Facebook has a billion users. A B I L L I O N. That’s one-seventh of the entire mass of humanity that covers this planet, one-hundredth of the number of human beings to have ever lived, ever. Staggeringly few other cultural experiences have been shared so broadly, so synchronously. It’s a genuine milestone not just for technology, but for humanity (seriously). And that’s exactly how Facebook hopes we’ll see it when we look back in a few years. Facebook is a chair. And a bridge and an airplane:
When Microsoft built Windows, the mission was to put a PC on every desktop in every home. There weren’t a billion PCs in use until just four years ago. And as of the end of last year, roughly one third of the world’s 7 billion people — 2.3 billion, give or take — were using the internet. In other words, nearly half of the internet-using population is on Facebook, and that’s with it officially banned in China.
The mission of Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg puts it in his profile, is “making the world more open and connected.” The (obvious) subtext of that “let’s all hug together, naked” worldview is that it’s Facebook making the connections. Not on an abstract level — though being a shared cultural touchstone on that scale does provide a kind of mutual emotional infrastructure — but in a concrete way. Facebook wants to be infrastructure in a fundamental way. I mean, Facebook seriously compared itself to chairs. And that’s what’s transformative about hitting a billion users, as Zuckerberg himself explains (emphasis mine):
But even when we were at half a billion people, you got these large-scale services like Skype or Netflix that also had big user bases. And we weren’t yet at the point where the majority of their users were Facebook users, so they couldn’t really rely on us as a piece of critical infrastructure for registration. A lot of startups did, but the bigger companies couldn’t. Now really everyone can start to rely on us as infrastructure. That’s a pretty big shift.
With Facebook Connect and Open Graph — what you mostly notice as Like buttons and Facebook logins sprinkled across the web — Facebook has spread itself across the web in a way that it underpins vast swaths of it, processing 2.7 billion Likes a day. Facebook is now officially integrated into nearly a quarter of the top 10,000 sites on the web by one count, and it’s linked by nearly half of them. What was the last news site you went on that wasn’t begging you to share the thing you’re reading on Facebook? (Which, you know, I wouldn’t mind if you passed this along. Thanks very much.) It’s hard to think of new services or startups with real ambition for giant userbases — except ones that are explicitly anti-Facebook, like Dalton Caldwell’s App.net, which is basically Twitter but “open” — that don’t integrate with or build on top of Facebook, like Sean Parker’s Airtime, a massively hyped videochat startup, or Pinterest. As more apps, sites and services hook into Facebook, Zuckerberg’s law becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy:
“Each year the amount of stuff that each individual shares is growing at this exponential rate. And that lets us project into the future and say, ‘OK, two years from now people are going to be sharing twice as much, [in] three years, four times [as much], four years, eight times as much.’”
Beyond the advent of “frictionless sharing” last fall, which constantly and instantly and ceaselessly poured what you’re reading and listening to and watching into Facebook, Facebook’s moved toward subsuming apps and app stores with its App Center, and even email and IM. It’s moving into the real world and bringing it back into Facebook, like with one of the new ways it sells and analyzes ads — it can use email addresses collected from real-world stores like CVS to better target advertisements. (You didn’t think that loyalty card was just because they really like you, right?) The endpoint of this, explains Facebook’s Mike Vernal to Bloomberg BusinessWeek:
“We are trying to map out the graph of everything in the world and how it relates to each other.”
Facebook as a chair
That is what a billion users means. The only other company that can even credibly claim to begin to do that — or try to — is Google, whose mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Google is, no doubt, a basic part of the web’s infrastructure, making sense of the 42 billion or so webpages in its index for the world to the tune of 100 billion searches a month. But Facebook is on the verge of becoming something even more than the world’s fastest, smartest librarian. It’s not about about sheer data. It’s about connections; it’s about identity. (Remember when you didn’t use your real name on the web, when you weren’t you on the internet, but simply whoever you claimed to be? Facebook changed that.) Put another way: Is Facebook doing things to be more like Google right now, or is Google doing things to be more like Facebook? (Hint: Which company’s core products like search and local listings feel like they’ve been invaded and overwhelmed by another species? Superhint: The invasive species starts with “Google” and ends with “+.”)
And so we’ve perhaps reached the point at which Facebook is too big to fail. (At the very least, it’ll take a generation or two, as web pioneer Dave Winer says.) You might hate using Facebook, but you still do. Because your friends are on it or your family or someone that you don’t or can’t connect with any other way, and they’re sharing things that matter to you, even if Facebook doesn’t. Ripping yourself away from Facebook is hard, and it’s getting harder as it becomes more entrenched as a basic part of the web, and more insidiously, as a basic component of identity on the web. That’s when you know Facebook has become something more than just another social service, uttered in the same breath as Twitter and Google Plus — that it’s become a core piece of social infrastructure.
All of which makes it harder than ever to digest Zuckerberg talking about breaking things so cavalierly — “We make more mistakes than other companies do… Microsoft has a huge focus on really rigorous, bug-free code. That’s cool.” Websites can break. Services can break. Infrastructure isn’t allowed to break. Imagine if every chair or every bridge in the world just broke, or stopped working the way you expected them to, even for five minutes. Can’t happen. Well, that’s Facebook now. Here’s to the next billion.