In November 2010, I checked into the Silicon Valley Four Seasons for two weeks to write TIME’s Person of the Year story on Mark Zuckerberg. They were a good two weeks, and not just because of the room service. I got a close-up look at Facebook at a fascinating moment in its history, when it was attempting to pivot from being a user-acquiring growth monster to being a mature platform on and around which other more established companies could rebuild themselves.
I wrote the piece. I made — as one does — a lot of generalizations and forward-looking statements. I stole a suitcase-full of those little moisturizing lotions. Then I checked out of the Four Seasons and went home.
Now, a year and a half later, with Facebook on the verge of its IPO, it seems like a good moment to revisit that story — to go back and see what’s changed, what I got right and what I got wrong.
(VIDEO: A Brief History of Facebook)
In some ways, not much has changed at all. Zuckerberg is living in a new and slightly fancier house. Facebook has kept on adding employees at the same rate — head count reportedly doubled to around 3,200 last year. He’s also kept on adding users at the same rate: in 2010 we projected that Facebook would hit a billion users in 2012. It’s right on track: it has 900 million, and it’ll probably cross the billion threshold in August.
Likewise, now that Facebook can make its revenue numbers public, we know that the rumors back then were accurate: the company made $2 billion in 2010, $3.7 billion in 2011. I feel nostalgic for the time in my life when those numbers were surprising.
The landscape around Facebook hasn’t changed much either. True, Google+ arrived in mid-2011, but while it’s shown off some cool features, the “openness” of its platform hasn’t proved irresistible to users or developers. It’s crossed the 100 million-user mark, but that number feels a bit soft: those users don’t spend much time on Google+, and I suspect that part of the time they do spend there is because they clicked on the wrong link from some other Google site. Facebook should probably figure out a way to clone Google+’s Hangout feature, but otherwise it’s a very containable threat. The biggest surprise in the social world is the emergence of Pinterest, which by some measures is the third most popular social network in the U.S. I’ll be a little surprised if Pinterest finishes 2012 without a serious acquisition attempt from Google or Facebook.
Because of the IPO there’s been a lot of press about Zuckerberg’s record as a manager. It’s an area where he looked vulnerable in 2010. He doesn’t look very vulnerable anymore. He’s hung on to his power, and he’s using it with more authority and more steadiness — look at the swift, firm, largely single-handed way he made the billion-dollar deal for Instagram. He’s also hung on to his key personnel: his sister Randi left the firm, but Sheryl Sandberg and the major technical players have all remained, and that’s no mean feat in the human-resources shell game of Silicon Valley. At the time, I made much of Zuckerberg’s “blind spot” about personal privacy, but the company has gone 18 months without a major personal-data disaster. There was pushback on Timeline, definitely, but we didn’t see Beacon-level outrage. Either Zuckerberg has learned from his mistakes or he has crushed our will to resist him. Either way: that’s good management.
But even though we’re not seeing dramatic showdowns, the privacy question is still in a broader and more difficult sense very much a live one. When I interviewed Zuckerberg in 2010, we were at the dawn of the age of the Open Graph. This was and is a rather grand concept: Facebook offers its awesome social clout to other companies and services, and those partners in turn integrate Facebook into their infrastructure. Fair swap. The power of social is proven: Facebook won photo sharing because people like organizing their photos socially, around who’s in them. What if you could organize your TV viewing, your Web browsing, your job searching, everything, the same way? Facebook was going to start a social revolution and sell guns to the rebels. “I think the next five years are going to be about building out this social platform,” Zuckerberg said. “It’s about the idea that most applications are going to become social, and most industries are going to be rethought in a way where social design and doing things with your friends is at the core of how these things work.”
We haven’t seen that come to pass. Admittedly we’re in the realm of personal observation here, but when I’ve run across sites and services moving in that direction, I’ve felt an instinctive urge to resist — to desocialize. When Facebook started feeding me information about what people I know are listening to on Spotify or what news articles they’re reading — or worse, feeding other people info about what I’m doing — I looked for ways to shut down or opt out of that feed.
“The thing that I really care about is making the world more open and connected,” Zuckerberg told me in 2010. And I still believe him. But Facebook is starting to crowd me, to jostle me, making other people present to me in ways I don’t want them to be. It makes me want to be alone, to disconnect; I wonder if we’re reaching a natural social threshold, a point at which we max out on how much data about other people we can absorb. Back then, the people I spoke to at Facebook saw a future in which our social standards of privacy shift incrementally toward openness. “When caller ID came out, people went psycho,” one engineer said. “The reality is now you won’t pick up a call unless you know who’s calling you.” And that’s true. But you can’t keep moving the chains indefinitely, they have to stop somewhere.
I wonder if that’s why Facebook hasn’t yet found the major media and service partners it would need to make its Open Graph vision of the world a reality. I mean, no doubt, Facebook is tighter than ever with Zynga, but I’m not seeing it integrating with major old-world pre-social-revolution institutions — with cable companies or TV networks or even with the old-school game publishers. I can’t get into my car and tell the GPS to direct me to the houses of my Facebook friends. The world is remaining stubbornly unsocial.
Which makes me think about Facebook’s decision to have an IPO at all. In 2010 that move seemed years off — Zuckerberg was adamant that he felt no pressure to go public, that he was part of a new generation of entrepreneurs that didn’t need the IPO victory lap to feel like they’d made it. And again, I believed him, and still do. But there are a lot of other reasons for Facebook to go public, and I wonder if one of them is to give Facebook the cash it would need to either acquire or make deals with the partners it needs, and hasn’t gotten, to make the Open Graph vision happen. Facebook needs friends — and if it can’t make them the old-fashioned way, maybe it can buy some.