Editor's note: Now 10 years old, Facebook's growth is starting to slow. That's one reason it purchased What'sApp last month in a jaw-dropping deal valued at $19 billion. What might the next decade be like? Harvard Business School Associate Professor Misiek Piskorski, an authority on why and how people use various online social platforms, makes some predictions.
In the first decade of its existence, Facebook, aided by the broad adoption of mobile devices and fast internet connections, emerged as a virtual Cheers bar where people share their lives with a legion of geographically dispersed friends and acquaintances and reconnect with faces from the past. First college students, then Millennials, and soon after, their parents and grandparents were drawn in by the allure of this pioneering social network that effectively shrank the world down to a portable and vibrant community.
The company recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, and for much of that time, Facebook's stunning growth—more than 1.2 billion users worldwide—has been the story. That said, the core Facebook functionalities have remained essentially unchanged for the past several years, and so pundits wonder whether Facebook's attraction has peaked. The apparent disappearance of teenagers from the site has made these concerns even greater. I disagree with this conclusion. Teenagers will return to the site when they are older, and Facebook will continue to grow in size, particularly in India, Indonesia, Brazil, and Africa.
But what will Facebook look like a decade from now? In 2024, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will turn 40. His creation will then undoubtedly bear little resemblance to its current look and feel. A decade of technological progress will result in major changes, and I believe the site will morph into a potent and active force in people's lives.
Today, Facebook is a passive vehicle where users manually post pictures, status updates, and YouTube videos. And then they quietly observe what others have posted, occasionally offering a comment, but often just scrolling down through content. As such, Facebook is a retrospective medium, a place to share experiences already completed and then put them on display. But the company does little to capture information as it happens, and even less to help us organize the future.
But this will change as Facebook becomes a prospective medium—a dynamic, real-time driver that will automatically gather current and future information that wearable devices will automatically broadcast about us, match it with what our friends are auto-broadcasting, and then deliver recommendations on what we should do socially. This will help us get off the mobile phone and actually meet up in the offline world. This way, Facebook will become less of a website to visit than an invisible conduit to the most important aspects of people's lives, a way to keep a closer eye on their children, plan social interactions, be alerted to pertinent products and services, and accelerate the value of a person's connections.
Two trends will lead to this outcome. First, people are already sharing private information generated by their wearable devices, such as Nike FuelBand. The device is a part of a greater Nike+ ecosystem that has attracted over 18 million users who happily share their athletic achievements with others. Just do a search on #nikeplus on Twitter, and you will discover a Nike-related tweet every 10 seconds in every conceivable language. Second, many companies are already encouraging us to share private information automatically. For example, if you are using Google Maps on your iPhone, you are most likely sending information to Google about your location and speed—data the company aggregates to present us with up-to-date traffic maps. It won't be long, however, before the two trends converge, and we will start broadcasting personal information automatically as we go through our day. As soon as Facebook develops appropriate algorithms to deliver the right social information to the right people and demonstrates their utility to us, adoption will soar.
While all this is happening, Facebook's marketing influence will accelerate dramatically, providing a growing revenue stream for the company. When Facebook first started it was no more than a mechanism to attract eyeballs for businesses. Since then it has evolved into a sophisticated marketing machine that enables marketers to serve targeted messages on the basis of our email address or mobile phone number.
But in 2024, technology will make possible real-time marketing possible. As we auto-broadcast our social data, Facebook can respond to them immediately with targeted offers in response to what we need right now. If I walk down the street and feel hungry, for example, Facebook will suggest a set of friends who live nearby and seem available and then advertise a restaurant that we all might like. Or if my nanny suddenly becomes ill and can't pick up my four-year old from preschool, Facebook will automatically display an advertisement for a substitute nanny who has worked for four close friends and who can step in and pick up my child.
Granted, this has the heavy feel of the movie "Minority Report" taken to its ultimate limits, and the road to 2024 will undoubtedly be bumpy and filled with controversy related to privacy. Over its first decade, Facebook has been no stranger to controversy, specifically about privacy controls, and it is to the company's credit that its growth has continued despite such concerns.
This time, however, given the amount of information disclosed, Facebook will need to execute as flawlessly as possible. If it gets the privacy component wrong and infuriates its users, its survival is not guaranteed. Some other startup, maybe from China or maybe a US-based open source venture, will step in and grab that territory. And there is much to grab, with the world population soaring to 8 billion people by 2024. But if Facebook does get it right, it can easily grab half that population.
Is this an optimistic scenario or a Big Brother nightmare? There are a vast number of ways that this might potentially make our lives better and happier. And there are just as many ways that Facebook can go awry. If the main driver is to use the technology for invasive and intrusive paths toward profit, Facebook's future may well be questionable. If it can incorporate a real and active impetus to do the right thing for humanity, it will be much more successful in the years ahead than it has been in the past decade.
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[This article was provided with permission from Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.]