On the afternoon of Wednesday, February 4, 2004, Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg launched a website he called The Facebook. It was designed to help people share information about themselves with their friends — at first, just people who happened to attend Harvard University. The idea proved quite popular, and the rest is history.
But what if it weren’t history? What if Zuckerberg hadn’t created Facebook, and then rolled it out to other colleges, finally opening membership up to anybody over 13 in September of 2006? What if the site’s competitors hadn’t needed to compete with the hyper-ambitious phenom that Facebook turned out to be? What if there were no such thing as the Like button? What if 1.23 billion people a month didn’t sign into the social network on a computer, phone or tablet?
In short: What if Facebook had never been invented?
There’s no way to know for sure what would have happened, of course. But trying to imagine life without Facebook is still a useful way to reflect upon all the ways it’s changed the world in its first decade, from the most obvious ones to those which are easier to overlook. So I’m going to do it.
What follows are some of my best guesses about what a world sans Facebook would be like. You’re welcome to disagree with me; if you do, I hope you’ll sound off in the comments.
If Facebook didn’t exist…
…Friendster wouldn’t have ruled the Internet. It’s easy to forget that social networking was a hot category well before Zuck hacked together the earliest version of Facebook in his dorm. The basic idea dates at least back to 1997, when they appeared in a pioneering-but-not-particularly-successful site called SixDegrees.com.
And then there was Friendster, founded in 2002, which brought the concept to a big audience, and looked like it had the potential to grow into one of the web’s biggest properties. Its name has been a punchline for years: shorthand for a company that had a big opportunity but blew it. Was it done in by Facebook? Not really. It was focused on dating, was notoriously unreliable and seems to have peaked before anyone outside Harvard had a Facebook account. Even Jonathan Abrams, its founder, blames the service’s own missteps rather than Facebook for its downfall.
…MySpace would have eventually flagged, Facebook or no Facebook. For the first few years of Facebook’s rise, it played Avis to MySpace’s Hertz — a hard-working, second-place player. As late as 2008, believing that MySpace would win the social-networking wars wasn’t a nutty stance.
So would MySpace have basically become Facebook — a web-dominating, world-changing social network — if Facebook hadn’t been around to surge past it? It seems unlikely. The service, owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. since July of 2005, always skewed towards music and music fans. It allowed its users to deeply customize the look and feel of their pages via HTML mods, and it turned out that plenty of MySpace users had really garish taste. The visual cacophony was a turnoff for prospective members, especially grown-up types. (Facebook, by contrast, imposed the same low-key template on every user.)
Also — as you might expect of a site owned by an old-school media company — MySpace aggressively stuffed itself with ads at a time when Facebook wasn’t worrying about monetization at all.
As Facebook was thinking big and growing rapidly, MySpace didn’t rise to the competitive challenge. Instead, it didn’t change much, which eventually led to its collapse. Even if Facebook didn’t exist to lure away MySpace fans, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which MySpace was something more than what it was at its highpoint: a very popular site for young people who were interested in music.
…something like Facebook would probably have come along and been huge. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent social networking, and social networking didn’t need him to prove that it was a potentially world-changing idea. One social network founded before Facebook — Reid Hoffman’s LinkedIn — even went on to become huge and stay huge, though its focus on business use meant that it didn’t really compete with Zuckerberg’s creation.
So the odds seem high that at some point in the past decade, we would have gotten something at least roughly akin to Facebook — a social network with enormous numbers of users around the world, dominating its category in the same way that Google dominates search. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered as much as Facebook matters unless it matched Zuckerberg’s ambition, restlessness and willingness to shake up his creation — and scare and/or irritate his users — more or less continuously.
…Twitter would probably exist, in some form. When the service initially known as Twittr debuted in July 2006, it was intended as a way to use text messaging to send on-the-go updates to friends. It didn’t look much like Facebook — which was, at that point, still available exclusively to students — or the thing Twitter itself eventually became.
As Twitter started to catch on, the fact that Facebook existed may have actually helped its cause: The ways in which it was like Facebook and unlike Facebook both helped shape its identity. Maybe it would have done even better if Facebook hadn’t been in the picture; maybe it wouldn’t have evolved in the highly successful direction that it did. But I don’t think Twitter required the existence of Facebook to be born.
…Google+ wouldn’t exist in the form that it does. I don’t have to explain this one, do I?
But Google might be even more powerful today than it is. In the middle of the last decade, when Facebook was getting going, Google was already the web’s most powerful company. And the conventional wisdom at the time was that the way to compete with it was to try and build a better search engine, which companies such as Yahoo and Microsoft tried to do.
Instead, Facebook turned out to be Google’s most important rival on multiple fronts: the data it collects about hundreds of millions of people, its potential to turn that data into advertising revenue, its impact on popular culture, its shot at replicating its success on smartphones. And unlike other companies Google coveted, such as advertising giant Doubleclick, Facebook refused to be acquired, by Google or anyone else. So it seems likely that in a world without Facebook or something almost exactly like Facebook, Google’s profits would be even greater in 2014 and its power might have gone largely unchecked.
…FriendFeed might have flourished. Of all the services Facebook has competed with, the one it cribbed the most ideas from was FriendFeed — a startup, founded in 2007, which had a Like button before Facebook did, plus various other features Facebook later borrowed. Then, in 2009, Facebook simply bought FriendFeed. It didn’t shut the service down — I just discovered that my account is still active — but it allowed it to sit there, dormant. I’m not entirely sure that FriendFeed could have been born without Facebook’s example in the first place, but I’m still sorry it went away.
…the web would feel less like one giant network of sites. Facebook only started rolling out its Like button to third-party sites in April of 2010 — a fact that floored me when I just looked it up, because it soon became so pervasive that it’s hard to remember it wasn’t part of the web all along. Many sites also let you sign in with Facebook as well, turning your credentials on the social network into a sort of driver’s license for the web. Some even use Facebook for comments. The social network is like a thread that stitches together the whole Internet, giving it some cohesiveness it would otherwise lack.
All of these features had antecedents: The Digg button, for instance, showed up around the web before the Like button did, and Microsoft tried to deploy a web-wide sign-in system code-named “HailStorm” early in the century. But nobody else had anywhere near as much success providing this sort of plumbing for other sites. Very quickly, Facebook insinuated itself into the rest of the web in a way that was unique, though Google, Twitter and others later followed its lead.
…the world’s attitude towards online privacy would be meaningfully different. In 2006, when Facebook introduced the newsfeed — a unified list of what your friends were up to — there were howls of outrage and accusations that it encouraged stalking; before long, it became impossible to imagine Facebook without it. The pattern has continued ever since: New Facebook features raise hackles, but most users eventually come around to Zuckerberg’s line of thinking, which almost always errs on the side of openness.
Facebook often stumbles, and sometimes it just goes too far — most famously in the case of Beacon, its 2007 feature that auto-posted public updates about what members were buying at third-party shopping sites. Some people will never trust the site. But by obsessively encouraging sharing over secrecy, Zuckerberg has reshaped the web and people’s attitudes towards using it for self-expression.
…the media business might be more mundane. Facebook made sharing content ridiculously easy, so hundreds of millions of people did more and more of it. Content creators — from long bloggers to big-name news sites — appreciated the traffic. Then, inevitably, they started crafting content specifically to goad Facebook users into clicking that Like button — sometimes good stuff, and sometimes empty-calorie listicles about housepets.
Today, the most influential content sites on the Internet are aggressively viral outfits such as BuzzFeed, Upworthy and the Huffington Post. They might all exist in the absence of Facebook, but it’s hard to imagine that they’d provide a model for the entire industry.
O.K., one more point, and then I’m done speculating on what a world without Facebook might be like: I’m pretty sure that it’s made the last decade more interesting. Not just because it exists, but because it never reaches any state of predictable, calming equilibrium. Which means that as hard as it is to imagine life without Facebook, it’s harder still to predict where it’ll take us over the next 10 years.