We often like to think about Facebook as a monolithic entity, a corporate nightmare of the internet age hell-bent on a single mission: assimilating the world’s population into a single social network. However, as the company’s recent acquisition of messaging app and SMS-replacement WhatsApp shows, the truth is far more complex – and more intimidating - than this.
Firstly, there’s the mind-boggling scale of the numbers involved. With more than 1.23 billion users and a market valuation of $173 billion Facebook has always had a good stock-in-trade in figures that seem more astronomical than economical, but the purchase of WhatsApp is astounding even for them.
Totting up all the cash and stock options involved Facebook has paid a staggering $19 billion for WhatsApp, a figure that values each of the app’s 450 million users at around $42 a head. Considering that WhatsApp is free for the first year of use and only charges $1 a year after this seems like a gross overvaluation – it’s even more than the $30 per user that Facebook paid for Instagram and its 33 million users back in 2012. But both of these purchases show Facebook’s sheer determination not to miss out on an opportunity for growth. Hell-bent seems to be the right term.
But what are they buying with WhatsApp? Well, there’s the demographics where Facebook’s dominance is waning (teens) and markets where they’ve never been that strong in the first place. WhatsApp is not only popular amongst emerging markets but it has a lot of influence in European countries where Facebook Messenger (the company’s standalone messaging app for smartphones) hasn’t made a dent. In Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands WhatsApp has more than 80 per cent market share while Facebook Messenger has less than 15 per cent. With the purchase of WhatsApp, Facebook is certainly ‘assimilating’ more users.
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
Around 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, with the site estimating in September last year that users had so far put up more than 250 billion images. That’s 4,000 photos uploaded every second and around 4 per cent of all photos ever taken, according to a study by Nokia.
Facebook’s logo is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colour blind. “Blue is the richest color for me. I can see all of blue," said Zuckerberg in an interview with the New Yorker. The colour is so popular that Facebook’s campus store even sells nail polish in the exact shade named ‘social butterfly blue’.
Zuckerberg's famously low-key wardrobe (either a grey t-shirt or a hoodie) is so that the CEO saves time deciding what to wear each day. However, Zuckerberg is known to dress up when the occasion demands it. For a 2011 event with Barack Obama he showed up in a suit, with the president introducing himself by saying: “I’m Barack Obama and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie.”
In July 2006 Zuckerberg turned down a $1 billion offer for the site from Yahoo. He was 22 years old at the time and owned 25 per cent of the company. Zuckerberg reportedly turned it down by saying “I don't know what I could do with the money. I'd just start another social networking site. I kind of like the one I already have.” He definitely made the right choice: Facebook is now valued at $135 billion.
A YouGov poll claimed that three-quarter of UK Facebook users' photos showed someone drinking or inebriated. However, the poll did ask users to estimate the number of boozy snaps themselves, and like all things on Facebook, there might have been an element of exaggeration involved.
Facebook operates a bounty hunter program – for bugs. Like many other big technology companies Facebook offers cash rewards to security researchers who point out flaws in the site’s code. The minimum payout is $500 and the largest prize to date has been $33,500.
More than a third of divorce filings in 2011 referenced Facebook, said a survey from UK-based legal firm Divorce Online. The exact figures may be an estimate, but with just under 8 trillion Facebook messages sent in 2013 it’s certain that a substantial body of evidence is to be found on the social network.
Zuckerberg isn’t much of a Twitter fan. Despite having nearly three hundred thousand followers on the service he’s only tweeted 19 times - once in 2012 and the rest in 2009. Although Facebook dwarfs twitter in terms of active users (1 billion compared with 200 million by some accounts) the micro-blogging site handles breaking news better. Facebook has introduced trending topics and hashtags to counter this.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 Iceland decided to rewrite their constitution using Facebook to solicit suggestions from citizens. Unfortunately, despite this forward thinking approach, the document was killed by politicians in mid-2013 for various (mostly technical) reasons.
You can browse Facebook upside down. Facebook currently supports more than 70 different languages – including English (Pirate) and English (Upside Down). Check the bottom of the column on the right of your newsfeed and click your current language to change!
However, this is where we must part ways with the paranoid’s fantasy of Facebook. For all its growth and influence, Facebook is actually becoming less monolithic. It’s diversifying and adapting to the varied demands of users worldwide. In some ways this is comforting (the dystopic future where we’re all hooked up to the same social network is less likely to happen) but it’s also more intimidating as the possibility of a world where Facebook controls the world’s social connections becomes a more realistic prospect.
Tech writer Kara Swisher has compared the social network to Disney, describing how the social network is transforming from a company into a conglomerate. A corporate structure nurtures a key set of skills (marketing, advertising, scaling software) while different brands are used to appeal to a range of tastes. Google has already done this, raking in the winnings it took from cracking online search and spreading them out over a range of concerns from robotics to healthcare. America’s tech companies have even been likened to keiretsu; the sprawling Japanese companies like Mitsubishi and Toyota that dominated the country’s economy following World War II.
Often this sort of comparison can sound like an exaggeration: how can you compare a company that makes it money from ‘likes’ and mobile messaging with industrial giants that churned out cars and controlled whole banks? But with the purchase of WhatsApp, Facebook has not only began eating away at the SMS market (one that’s still worth $100 billion a year) it’s made the company’s talk of “the next billion” users look like something that will become a reality in a matter of years. Facebook isn't monolithic - it's adapting, and getting more powerful with each headline.