Facebook's grand plan for the future.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 5 2010 6:46 AM

Mark Zuckerberg Uses the Word "Social" a Lot

Facebook's grand plan for the future.

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Mark Zuckerberg is pacing before a crowd in Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., cafeteria just before lunch on a Wednesday in November. Fit and jovial, with pale skin and curly brown hair, his boyish face gives away his 26 years. "Zuck," as friends call him, is wearing what he always wears: a gray T-shirt with an embroidered Facebook logo, blue jeans, and tennis shoes. With this perennially casual demeanour, he is showing off new technologies to a few hundred employees, partners, and the press. "It's a good day to launch some stuff," he says with a laugh. And with that, Zuckerberg introduces Facebook Deals, a new service that in a matter of days will transform the way local businesses reach consumers as they walk down the street.

With Deals, smartphone users who download Facebook's application can "check in" to a physical location, such as their local coffee shop, and get a little reward. If the coffee shop is so inclined, it can create a "deal" for users who check in—50 percent off, for example, an incentive just to show up. Two days after Zuckerberg's presentation, the power of Deals became clear as the Gap gave away free jeans to the first 10,000 people who checked in to its stores. As Zuckerberg was still onstage, an analyst leaned over to me and says, "They just changed local commerce forever." It wasn't even lunchtime yet.

During his presentation, Zuckerberg uses words such as "revolution" and "disruption." He talks in sweeping terms and with no sense of irony, telling the crowd, "our goal is to make everything social." This is bold talk from the young chief executive, yet he has reason to be bullish. In recent years, as individuals, businesses and political movements have embraced Facebook, the company's clout has only grown. Though still a start-up by some measures, it is now squarely one of the three or four most influential technology companies in the world.

After the public presentation I join Zuckerberg and a couple of bloggers in a glass-walled conference room in the middle of Facebook's offices. He and I sit on a couch, and for 40 minutes he talks animatedly, cracking the occasional joke, expounding on his world view and his vision of the future.

"If you look five years out, every industry is going to be rethought in a social way," he says. "You can remake whole industries. That's the big thing." His ambition, it turns out, is not simply to make Facebook an influential technology company, but the most important company in the world.

"You can integrate a person's friends into almost anything and make [it] instantly more engaging and viral," he told me. "You care so much more about your friends. It's not an intellectual thing. It's hard-wired into humans that you need to focus on what the people around you are doing. It's this very visceral, deep thing. That, I think, is the structural thing that is going to make it so that all these industries change."

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Zuckerberg uses the word "social" a lot, and it's not always obvious what he means. He is not simply talking about telling your friends what you had for breakfast with a status update. To Zuckerberg, a more social world is one where nearly everything—from the Web to the TV to the restaurants you choose to eat at—is informed by your stated preferences and your friends' preferences, and equipped with technology that lets you communicate and share content with people you know. What Zuckerberg is talking about is a new way of organizing and navigating information.

This is a somewhat different Zuckerberg to the one the public knew just a year ago. In recent months he has transformed from an awkward wunderkind with a preternatural ability to anticipate where the Web is going into an amicable executive unafraid of laying out his grand plan. It is not just that he is a bit more confident and articulate, though he is both; what is striking is that for the first time in my two years of interviewing him, Zuckerberg seems at ease. "The fear is behind him," said a friend of Zuckerberg's. "Until a year ago, he thought this might be the next Google, but he wasn't sure. Now he's sure. The fear is gone."

Facebook's soaring user base and booming ­revenues are, strangely, not really what is behind this shift in disposition, impressive as both figures are. (Facebook now has more than 500 million active users, and is expected to take in at least $1.5bn in revenue this year, mostly from advertising. Facebook does not charge users, and as a ­private company, it does not share its financials.) Nor is it Facebook's "stickiness": The site is the largest on the Web in terms of time spent and page views. Instead, what has endowed this company with a new confidence is a more subtle transformation.

The change is this: Facebook is no longer merely a social network, where users check out updates from friends, glance at photos and play some games. Rather, it is making moves to be an essential part of the entire online experience. The company is becoming people's home page, e-mail system, and more. Much in the way Google extended its capabilities from search to include e-mail, maps and books, Facebook is becoming a part of ever more daily services on the Web. The company is also making strides to achieve one thing Google has not: It is well on its way to becoming the de facto identity platform for the Internet.

With its map of profiles of people from Australia to Venezuela—what it calls the "social graph"—Facebook is becoming the virtual driver's license, house keys, and passport for those traveling around the Web. Since 2008, users have been able to log in to other sites using their Facebook credentials. And in April, the company rolled out a suite of new features that made it even easier for other Web sites to tether themselves to Facebook. These include the Like button, which enables people to quickly express their affinity for a product and share it back to their Facebook newsfeed, and other "social plug-ins" that enable users to interact with their Facebook friends on other sites.

It is a global phenomenon. There are millions of users in countries such as Indonesia, Taiwan, Colombia, and Turkey. Zuckerberg has said he wants to push further into the developing world, and Facebook has a range of products that allow users with the simplest mobile phone to access the site.

More than 2 million sites have integrated with Facebook since 2008, including 90 percent of the top 1,000 sites on the Internet. That number is growing by about 10,000 sites a day. Nearly one-third of Facebook's 500 million users interact with it on third-party sites every month. In this way, a growing portion of online activity involves Facebook, even though it is not happening on Facebook.com.

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