The Year in Review: Technology

Facebook: Something just clicked
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The Independent Tech

Emily Hilscher's Facebook page contained all the chit-chat and memories you would expect of a 19-year-old freshman veterinary student: grinning pictures from fancy-dress parties, reminiscences about the time she and friends recreated a Spice Girls video, and invitations to discuss "Why Emily Hilscher was cooler than me". And this: "Recent News; 4/16/07 Emily Hilscher passed away during the Virginia Tech shooting."

As the horrors of America's worst campus killing spree unfolded in Blacksburg, Virginia, in April, the students there instinctively turned to the Facebook networking site. Even while the gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, was roaming the campus, students locked in classrooms were using the site to exchange information, to hunt for each other, or to reassure friends. The "I'm OK at VT" group became a forum for swapping information about who had been hurt, or worse, and who was safe. Then there was the "citizen journalism" footage of the events, swapped via Facebook and other photo and video-sharing sites; and later still, the discussion groups offering shocked messages of empathy from strangers across the world.

And all the while, personal Facebook pages became shrines to the dead, to Emily Hilscher and 31 other victims, where friends would do with their grief what they had done with every aspect of their lives share.

It wasn't the breadth of the social networking phenomenon that became clear this year; that was well known. Even the septuagenarian Rupert Murdoch had spotted it, and was turning his MySpace.com into a full-blown entertainment website, for a juicy profit. No; what became clear this year was not the breadth of the phenomenon, it was the depth. To members of an older generation of journalists that descended on Blacksburg, Virginia, the fact that Facebook was interwoven into students' experiences at every turn came as something of a surprise.

People scoffed at the start of 2007 when Mark Zuckerberg, the 24-year-old who had founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room three years previously, turned down $1bn for the site. But since Facebook had opened its doors to all-comers, rather than just students, just before the start of the year, commentators watched its user numbers clicking up like a mileometer. Having started the year at 13 million members, it ends it with 60 million. In the autumn, Microsoft was putting a price tag of $15bn on the company and begging to be handed a small stake.

No wonder. Facebook is the internet phenomenon of the past 12 months, and one which encouraged a whole new demographic to experiment with social networking on the internet. Thirty- and fortysomethings who had been put off by the teenage design anarchy of previous iterations of the genre were drawn to its crisp, no-nonsense design and the curiosity of looking up long-lost friends and throwing a digital sheep at them. It mixed the silly and the serious, because we all do.

Dictionaries rushed to add new definitions of "to poke". Companies as mighty as HSBC crumbled in the face of a campaign organised on Facebook to protest at its axeing of student overdrafts. There was a heady moment in the summer when we had signed up our mothers-in-law to be our 100th friend that it seemed as if the whole world would have a Facebook profile before the year was out.

With breakthrough mobile internet devices on the market from Apple's super-hyped iPhone to BlackBerries for the casual, rather than business, user we are finally in a world where everyone can share everything with everyone else, at every moment and everywhere. Should we want to.

In the past few months, the site has seen something of a backlash. In order to forge commercial partnerships that might one day help the business to justify its valuation, Facebook began publicising to users' friends the tickets, books and music that they had bought on other e-commerce sites. When one user complained that Facebook had unilaterally informed his girlfriend what she was getting for Christmas, enough was enough. The company quickly backed down.

The permanence or otherwise of Facebook has yet to be tested. That $15bn may turn out to have been a mirage. In 2007, the site was the "in" hang-out, a thronging, just-opened nightclub where you can be certain of bumping into your friends but if there is the sense that people are drifting off, well, it could be deserted for the next big thing just as quickly. Not everyone likes the same clubs anyway, and networking could easily fragment and shift: Bebo for teens, MySpace for hipsters, LinkedIn for professionals, Second Life and World of Warcraft for Walter Mitty characters...

What is permanent, however, is the change that Facebook and its ilk have wrought on the internet. The web is a long, long way now from its beginnings as a collection of static pages, created and controlled for the passive viewing of the surfer. Now, many sites are trying to become more MySpace-like, giving users a chance not just to interact with the website, but with each other. Television companies rush to build networking into websites for their hit television shows. Disney was so keen on a kids' website called Club Penguin a virtual world where members create their own penguin and decorate their own igloo, then socialise and play online games with online friends that it bought the whole business for $700m.

Meanwhile, websites themselves are fragmenting, with other web designers able to pick up chunks of them particularly video content, such as YouTube clips for building into their own pages. Suddenly, every website wants to be a "platform" for gadgets and gizmos ("widgets", in the correct parlance) designed by outside computer programmers, where users can build their own unique pages from a menu of diverse content.

It was on 24 May that Mark Zuckerberg precociously announced that he was changing the internet. Facebook would be "the social operating system of the web", he declared. That was when Facebook opened up its source codes for all to see, so that talented programmers could use the site as a platform for their own applications, nuggets of software and "websites within websites". That was how Facebook users came to be able to turn themselves into South Park characters, or colour in maps of where they have travelled in the world, or play each other at Scrabulous, a copyright infringement-skirting version of the board game, developed by two college-age brothers in India.

Everywhere, teenagers and twentysomethings appear to be creating websites and widgets from their bedrooms. There are many parallels with the dot.com boom of the start of the decade. The silly name is a must: web projects like Loopt, Joost, Meebo and Twitter would not have taken off this year without one. Only this time round, Silicon Valley is doing it all without threatening to waste billions of dollars. The area's venture capitalists raised about $20bn to spend in the first nine months of the year, but this time that will buy them a blizzard of small bets. The cost of launching a website has collapsed, thanks to the decreasing cost of bandwidth and computing power. A website that might have cost $5m to scale up a decade ago costs just $250,000 now; the cost can be defrayed by a little advertising alongside, which Google will sell for you.

Mr Zuckerberg, still wearing his uniform of T-shirt and sandals, has become a role model for a whole new generation of wannabe dot.com millionaires and the youthful face of the tech industry in 2007.

Gadgets, games and the gorilla that ruled YouTube

By Tim Walker

iPhone

The gadget of the year came, once again, from Apple. The iPhone finally solves the problem of pockets bulging with both phone and MP3 player, providing not only the most attractive model of each device on the market in a single handset, but also quick access to YouTube, Google and the iTunes Store. Apple put people's backs up in the US, however, when it cut the iPhone's price tag by $200 after just two months, enraging customers who'd already bought it.



Scrabulous

The internet might have spelled the end of the traditional board game, were it not for Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, the pair of business grads from Kolkata in India who created Scrabulous, an online reworking of Scrabble. Developed in 2006, the game really took off when it became an add-on application for the social networking site Facebook, and now boasts more than 840,000 players.



Twitter

A brief but intense burst of interest greeted social networking site Twitter, which reached a peak of 500,000 visitors to its site in July. Calling itself a "micro-blogging" site, Twitter allowed users to post their current "status" from their computer or mobile phone, providing all their friends, or "followers", with a running commentary of their lives.



StumbleUpon

A way to discover new websites, StumbleUpon has been around since 2001, but membership has reached a tipping point, increasing four-fold from one million in 2006 to around four million today. In May, it was bought by eBay for $75m. The idea is simple: download the StumbleUpon toolbar (from www.stumbleupon.com), and list subjects that interest you. Click the "Stumble" button and you're taken to websites tagged by other users to correspond with your interests.



The Cadbury Gorilla

The latest Cadbury advertising campaign, featuring a sombre, drumming gorilla, was the viral marketing hit of the year. The spot, in which the great ape thwacks along to Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight", received 500,000 hits on YouTube within a week of its first airing. YouGov reported an improvement in public perception of the brand, despite the ad itself having nothing at all to do with chocolate.



Halo 3

When first-person shooter Halo 3 went on sale in September, it quickly became the entertainment launch of the year, making $170m in its first 24 hours, eclipsing even the final Harry Potter novel. By the evening of its first day, more than a million people had played Halo 3 online.



Brain Training

Nintendo racked up record sales of its Brain Training game for the DS, which, combined with its spin-off, More Brain Training from Dr Kawashima, has now sold more than 1.5 million copies in the UK, the top-selling game in Nintendo's history. Developed with Dr Ryuta Kawashima, a Japanese neuroscientist, the games counteract memory loss and forgetfulness with a brain workout including maths, linguistics and sudoku.

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