Not since the era of imperial Rome has the “thumbs-up” sign been such a potent and public symbol of power. A mere 12 years after it was founded, Facebook is a great empire with a vast population, immense wealth, a charismatic leader, and mind-boggling reach and influence. The world’s largest social network has 1.6 billion users, a billion of whom use it every day for an average of over 20 minutes each. In the Western world, Facebook accounts for the largest share of the most popular activity (social networking) on the most widely used computing devices (smartphones); its various apps account for 30% of mobile internet use by Americans. And it is the sixth-most-valuable public company on Earth, worth some $325 billion.
Even so, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 31-year-old founder and chief executive, has even greater ambitions (see article). He has plans to connect the digitally unconnected in poor countries by beaming internet signals from solar-powered drones, and is making big bets on artificial intelligence (AI), “chatbots” and virtual reality (VR). This bid for dominance will bring him into increasing conflict with the other great empires of the technology world, and Google in particular. The ensuing battle will shape the digital future for everyone.
Empires Built On Data
Facebook has prospered by building compelling services that attract large audiences, whose attention can then be sold to advertisers. The same is true of Google. The two play different roles in their users’ lives: Google has masses of data about the world, whereas Facebook knows about you and your friends; you go to Google to get things done, but turn to Facebook when you have time to kill. Yet their positions of dominance and their strategies are becoming remarkably similar. Unparalleled troves of data make both firms difficult to challenge and immensely profitable, giving them the wealth to make bold bets and to deal with potential competitors by buying them. And both firms crave more users and more data—which, for all the do-gooding rhetoric, explains why they are both so interested in extending
internet access in the developing world, using drones or, in Google’s case, giant balloons.
The task is to harness data to offer new services and make money in new ways. Facebook’s bet on AI is a recognition that “machine learning”—in which software learns by crunching data, rather than having to be explicitly programmed—is a big part of the answer. It already uses AI techniques to identify people in photos, for example, and to decide which status updates and ads to show to each user. Facebook is also pushing into AI-powered digital assistants and chatbot programs which interact with users via short messages. Next week it is expected to open up its Messenger service (which can already be used to do things like order an Uber car), to broaden the range of chatbots. And Facebook’s investment in VR—it bought Oculus, the cheerleader of this emerging field, for $2 billion in 2014—is a bold guess about where computing and communication will go after the smartphone.