As a student of technology and information systems with a keen interest and passion in policy and innovation, I have found myself to adore Facebook for reasons far above and beyond its ability to get people excited upon being accepted by individuals of the opposite sex, at least usually. While Neil Patrick Harris may use this word too casually at McLarens, I truly believe Facebook is LEGENDARY, much more than just a buzz word or a short-lived phenomenon, and I’d ‘Like’ to explain why I think so in the most concise way possible.
Technology developers can be leaders and entrepreneurs
Since the late 1980s, when personal computing started to become economical, and theories of computers never reaching the masses began to get dismissed, we saw a rise of young computer science graduates with very little work experience (and sometimes college drop-outs) start independently running software firms with almost no capital, minimal resources, and sadly no social support, sympathy or hope to succeed. Few succeeded – we all know the stories of the Bill Gates’s, the Steve Jobs’s, and the Narayan Murthis, but few of us discuss the stories of the many failed attempts to win in this industry – which was a very large number. Even the successful ones did not have it easy – it took them years of hard-work, belief and patience to simply break even in the market. There were many reasons for this – lack of catalysts and a supporting environment, slow industry adoption, social stigmas, technology, etc. (that discussion is beyond the scope of this article). This continued until early 2000s, post dot-com bubble, when these software developers were skeptical about producing almost anything related to software and the internet. At this point, you must know that since time, computer scientists have been looked down upon when it comes to social, business and communication skills.
And then, all of a sudden, a new league of what have come to be known as “technopreneurs”, started gaining momentum in the software industry and on the internet. Many less experienced computer scientists, who began humbly, started to get noticed by bullish venture capitalists (VCs). Computing was becoming cheaper than ever before, and internet access started reaching more and more members of the tech-savvy community. A sort of ecosystem began to get form – and before we could predict, these technopreneurs became leaders everyone looks up to today. During this period, a young Harvard drop-out, Mark Zuckerberg, used free and open source software, community support and some serious investment from his family and VCs to lead what today is the largest social network on the internet.
This did something fascinating for young software developers: it started making them believe that they were capable of turning overnight hacked code into leading technology start-ups that create ripples in the community. It made them realize that there is a community of supporters that believe in what they create, and that they are now needed in the market. Lastly, it made them believe that their energy and effort in engineering a good product could someday mean a highly profitable public company. And hundreds followed: Evan Williams with Twitter, Andrew Mason with Groupon, to name only a few.
Knowing your customers and communicating to them
Since the foundations of trading and commerce, the fundamental goal of businesses was to manufacture more at lesser prices. Over the past 20 years, we have seen a drastic move in energy of companies from merely producing goods and services, to producing great experiences that the users enjoy. In this process, continuous feedback mechanisms have played a great role in helping these companies understand what the users really want. But the challenge that has always persisted remains the capturing of this data and being able to establish 2-way communication with the users. This is despite the fact that these firms were willingly spending millions of dollars in such research.
Facebook has allowed organizations across the world to know its customers better and establish this communication. It is a concept ahead of advertising – it is a system that allows qualitative and contextual feedback. It is a free, open and transparent yet crowded medium: which means that the only way an organization can gain customer knowledge and insight is by providing better experiences that are valuable to customers, whether it be a multimillionaire conglomerate or an ill-funded NGO down the street. Companies are now learning more about this phenomenon and investing huge amount of time and money in building strategies to get customers to ‘Like’ them.
Social revolutions during oppression (its operating on a open and free platform)
We are all well aware of the uprising and revolts/revolutions in Iran, followed by Libya and Egypt and many more parts of the Middle East (including my peaceful home country, Oman). These have repeatedly shown us the potential of social media in allowing a set of unorganized individuals across the country to very quickly organize themselves to achieve newly established common goals of freedom and liberation. Such organizations were simply not possible without this online social movement (spearheaded by Facebook) because their meet-ups and gatherings would be attacked by tremendous resistance from local armed forces and other government-loyal bodies. With Facebook, the entire playing ground for these activities has transformed – and the restriction on freedom of speech and thought vanishes, even if it still is inscribed in the newest golden copy of the constitution of that country. As long as the telecommunications powers of the world are able to win the fight to preserve network neutrality and no unreasonable content discrimination, we are assured this platform is here to stay.
What is beautiful about Facebook is that it is open. It is free. No control on what you are thinking or writing about – because it’s leaders know that self-expression is one of the most empowering ideas of the 21st century for common man. And as long as they make an effort to maintain this – healthy discussions will continue, ideas will arise, leaders will emerge, better ways of doing things will be discovered, and most importantly: every individual will feel heard, which has never been an agenda on any of mankind’s limited time meetings with 1-3 loud self-obsessed team members.
The ideas of getting organized hasn’t necessarily been restricted to political revolutions and the birth of hate groups. This is the very platform that has allowed Michael Jackson fans to coordinate flash-mobs in Europe, think tanks and interest groups to organize social and green movements, and empower thousands of teen fans of Anime to share thoughts on why they love it so much. It has given millions on individuals hundreds of fulfilling moments each.
International bodies’ belief in ground-up initiatives
Take a moment and think: What are policies? How do advocating organizations come up with these today? A few of you (others not so much) will be surprised to know what I have learned about policies: which is that their roots and motivations lie in popular trends in the community that people begin to trust over time. Whether it be related to telecommunications or taxation, industry regulations or international aid, governments and advocating organizations observe prevalent trends and people’s aggregate demands and needs before passing judgments on how the society should ideally function.
That said, we also know that never before has an application on the internet ever caught the eye of these organizations as much as Facebook has. Initially skeptical, these organizations have realized the power, potential and capabilities of such an important network. Governments have identified that in order to engage its citizens better, it needs to allow for and learn to appreciate ground-up initiatives which are born out of this social network. Increasingly, we see government bodies, advocacy organizations and public interest groups using Facebook as a tool to extend their feedback loops (I won’t pass my judgments on the current ones, here) to their community for gaining insight and giving an impression of “we are listening to you” to its people. The fact that these organizations are acknowledging the presence of this online community and beginning to fear their power is an enormous advancement in the idea of democracy, in my opinion.
But what is more interesting to notice is how much the platform has inspired governments to act and think about electronic identity of nationals, and the nature of possibilities can that can arise as result of successful collaborations between these bodies and the multi-billionaire company. The standards of open identity and mobility of social profiles laid by Facebook (much after OpenID) has given governments food for thought on some of the most challenging information systems problems they are confronted with today including corruption due to presence of too many middle men, banking, education, rationed food, census and population data collection, identity, healthcare, etc. only to name a few. The number of innovations to come as a result of this are going to exponentially increase in the coming years if these governments and organizations are able to build effective strategies and conduct even more effective implementation of these schemes. (A great example to look at here is India’s national ID project: Aadhar).
The innovation cult & the inspiration
Facebook stands as a role-model and a classic inspiration for creators and innovators today. It has given a great push and path to a stream of innovation in technology – especially on the internet. The ideas of hyper-innovation and importance of customers have been embedded in every strategic move made by Facebook – and it serves as an excellent example of the most brilliantly developed products of all times, along with a few others. It is a unique combination of very strong foundations of technology research, agile product development in a hyper-competitive market, vigorous leadership, and brilliance in user experience.
Facebook inspires college graduates enormously today. It has strengthened a long-lost belief of the impact hardwork, commitment, determination and a bunch of free tools on personal computers can have in building products that challenge market leaders in the industry – or give birth to a new industry entirely. While this has been most encouraging specifically to the computing and internet industry, the spirit of being able to create something at such a young age motivates every toddler dreamer.
An open model for success and quality
Who says the Winklevoss brother’s idea that the network should be closed was the golden reason behind making Facebook a killer app? In my opinion, one of the factors that played a strong role in allowing Facebook to grow beyond other existing social networks was the idea of openness. Facebook (after Google) is one of the most open and transparent success stories of the Internet. From their idea of applications for developers to harness the power of the social graph to justifying every decision made by the organization (usually upon launching a new product) using blog-like posts, Facebook has consistently shown its belief in inclusiveness by being open.
What’s even more interesting is the openness in the space of technologies that Facebook utilizes and supports. This might come as a shock to those who think that open-source software is no good, but the fact is that not only was Facebook initially built on free and open source web software, but continues to rely entirely on it. To this fact, you may say “That can’t be true! They have certainly built better software over time than what is freely available to any hacker” – and yes, that is true. They have certainly gone beyond what was offered freely to them when they started. But what do they do when their hundreds of engineers build better software by working day and night? They make most of it open source and distribute it freely over the web. They do not stop there: they voluntarily visit universities across the US and give free and open lectures to educate anyone who would like to learn about these technologies. Now, that is how its done!
Measure for democracy, economics and network externalities
After reading the book 1984, I sometimes tend to think that democracy is a state related more directly to how people think about various matters associated with freedom and choice in society, rather than a defined political state of affairs. And so, I have started to believe that any social network that covers more than half the number of individuals globally and that allows any individual to express his/her opinion on any subject matter without being filtered or moderated – can serve as a powerful tool to ensure democracy in a population. Facebook has successfully crossed all the hurdles that any social network faces, and today neutrally serves to support thought sharing all throughout the world.
With the guarantee that Internet will be ensured as a right of individuals across the world, we can almost be certain that this network will give voice to millions, with no bias. With the guarantee that this network exists and grows under able and sane management, we can almost be sure that better ideas will emerge, more transparent discussions will take place and better governance will triumph. With the guarantee that this platform supports better ideas and governance, we can now hope to see our future generations live in a better world and live better lives.
This was my attempt to try and describe a few of the phenomena that Facebook has brought about. It is not the lone player in making these happen: Google and Twitter have been extremely significant in this process. It is clear, that the individual who holds veto power on this media holds more power than many most national leaders in the world. But this should not scare you: because Facebook believes in the power of individuals being informed decision makers, and democracy being self-correcting. Here is what I want you to take away from this: Have faith.