Facebook's Biggest Year: The Events and Changes That Defined 2009
Barack Obama's inauguration (January)
Facebookers were an outspoken lot during the 2008 election, so it only makes sense that they would observe the inauguration in a slightly different way. By teaming with CNN, Facebook let people watch Barack Obama take the oath of office together with friends around the country (and the world) online. A seminal moment for the Internet (and television), instead of passively sitting alone, users were able to actively communicate with each other as they watched.
The experiment was a rousing success. CNN reported 13.9 million streams by 11:45 that morning. And by 12:30 p.m. (as Obama was wrapping up), there had been over 600,000 status updates posted to the feed, with 8,500 during the first minute of the speech.
Hackers join the party (Year-long)
The problem with becoming a force in the online world is that eventually, the less desirable elements will start to pay attention. This year, hackers began to poke at the edges of Facebook and found plenty of room for mischief.
While the service itself wasn't affected, hackers learned it was easy to fool some users and take over their accounts. From there, a hacker would blast everyone on the compromised account's friends list, encouraging them to click a link. That, in turn, would infect computers with a virus and continue the cycle. Because the links were coming from trusted friends via direct message or in a status update, lots of people fell for it. And on a site that has over 350 million active users, that meant a lot of machines got hit.
Fresh from the triumph of the inauguration, Facebook promptly fell on its, well, face in February when it updated its Terms of Service to prevent users from permanently deleting any uploaded content. Critics said the move was tantamount to Facebook claiming ownership of anything its users posted.
Protests were instantaneous -- and came from many fronts. Several Facebook groups were launched to object to the changes. Bloggers went berserk. Even national media outlets jumped on the story. An appeal by CEO Mark Zuckerberg to "trust" the company drew even more fire, and Facebook was forced to revert to the old Terms of Service, to become more transparent about future changes, and to solicit user input before making anything permanent.
The evolution of the home page (March)
Redesigning popular sites is never an easy process, but Facebook's overhaul was particularly grueling. Roughly 2 million people signed petitions and joined groups begging the company to revert to its previous format. Many threatened to leave the site forever. Few did -- and each one was quickly replaced by dozens of new users.
To be fair, the March update did include some welcome changes. The news feed streamed live instead of being slightly delayed, power users were no longer capped at 5,000 friends, and new filters allowed users to put friends into buckets (e.g., high school friends, work colleagues, family, etc.).
Ultimately, the protests died down, and Facebook made some minor tweaks to quiet what whining remained. Many of the same people complained when the front page changed again in October. Those protests, too, fell mainly on deaf ears.
Much like Obama's inauguration, the death of the King of Pop was an event that brought people together. As the news spread, people flocked to Facebook to express disbelief, shock, and sadness (along with the inevitable debate over the controversial accusations that followed Jackson).
Reports of Jackson's death were shared more on Facebook than any other social network -- and many learned of the news through the site's news feed, rather than traditional news sources. Membership to the Michael Jackson fan page soared, and MTV reported that nearly 20 fans joined per second in the period following his death. The news also showed Facebook's ability to handle big traffic spikes. While Twitter -- and even Google -- buckled under the traffic, Facebook never stumbled.
It didn't affect users, but potential investors took note when Facebook changed the structure of its company stock to a dual-class system last month. It's complicated, but relevant, as it's the first sign that Facebook might be ready to consider going public.
Although the company is privately held, it does have some significant stakeholders, including Microsoft, which invested $240 million in 2007 for a 1.6-percent stake in the company. At the time, that gave Facebook a value of $15 billion (a number that has certainly fallen since, given the recession). At the time, Zuckerberg indicated that he wanted to hold off at least two years before taking the company public. At the moment, Facebook is denying that the move is tied to any imminent public offering, but investors are wondering if the time is drawing near.
Retailers reclaim Black Friday (November)
A year ago, there weren't a lot of companies on Facebook. This year, it's hard to find a national chain that doesn't have a page.
Black Friday bargains haven't been a surprise for years. Print ads leak out and third party sites quickly post them -- often along with their opinions on whether or not the sales are good ones. This takes a lot of control away from stores and has had an impact (albeit a limited one) on sales. With Facebook, retailers were able to announce Black Friday deals directly to loyalist customers. Many also announced unadvertised specials to lure them into stores, so look for the practice to continue and expand in 2010.
As it turns out, most Facebookers aren't too concerned with privacy. The outcry has been minimal, perhaps because the site gave plenty of warning about the upcoming changes, or perhaps because users like locating old or new friends.
The changes allow individuals' profiles to be located using a search engine like Google, and represent a perfect way to cap off the year, illustrating just how crucial the Book has become. Social networking has proven its staying power as a legitimate way for individuals to represent themselves to the digital world at large -- mostly due, of course, to Facebook.