A startling tech trajectory
At last, Facebook has embarked on the path toward its IPO, the ultimate Silicon Valley rite of passage and the end of a company's startup phase.
That makes now a good time to stop and marvel at how far Facebook has come in the eight years since a Harvard student got the crazy notion that he could slap together some code and build a better social network.
Facebook has long since joined the pantheon of the most important Web companies: Google. Amazon. EBay. Twitter. In some ways it feels like it has surpassed them in terms of its cultural dominance.
One can feel it in the way Google, which long dominated the Web, seems to be scrambling to reinvent itself to look more like Facebook. On a grander stage, we see it in the way various activists have cited it as a major factor in their ability to organize a demonstration, a protest, a boycott, a happening. Even a revolution or two.
Ready to change the world
In a remarkable letter to investors that was released along with the company's IPO filing, co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear that his ambitions for the company have grown even loftier. His intention is to change the world — personal relationships, economies, governments — not the grubby business of making money. If he does the first part, the second part will take care of itself.
"We think it's important that everyone who invests in Facebook understands what this mission means to us, how we make decisions and why we do the things we do," Zuckerberg wrote. "Today, our society has reached another tipping point. We live at a moment when the majority of people in the world have access to the Internet or mobile phones — the raw tools necessary to start sharing what they're thinking, feeling and doing with whomever they want. Facebook aspires to build the services that give people the power to share and help them once again transform many of our core institutions and industries."
Grandiose, yes. But pause to consider Facebook's user statistics. They are simply astonishing. The world has about 7 billion people. Of those, 2.1 billion are the Internet. And of those, almost half are on Facebook: 845 million. Considering about 500 million Internet users are in China, and therefore blocked from using Facebook, it's fair to say that the company has just about saturated the planet.
But the company is not satisfied, writing in the IPO filing: "There are more than two billion global Internet users, according to an industry source, we aim to connect all of them."
Zuckerberg's shareholder letter says the company plans to meet that goal by running the company in the same way that got it to this point. Facebook, he writes, achieved success by being a meritocracy, one that encourages rapid experimentation with new features, an internal culture he dubbed, "The Hacker Way." The company, he says, has made mistakes and will make more. But it will continue to prize speed and change over the status quo.
"We work hard at making Facebook the best place for great people to have a big impact on the world and learn from other great people," Zuckerberg writes. "The vast majority of hackers I've met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world."
Hard to argue with the results so far. Indeed, it seems strange to think that just a couple of years ago, many of us were skeptics, asking, "Where's the business model?" With $1 billion in profits last year, Facebook should quell any doubters.
Greater success, greater scrutiny
Yet despite this deep integration of Facebook into our lives, the social network also occupies a strange place in the Silicon Valley. It never really enjoyed a honeymoon period, unlike say Google, and in fact it is decidedly uncool to love Facebook. The taste makers have moved on to champion more obscure social darlings, like Path and Pinterest.
And there are plenty of people here and around the world who dismiss Facebook as a narcissistic cesspool of trivial updates.
With its increasing dominance has come both greater success and greater scrutiny. Every design change, every new feature is subject to almost reflexive howls of outrage and protests. But it's worth noting that these fits of disdain indicate both the level of responsibility the company must now shoulder, and how vital it has become in our everyday digital lives.
In its filing, Facebook noted: "We also have posted the phrase 'this journey is 1 percent finished' across many of our office walls, to remind employees that we believe that we have only begun fulfilling our mission to make the world more open and connected."
Perhaps. But it will be hard for the next 99 percent to match the astonishment, impact and transformation of the first 1 percent.