SAN FRANCISCO - The calendar may say 2014, but in tech culture today actually marks the year 10 A.F — After Facebook.
What did we poor humans do before the advent of Mark Zuckerberg's collegiate brainstorm? Let's see, we smiled when we "liked" something, we dialed the phone to "update" friends and "tagging" was a kids' game.
The upside of those innocent pre-social media times: intimacy. The downside: intimacy. If you wanted to reach a huge group, it meant sending an e-mail with a cc list that looked like the phone book.
Then came teenage Zuck and his shrewdly rolled-out vision for a new kind of digital club where you played bouncer, all with a Machiavellian backstory that eventually merited its own Oscar-winning movie, The Social Network. Facebook haters crowed after its hyped IPO last May quickly went sour, but the company has bounced back with a fiscal vengeance.
By the end of 2013, its turbo-charged stock had made founder Zuckerberg, 29, a $31 billion man thanks to $7.9 billion in annual revenue, a 55% jump over 2012. Fueling such growth was rapid mobile adoption, which last quarter accounted for 53% of all advertising and paves the way for a bullish new year.
At the heart of this business boom is a service that over the past decade has revolutionized and expanded — for better or for worse — the way humans interact. A million of us liked the site in 2004, then 250 million five years later. Today, Facebook has 1.2 billion users. Even if the site were to disappear or wildly reinvent itself in the next decade, our habits are forever altered.
"The biggest impact of Facebook was that it broke us out of e-mail jail," says Paul Saffo, a longtime Silicon Valley futurist. "E-mail implied you had to reply, Facebook did not. E-mail is formal, Facebook is a salutation. E-mail you send, Facebook you broadcast. It's simply a new social medium for which we're still learning the social norms."
While Facebook has spawned plenty of unappealing habits — oversharing perhaps topping that list — its genius was in creating a platform that allowed people to connect over long distances and reconnect over lost years. It tapped into a yearning that grew with the geographic scattering of the nation's workforce.
Your childhood neighborhood may be but a memory, but it could gather once again on Facebook.
"In the recent past, if you left people physically for a job or marriage, you simply moved on, but Facebook made maintaining those relationship easy," says Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research and author of the forthcoming book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
"The important takeaway from Facebook's rise is that people have a desire to connect broadly," she says. "For the longest time, technology limited communication to one on one; just think of the telephone. But now our worlds are complicated networks that overlap. The implications of that have yet to be fully realized."
That may well be, but most of today's Facebook users aren't too concerned with the sociological ramifications of a shift in human communication. They're just glad they can keep grandma or little Billy posted on what's new.
"I lived in California and my grandmother lived in upper Michigan, and I had felt really badly about losing touch until she got a laptop and signed up for Facebook," says Kristy Campbell, 46, a communications director at Juniper Networks.
"Our world opened up to her. She attended my daughter's graduation and prom via Facebook, and when she suddenly passed away. I was left with a digital record of our interactions that I will never take down," says Campbell, who also used the site to create a network of divorcees that helped each other through that life change. "I really don't remember life before Facebook."
For every Facebook user who may have gotten tired of maintaining their page and quit, countless testimonials speak to the network's transformative effect.
Ann Friedlander, 65, of West Palm Beach, Fla., has children in Hong Kong, Connecticut and California. Without Facebook, she says, "I'd never know what they're up to or see photos of my grandchildren."
She also used the site to get back in touch with childhood friends in New Jersey and, more poignantly "discovered, through Facebook, that a neighbor died on 9/11 trying to rescue someone."
In remote Morro Bay midway down the California coast, Kelly Lipton, 64, uses Facebook to ease her sense of isolation, which is amplified by hearing issues. "I find Facebook is a good way to keep up," she says. "I love it so much I can't believe it."
And while much has been made of late about how younger generations are fast migrating away from Facebook to newer social networking sites and apps, Bella Maestas, 15, of Hillsborough, Calif., loves the way Facebook helps her tackle homework with classmates and stay connected socially.
"In a way, it takes the place of the diary," she says. "It also leaves a mark of you on the world. Everyone wants to be known, noticed and remembered."
Whether Zuckerberg knew he was tapping into something as universal as a need to reach out and be remembered is unknown. But, by all accounts, a missionary's zeal permeated the initially small Silicon Valley offices of Facebook as the company built momentum.
"It was pretty remarkable when I started (in late 2004), still a living room operation in Los Altos Hills," says Ezra Callahan, 32, who joined the team just out of Stanford and was employee No. 6.
He left in 2010 and took "a year to recover." The all-in intensity was such that employees were encouraged to live as close to work as possible.
"You were given a $600-a-month stipend if you lived within a mile of the company, and half of us qualified," he says. "It was intentional. We were a family. The value of having such a close culture was it made people want to stay and work harder."
Peter Sealey, a former marketing director at Coca-Cola and Columbia Pictures, joined Facebook's board of advisers a few years after its launch. "Even then," he says, "you could immediately tell these people were working on something that would have a profound impact on society."
Sealey says to him Facebook's future was self-evident when he took into account technologist George Gilder's law, which states that the value of a network goes up with the square of the number of users.
"Today, the Catholic Church has 1.2 billion members, and so does Facebook, in just 10 years," he says. "Humans have an ingrained need to have a tribe and to share among that tribe. Myspace could have won this battle, but Zuckerberg just built a more convenient and familiar service."
Speaking of the Harvard dropout (he's in good company: so was Bill Gates), it's clear Zuckerberg doesn't intend to rest on his laurels or his cash.
"We can do a better job" informing members about newly added features, Zuckerberg told USA TODAY at a company event in Menlo Park in December. "We have focus groups explaining what we intend to do, but we still catch a lot of people by surprise."
Facebook's willingness to be flexible with its approach when it has to be will be key to its future, says Bret Taylor, the company's former chief technology officer who oversaw integration with Apple's iOS software as well as the adoption of the famous Like button.
"Facebook could be very different in 10 years, but I see it being around, because it's not afraid to change often," he says, offering as example the company's purchase of photo-sharing site Instagram for $1 billion last April.
"There are interesting parallels in Google buying YouTube and Facebook buying Instagram. I was at each company when that happened, and both were criticized for overpaying," he says. "Both turned out to be good deals. It is hugely important in moving forward to show a willingness to be bold."
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
As for the future, there was some buzz recently about a Princeton University study that said Facebook was akin to a viral outbreak that would mercifully abate, losing 80% of its peak user base in the next few years.
Facebook's cheeky response was to offer a "report" by its data scientists predicting that "Princeton will have only half its current enrollment by 2018, and by 2021 it will have no students at all."
Jibes and parries aside, Facebook's next decade is likely to be more tumultuous than its culturally dominant first 10 years. A recent YPulse survey revealed that 65% of those under 18 thought Facebook was "losing its cool factor."
But regardless of this cultural patriarch's future, the best way to judge Facebook's impact is the same way we ultimately assess the job of any parent – by their kids, which in social media terms include Twitter, SnapChat, WhatsApp and international successes such as Japan's Line and China's WeChat.
Facebook taught us that the Internet could be used to share our lives in a way and with a scope that was novel, and just as the dominant communication tool of the moment was growing ponderous.
"Remember when America Online started, and you'd hear that ping and the voice said 'You've got mail,'? Well that soon had turned into, 'Argh, I've got mail,' " says author Boyd with a laugh. "Then Facebook came along, and all of a sudden, 'Oooo, there are all my friends!'
"There may be a lot of shiny new (social media) apps out there now, but Facebook's impact was as extraordinarily important as AOL's. AOL opened up people to the Internet. Facebook opened up people to each other."