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The realm of consumer technologies is so fixated upon the “new” that it can be easy to forget just how long some of these platforms have been around. Thus it was a source of some mildly surprised scoffing when Facebook turned 10 (on February 4), a fact that likely gave rise to some people momentarily pausing to ponder: “wait, so how long have I been on Facebook for…really, that long?”
Granted, Facebook achieving decade status is at once factually accurate (it really was launched on February 4, 2004), and somewhat misleading. After all, when Facebook is discussed today the comments generally center around Facebook as it is now which is rather different from the Harvard only, followed by Ivy League only, followed by universities only, followed by etc…path that the social networking site took before it became the platform as we now know it. Alas, it may seem almost laughable to recall, but there really was a time when Facebook did not bombard its users with advertisements. Facebook as a company may have turned ten, but the company that blew out those ten candles is very different from the company at its outset.
Which is not to say that there was some “pure” element in Facebook’s founding that at some point went awry. It is precisely the opposite. It is a reminder that Facebook’s success was largely the result of being the right platform at the right time – Facebook emerged and began to truly grow at the right time to steal away many of MySpace’s users (especially as many MySpace users were looking for alternatives after NewsCorp purchased MySpace in 2005). Furthermore, Facebook’s rise was abetted by the emergence of smart phones that allowed the site to continue to grow and expand as an ever more persistent feature in the lives of the technologically connected. If there is a genius to Facebook, it is a genius for lucky timing.
Facebook at 10 is largely a story of the site emerging as the (significantly) dominant platform in the world of social networking. Facebook began at a time when social networks were battling for control, and Facebook won. As a result the Facebook of today is flush with users and money which it can use not only to continue expanding but to co-opt competitors before they can pose too much of a threat. While reports of Facebook’s impending demise always smell a bit of wishful thinking, Facebook’s purchase of the potential rival Instagram provides a telling commentary – just as a YouTube user is for all intents and purposes using Google, so too an Instagram user is for all intents and purposes using Instagram. And while Google+ and Tumblr (owned by Yahoo) may seek to chip away at Facebook’s position, neither has served to greatly undercut the blue thumb of Facebook.
What the case of Instagram helps to illustrate is that the story of Facebook’s rise is also a story of the steady tightening of the Internet, in which a shrinking set of companies have come to exert ever more power in the online realm. The Internet of which Facebook is now a dominant player (along with the likes of Google, Yahoo!, Twitter, and a few others) is an Internet in which the largest firms have extended their reach far beyond the territories that are obviously marked as their fiefdoms. You need not be on Facebook to see evidence of its influence. Though Facebook’s roots were largely defined by the act of “friending” its spread across the Internet has had much more to do with the “like” button, an icon that has proliferated across many areas of the online world giving Facebook a certain level of omnipresence – Facebook always has its thumb in the pie, so to speak.
Reflecting upon Facebook at 10 requires a certain level of cognizance of the criticisms that have been repeatedly hurled at Facebook (particularly in more recent years): the site cares only superficially for user privacy, the site has become totally saturated with advertising, the site has mutilated the meaning of a “friend” and in the same way has turned the act of “liking” something into a bland sort of engagement, that the site has made the act of quitting the social network a perilous journey worth of Odysseus, and that the frequent changes to policies (terms of service) has made it difficult for people to honestly assess that to which they have agreed. Yet all of these points are simultaneously signals of the earlier mentioned points: by achieving a position of such dominance Facebook is better able to do – pretty much – whatever it wants. After all, Facebook’s user base has grown to a size that acts of boycott by segments numbering even in the thousands poses no existential threat to the site, particularly as the act of quitting Facebbok has become such an ordeal that it is doubtful how many people will genuinely quit (and truly stay gone).
And yet, Facebook’s greatest achievement is not in its number of users it is in the way that it has become the standard, the expected, it is the platform that many define themselves in relation to even if they do not want to do so. Thus when people proudly (or with vague disinterest) state that they “are not on Facebook” or they “have deactivated their Facebook account” or they maintain a “deliberately sparse profile on the site” or they “haven’t logged in for ages” they wind up defining these acts in relation to Facebook. There is a degree to which Facebook has simply become assumed of people, such that not having a presence on that site (limited though it may be) strikes many as odd no matter how thoughtfully grounded such a stance may be. While this results in acts of media refusal having a clear target (“I’m not on Facebook”) these moves simultaneously act to reinforce the dominance of Facebook by forcing people to define themselves and their acts not as choices in and of themselves but as stances in relation to Facebook. For better, or more likely for worse, Facebook has become the way that many people talk about and debate social networking technology.
It remains unclear exactly what Facebook will look like in 10 years, though the site’s reliance on growth in new markets allows the self-serving aspect to shine through in its advocacy for bringing Internet access to ever more areas. Likewise it remains to be seen how Facebook will move forward as “wearable tech” and the “smart home” rise in prominence. Yet the degree to which Facebook has become a commandeering presence in our online activity and in our offline assumptions suggests that it is unlikely that Facebook is going to disappear even if it increasingly hides behind a façade of other services like Instagram.
Facebook’s first ten years serve as a perfect testament to the steady enclosure of the Internet. Years in which platforms like Facebook (and Google) have gained that most expensive and allusive property: people have simply become used to them, and to their downsides as well.
But as Facebook turns 10 it’s important to remember, the site’s users are not being given a piece of the cake. They are the cake being devoured.