that information to them. Facebook’s software does. They say they’ll meet you there, and they show up.

When Facebook is used as it was originally designed — to build better pathways for sharing between people who already know each other in the real world — it can have a potent emotional power. It is a new sort of communications tool based on real relationships between individuals, and it enables fundamentally new sorts of interactions. This can lead to pleasure or pain, but it undeniably affects the tenor of the lives of Facebook’s users. “Facebook is the first platform for people,” says Esther Dyson, the technology pundit, author, and investor.

Several other factors make Facebook unlike any Internet business that preceded it. First, it is both in principle and in practice based on real identity. On Facebook it is as important today to be your real self as it was when the service launched at Harvard in February 2004. Anonymity, role-playing, pseudonyms, and handles have always been routine on the Web — AOL screen name, anyone? But they have little role here. If you invent a persona or too greatly enhance the way you present yourself, you will get little benefit from Facebook. Unless you interact with others as yourself, your friends will either not recognize you or will not befriend you. A critical way other people on Facebook know you are who you say you are is by examining your list of friends. These friends, in effect, validate your identity. To get this circular validation process started you have to use your real name.

Closely connected to its commitment to genuine identity is an infrastructure intended to protect privacy and give the user control. It doesn’t always work, but Zuckerberg and other company officials say they care about it a lot. “Having the friend infrastructure and an identity base ultimately is the key to safety,” says Chris Kelly, Facebook’s longtime head of privacy, who recently took a leave to run for California state attorney general. “Trust on the Internet depends on having identity fixed and known.” If you have doubts about who you are communicating with online, your privacy is at risk. But if you know who is around you, you can authoritatively determine who you would and would not like to see your information.

Privacy, an issue we look at in greater detail in a later chapter, has been a major concern of Facebook’s users from the beginning. They often have not felt that it was sufficiently protected, and have periodically revolted in order to say so. Facebook has generally weathered these controversies well. But the issue is fraught — it is a central concern not only of Facebook’s users, but, as we will see, of Zuckerberg as well. He knows that Facebook’s long-term success will probably be defined by how well it protects its users’ privacy. Recently the company has set about simplifying and improving the controls that determine who sees what about you.

The social changes that will be brought about by the Facebook Effect will not all be positive. What does it mean that we are increasingly living our lives in public? Are we turning into a nation — and a world — of exhibitionists? Many see Facebook as merely a celebration of the minutiae of our lives. Such people view it as a platform for narcissism rather than a tool for communication. Others ask how it might affect an individual’s ability to grow and change if their actions and even their thoughts are constantly scrutinized by their friends. Could it lead to greater conformity? Are young people who spend their days on Facebook losing their ability to recognize and experience change and excitement in the real world? Are we relying too heavily on our friends for information? Does Facebook merely contribute to information overload? Could we thus become less informed?

What does being a “friend” on Facebook really mean? The average Facebook user has about 130. Can you really have 500 friends, as many do? (I have 1,028, but then I’ve been writing a book about the company.) What about 5,000, Facebook’s maximum? For some, Facebook may generate a false sense of companionship and over time increase a feeling of aloneness. So far there is little data to show how widespread this problem may be, though as our use of electronic media continues in coming years it will certainly remain a widespread concern.

Once I was sitting with Zuckerberg in a modest French bistro a mile or two from Facebook’s headquarters, just before closing time. He told me he’d never eaten steak frites before, so I’d urged him to order it. As other tables emptied out, we moved on to coffee and the staff started mopping the floor. Zuckerberg was, as always, wearing a T-shirt, but since it was a little chilly he had on another of his staples — a fleece jacket. I asked him what he thought he was doing when he created Thefacebook (the company’s original name) and how his thinking about it had evolved since the early days. His answer was all about transparency. Appropriately enough, Zuckerberg himself is almost compulsively candid.

“I mean, picture yourself — you’re in college,” he began. “You spend all your time studying theories, right? And you think about things in this abstract way. Very idealistic. Very liberal at this institution. So a lot of these values are just around you: the world should be governed by people. A lot of that stuff has really shaped me. And this is a lot of what Facebook is pushing for.

“Dustin [Moskovitz] and Chris [Hughes] [his Harvard roommates] and I would sit around and talk with other people I was taking computer science classes with. And we’d talk about how we thought that the added transparency in the world, all the added access to information and sharing [enabled by the Internet] would inevitably change big-world things. But we had no idea we would play a part in it. . . . We were just a group of college kids.” Then he describes what happened once Thefacebook launched: “Little by little — ‘Oh, more schools want this’; and ‘Okay, more types of people want this.’ . . . And it just kept getting wider and wider, and we just went, ‘Wow.’

“Then one day it kind of hit us that we could play a leading role in making this happen and pushing it forward. . . . And what seemed obvious to my group of friends who were just armchair intellectuals talking about this in college — about how transparency coming from people would transform how the world works and how institutions were governed — it was like, ‘Hey, maybe other people aren’t actually pushing this, and maybe it takes this group of people who grew up thinking these things and having these values to push it forward. Maybe we shouldn’t give up.’” And he laughs.

Mark Zuckerberg was never one to defer to authority figures. Face-book started out as his own revolt against Harvard’s unwillingness to build an online facebook. But what he built turns individuals into the authority. The entire service revolves around the profile and the actions of people. Facebook empowers them at the expense of institutions. In building it, Zuckerberg transferred a little bit of his own power to all the service’s members.

Facebook is bringing the world together. It has become an overarching common cultural experience for people worldwide, especially young people. Despite its modest beginnings as the college project of a nineteen-year-old, it has become a technological powerhouse with unprecedented influence across modern life, both public and private. Its membership spans generations, geographies, languages, and class. It may in fact be the fastest-growing company of any type in history. Facebook is even bigger in countries like Chile and Norway than it is in the United States. It changes how people communicate and interact, how marketers sell products, how governments reach out to citizens, even how companies operate. It is altering the character of political activism, and in some countries it is starting to affect the processes of democracy itself. This is no longer just a plaything for college students.

If you use the Internet, you are increasingly likely to use Facebook. It is the second-most-visited site, after Google, and claims more than 400 million active users (as of February 2010). Well over 20 percent of the 1.7 billion people on the Internet worldwide now use Facebook regularly. Facebook added high school students in fall 2005 and opened to everyone in fall 2006. Now users around the world spend about 8 billion minutes there every day (the average user spends almost an hour each day on Facebook). And even despite all its growth, the number of people there is growing at a mind-bending rate — about 5 percent a month. Were the growth rates of both Facebook and the Internet to remain steady, by 2013 every single person online worldwide would be on Facebook.

Of course that will never happen. But Facebook already operates in seventy-five languages, and about 75 percent of its active users are outside the United States. About 108 million Americans are active on Facebook, or 35.3 percent of the entire population, according to the Facebook Global Monitor, published by InsideFacebook.com. That sounds impressive. But 42 percent of Canada’s population uses it. The largest number of Facebook users is still in the United States, but the next ten countries are a global mix. In order, they are the United Kingdom, Turkey, Indonesia, France, Canada, Italy, the Philippines, Spain, Australia, and Colombia. The ten countries in which it grew fastest in the year ending February 2010, according to the Facebook Global Monitor, were Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Portugal, Thailand, Brazil, Romania, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.

Unlike just about any other website or technology business, Face-book is profoundly, centrally, about people. It is a platform for people to get more out of their lives. It is a new form of communication, just as was instant messaging, email, the telephone, and the telegraph. During the early days of the World Wide Web, people sometimes said that everyone would eventually have their own home page. Now it’s happening, but as part of a social network. Facebook connects those pages to one another in ways that enable us to do entirely new things.

But this scale, rate of growth, and social penetration raise complicated social, political, regulatory, and policy questions. How will Facebook alter users’ real-world interactions? How will repressive governments respond to this new form of citizen empowerment? Should a service this large be regulated? How do we feel about an entirely new form of communication used by hundreds of millions of people that is completely controlled by one company? Are we risking our freedom by entrusting so much information about our identity to one commercial entity? Tensions around these questions will grow if Facebook keeps extending its influence across more and more of the globe.

This book aims to explore these questions. But you can only understand how Facebook became such an amazing company and where it might go if you understand how it all got started in a dormitory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as the brainchild of a restless and irreverent nineteen-year-old kid.

From THE FACEBOOK EFFECT by David Kirkpatrick. Copyright (c) 2010 by David Kirkpatrick. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

 
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