What The Social Network (2010) teaches us about Facebook (2020)

Time flies. The Social Network turned 10 last week. If you haven’t seen the story of the early years of Facebook, you really should really catch up. Far more than a biopic of Mark Zuckerberg, it threads together courtroom drama, cyber-thriller and throws in a dash of Shakespearean tragedy. Yes, it’s really that good*.


The film feels timeless thanks to the quality of the direction and writing (David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin). So it’s easy to forget how different the world was in 2010. But different it was, technologically, socially, and politically. The iPhone 4 was the smartphone of choice, while the iPad (remember that?) launched in April that year. Twitter was on the cusp of 100 million active users, while a new photography app, called Instagram, launched in October.


Should you need reminding, Barack Obama was halfway through his first term as US President, while the UK election resulted in the first coalition government since the Second World War. The leader of the co-ruling Liberal party, Nick Clegg, now holds down a senior position at Facebook as Vice-President, Global Affairs and Communications.

But we were starting to socialise more online. Internet dating was already entering the mainstream and in 2012, the year that Tinder launched, more heterosexual couples met online than any other environment.


Indeed one of the standout scenes in The Social Network occurs when a student accosts Zuckerberg asking whether or not a female colleague is single. A lightbulb sparks and within seconds Zuckerberg codes a ‘relationship status’ field ensuring that the platform is launched to the world with its early USP already baked in.

Source: Financial Times


The unstoppable rise of smartphone photography

But there was nothing inevitable about Facebook’s stellar growth in the past 10 years. If you’d ask me at the time to bet on a social platform I’d have chosen FourSquare, the geo-location app that encouraged users to check in at a locations and so become the ‘Mayor’ of their favourite bar or restaurant.


Twitter was another favourite and of course it’s still with us. But in terms of active users it has merely tripled its numbers while Facebook has grown from 500 million to 2.5 billion people worldwide. As for Instagram, by sheer coincidence, Kevin Synstrom posted the first Instagram picture the very day before The Social Network was released in the US.


It’s also easy to forget that in 2010, most social media photographs were displayed as thumbnails, even on laptops. Serious photographers used Flickr, while photography apps, such as Hipstamatic, focused on filters that compensated for the limitations of built-in phone cameras.


Looking back, Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram was an act of genius. In the past 10 years, smartphone camera technology has evolved to the point where my mid-range smartphone out-performs my old DSLR. Indeed, the only reason that anyone really gets excited about the latest Pixel phone or iPhone is the built-in camera. Obvious in hindsight, but not in 2010.


Instagram’s photo-centric user experience was so dominant that Facebook soon followed, promoting News Feed photographs from thumbnail size to full width. Even today Instagram can claim to be the world’s most influential social network outperforming Twitter, Snapchat and even its parent platform. Not even a social media darling such as TikTok comes close with ‘merely’ 500 million active users at the last official count.

Facebook news feed 2010: Source, Techcrunch


The great survivor

What’s next? I’ve lost count of the number of “Facebook is dead articles” published during the past decade. The platform has survived rival attempts to muscle into the social space. When in doubt, it has acquired the most likely contenders, including WhatsApp and Oculus VR.


Then there were all the stories about young people abandoning the platform. It’s not exclusive enough. It’s too uncool. But instead of fading away, Facebook became the default platform for people of all ages crossing mind-blowing active user thresholds: 500 million in 2010, one billion in 2012, and 2.5 billion today.


Why did Facebook survive while others came and went? To be fair, FourSquare has successfully pivoted and is now a thriving enterprise platform. But Google Plus? Google Buzz? MySpace? Distant social memories. Personally, I think it’s because Zuckerberg anticipated the overall trajectory of smartphone technology, fueled by 4G, ubiquitous wi-fi, and advances in inbuilt cameras.


Add to that literally hundreds of creator apps and you have all the ingredients for an exponential growth in content and equivalent demand for sharing platforms. With audience comes data and a $500 billion social media business driven by highly targeted advertising.


The challenge for Facebook in the coming decade will be to anticipate and shape a social world driven by 5G networks and artificial intelligence. We may talk about edge AI embedded on smartphones in the same way we once gasped at GPS and 2MP photographs. Who knows how ‘always on’ 5G speeds will affect consumers? More to the point, how will it disrupt the relationship between advertisers and consumers?


There’s a hint of what’s to come in the recent announcement of Facebook Glasses. Facebook lives off data, especially labeled data that fuels machine learning and helps refine algorithms. Perhaps 5G will finally push augmented reality into the mainstream, making networked headgear genuinely useful. If it does, you can be sure that Facebook will want control over the device (and its data) having ceded the smartphone advantage to Apple, Samsung and others.


A donkey in the room

But the elephant in the room, or the donkey if you’re looking for a US political metaphor, is the potential breakup of the business. Earlier this month after a 16-month investigation into competitive practices at Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the US House Judiciary subcommittee on antitrust released its recommendations on how to limit the power of the world’s biggest tech companies.


According to CNBC, “The report concludes that the four Big Tech companies enjoy monopoly power and suggests Congress take up changes to antitrust laws that could result in parts of their businesses being separated.” Remember, this is a Democrat subcommittee and Republicans object to many of these recommendations. But still. 10 years after The Social Network, eight years after the acquisition of Instagram and 16 years after its initial launch, Facebook is facing its biggest challenge of all.

*At the 2011 Oscars, The Social Network won for best editing, screenplay and original score. Inexplicably, best film, best director and best actor went to The King’s Speech. The decision is even harder to understand when you look at the quality of the other nominated films: The Kids are Alright, Winter’s Bone, True Grit, Toy Story 3, Inception, The Fighter, Black Swan and 127 Hours. A rotten choice all round.


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© 2020 Peter Springett.