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Jan 9th & May 24th 2007
15 years on from two events that marked the start of the 21st Century
[note - this is adapted from a draft of a chapter I wrote for a book on the history of attention metrics. It’s very unlikely to be part of that book now, but it feels appropriate, as we move to the end of 2022, to publish it somewhere. BTW - it’s really hard to find a video, transcript or detailed account of the Facebook launch event I describe here, even though it was only 15 years ago. I eventually tracked it down on an obscure Chinese social media site.]
History never quite aligns with the maths we use to divide it. When we flip from one decade, century or millenia to the next, we aren’t suddenly in a new world. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued that the 20th Century was ‘short’, a period of modernity that started with the gunfire of WW1 in 1914 and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991.
As we’re nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st Century, could we say when our current era really started? I’d argue that it didn’t start with a single political event like 9/11, but with two events that have shaped how we see the world - our culture and politics - in ways that will take at least another quarter century to resolve. These events happened in the same city, barely a few months apart in 2007, and together they have had a profound influence on society, much more than was possible to understand at the time.
On Jan 9th 2007, Apple launched the first iPhone, and a few months later, on May 24th, Facebook launched the Facebook Platform, a tool that would let developers embed the Facebook network across the web. These two products - a mobile phone with sensors and cameras that capture a wealth of data about our lives, and a social network that can gather our actions and opinions from across the web - have, over the last 15 years, fundamentally reshaped much of our world in a way that makes those moments feel, more than anything else, like the start of a new century.
The first event is now legendary. On January 9th, at the Moscone Center, the biggest convention centre in San Francisco , Steve Jobs was giving his keynote at Apple’s annual Macworld event. Dressed in his trademark black polo neck, jeans and white sneakers, he walked across the stage looking at his feet, lost in thought.
“This is a day I’ve been looking forward to for two and half years.”
As he paused again, pacing across the stage, fiddling with the presentation clicker in his hands, a smattering of applause and a few whoops came from the audience. He stopped, looked up at the audience, and addressed them directly.
“Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes that changes everything.”
There had been months of feverish speculation that Apple was about to launch a new phone, and Job’s presentation was a masterpiece of storytelling. But Jobs wanted to tease the audience first. He announced Apple was launching three new products - a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communicator. Then he kept repeating these three products in a kind of mantra, as their logos spin on the screen behind him - “an iPod, a phone, and an internet communicator” - and the crowd starts laughing, anticipating the punchline.
“An iPod, a phone…. Are you getting it? These are not three separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it - iPhone.”
It’s interesting, looking back at this keynote 15 years later, to see the audience’s reaction to the ‘three new products’ as Jobs announces them. The widescreen iPod gets applause and cheers, but the ‘revolutionary mobile phone’ really turns the audience wild - shouts of ‘yeah!’ ring out, and the faces of the attendees look almost in awe. The third product gets a more muted reaction, and Jobs seems to fluff his lines - he says “a breakthrough Internet communications device”, but the slide on the screen says ‘Breakthrough Internet communicator’. The audience reaction, particularly after the fervent response to the long-awaited announcement of an Apple phone, is muted.
Who could have foreseen the impact this third part of the trinity would have on our lives, our society, our culture? In 2007, there wasn’t even a word to describe a product that put the entirety of the internet in your pocket. Everyone knew what an iPod was, and mobile phones had been the most groundbreaking technology of the last decade.
But in 2007 nobody really used their phones to look at the web. That was something you did on a laptop or PC at home or at your desk. In an era of Nokias and Blackberrys, mobile phones were for texting or reading emails, not browsing websites.
The iPhone changed everything, not because it was an iPod or a phone - the two products that were merged to give it a name - but because of the third, that clumsy string of multi-syllabic buzzwords: ‘breakthrough internet communicator’.
The iPhone made the web ubiquitous. It opened up every single minute of our lives - all the places we went to, all the things we did - to the tentacled reach of information networks. But the internet wasn’t just coming to us, it was taking traces of us back along the same tentacled networks. As we carried it around, it created the opportunity to create data about us, tracking us not just in our homes and offices, but everywhere, all the time.
This wasn’t at all obvious when Jobs announced the iPhone from the cavernous stage of the Moscone Center. It didn’t feel like a surveillance device back then. That needed another innovation, one that was announced five months later, on a much smaller stage, about one and a half miles away.
The San Francisco Design Center is a collection of showrooms and a galleria, remodelled in the 1970s by design pioneer Henry Adams out of an old Ice House that supplied San Francisco’s fishermen. The main event venue is an atrium, flanked on two sides by four stories of showrooms, creating a tall, narrow box with a stage at one end.
With the right set and lighting design, it can be a stylish and even breathtaking space, but on May 24th it was almost completely dark, with a row of lights along the top of the stage illuminating a simple lectern with a microphone and an open laptop.
As Daft Punk’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger plays over the PA, a young man walked stiffly to the front of the stage to polite applause and a few whoops from the audience. Unlike Job’s signature black polo, he’s dressed like pretty much all the other coders and entrepreneurs who had flooded to Silicon Valley in the previous decade - faded jeans in an unflattering but comfortable wide cut, anonymous grey t-shirt, and a black North Face fleece jacket with the collar popped. His tousled mousy hair is in the process of outgrowing a Roman emperor style bowl cut, and his face is pale and flat.
This is Mark Zuckerberg, and he’s 23 years old. Facebook, the company he had started in his dorm room three years ago, has just reached 20 million users. He stood at the front of the stage, rigid with his chest puffed out, and looked around wide-eyed, wetting his lips multiple times before he speaks.
“Today, together, we’re going to start a movement.”
There’s more polite applause and whoops, but nothing like the reaction Jobs had got a few months before. He takes a few steps around the stage, stiffly, head upright and eyes wide. His movement looks jilted and unnatural, like a character in a video game. He wets his lips again.
“At Facebook, we're pushing to make the world a more open place. And we do this by building things that help people use their real connections to share information more effectively.”
There are many ways in which Zuckerberg has articulated his vision for Facebook, but a few words tend to recur - open, connected, information - that in 2007 chimed with the optimistic and progressive vision for what was called ’Web 2.0’. If the first version of the web was about connecting pages through search, the second was about connecting us, through social networks.
In the early 2000s there were hundreds of sites online that promised to create a network of social connections for your online self, and then use those connections to make your life, somehow, better. Most of these sites centred on a particular demographic or media type - Bebo was for teens, Myspace for music, Flickr for photos. Facebook had built it’s early growth by focusing on college students, but Zuckerberg’s ambition was to do far more than that.
Facebook was about to reach an important tipping point. By the end of 2007 it aimed to reach 50 million active users, with only 25% of them college students. Facebook didn’t just want to connect students - it wanted to become the default social network for everyone on the internet. To do that, they need to build a platform that was not based around a specific demographic or media format. They needed to focus their platform on the core connections between all of us, and how information flows along those connections. They needed to focus on something called the social graph.
“We've always thought that Facebook is a tool that everyone in the world could use. Everyone has friends, acquaintances, connections, and through these connections, you really get a lot of information and really come to understand your world.”
Zuckerberg paced the stage as he talked, head stiff and upright, speaking quickly in short paragraphs separated by pauses, as if someone had told him to take his time, but he hadn’t quite nailed how to do this. There is absolutely no reaction from the crowd for most of his talk. He delivered the same kind of big lines that had caused wave after wave of applause at Steve Job’s keynote - ‘This is a big day for Facebook … Imagine all the things we’re going to be able to build together!” - but unlike the Apple crowd, the response here is mostly silence.
“People share information through their friends and the people around them in the world. So at Facebook we've constructed a graph of all of these real social connections that people have, and we use that to help people share information more effectively online, the same way they do in the real world using the same connections. The social graph is the network of connections through which people share information and communicate”
Zuckerberg then brings up a slide with a simple graphic - a white silhouette portrait in a Facebook-blue circle.
“We can start with a single blue guy. Now, this guy can go ahead and he can create a profile for himself, to represent his identity and have a place to store his media. But what's interesting here isn't a single person, but a relationship. Let's go ahead and add one of his friends. Now we have two people and they both know each other, and they can communicate offline, if one of them picks up the phone to call the other, or if they take some time to hang out or if they randomly bump into each other, but these methods are all synchronous, so they're kind of inefficient. In order for them to work, both people have to be paying attention to each other at the same time. There's a better way to do this, and on Facebook, it's simple.”
On screen the blue guy has been joined by a yellow guy, connected with a blue pipe that shows lines of information flowing between them.
“On Facebook, these real connections become more efficient and people get more value out of all of their relationships. Now where Facebook really excels is in helping keep up with all their connections at the same time.”
The slide changes - the blue guy is now surrounded by a circle of yellow guys, each with a pipe connecting them to him, with more lines representing data flowing through the pipes.
“So if we continue extending this graph, you'll see that what we're building is a massive network of real connections between people through which information can flow more efficiently than it really ever has in the past. This is the social graph, and it's changing the way the world works. It's making the cost of communication between people so low that now information can flow between people through networks, faster than it can ever be pushed out by a few big companies. We're at a time in history when more information is available and people are more connected than at any other time in the past. And the social graph is at the center of that.”
In two presentations, just a few months apart, two products were launched that combined to create the ultimate engine for measuring the audience. One was a device filled with sensors and connectivity that exceeded even the most feverish dreams of the broadcast and audience research industry of the 20th century. Instead of having to sample data from a few thousand households, we were all creating data all the time, and not just in the living room, but everywhere we went.
The second was a powerful way of taking this data and creating a one-to-one scale map of how we are all connected. The media empires of the 20th century were built around sampling - using statistics to take tiny sets of data and extrapolate them across audiences of millions. Facebook didn’t need sampling to build a new media empire for the 21st century. They had data generated directly from millions - and by the 2020s, billions - of people.
The problem of measuring the audience has been inverted - instead of having to use complex maths to extrapolate tiny data sets to represent huge audiences, we now use complex maths to reduce huge data sets until they represent tiny audiences.
Back in May 2007, as Zuckerberg is explaining this new world of social graphs in the San Francisco Design Center, there is still silence from the crowd. In a moment of irony, he’s giving a detailed breakdown of how Facebook will measure and monetise our every reaction, and he’s getting no reaction at all.
“So we have this powerful network of connections and it's growing really quickly. So what are we going to do with it? We're going to use it to spread information, spread information.”
Zuckerberg is speaking nervously now, and repeats this last phrase as if it were an affirmation: “spread information, spread information”.
“We've found that we can actually make information spread through the social graph. And here's how- if we can build an application so that for every person who uses it, they get more than one of their friends to use the same application, then that application will actually spread exponentially through the social graph.”
Still no applause. Zuckerberg is laying out his ambition to build a single network that connects the entire world, and he’s dying on stage. He needs to make it more real, to give an example that helps his audience understand his power. The illustration he chooses is, in retrospect, quite revealing.
“Here's an example. Recently, some people on Facebook have been using the groups application in order to organize support for political candidates. They go and they create a group - it's simple. And then they go and they invite some of their friends to join that group. Offline they might have had to create a club and bug some of their friends to join the club, but this is way more efficient.”
The slide now shows a network of blue couples - one vaguely male, one vaguely female - connected with the same pipes. In the top right, to represent the political group, there’s an American flag.
“So now all they need to do is select the people they want to invite and - done. Those people get an invite, and some of them can join. For those who joined it goes in their profile and maybe a newsfeed story gets published for their friends. Some of them see it, and they join, and it just continues spreading like that. And this is how we ended up with these groups on Facebook that have hundreds of thousands of members that are being used to organize political rallies. Both the group and the group's application spread exponentially through the social graph.”
The real power of Facebook’s new platform wasn’t just that it could connect the people on its network. In 2010, Facebook opened up their tools to let developers embed their like button and social graph all over the web. This new data from outside Facebook let developers do something remarkable - create a picture of someone even if they don’t give you any data. If someone wasn’t on Facebook at all, you could piece together a reasonable profile of them just by extrapolating data from people they were connected to outside of Facebook. Just by getting a few thousand people to give your app access to their Facebook data, developers could gather data on the millions of people in those users’ networks.
As Zuckerberg outlined the new Facebook Platform on stage, it looked like a culmination of all the technologies and ambitions of the audience measurement pioneers of the twentieth century. But with hindsight, we can see it was something even more powerful, even more personal. Arthur Nielsen Sr, the founder of the Nielsen company, once said to his son - ‘If you can put a number on it, then you know something.’ Zuckerberg was more ambitious - if you could get enough numbers, then you know not just something, but someone. Perhaps even everyone.
For nearly a century, audiences had been measured by capturing tiny amounts of data, and then, essentially, making up stories about what that data actually meant. Most of us were contained in one of these stories - sometimes called audience ratings, or audience research, or audience personas - but they weren’t really us, not on an individual level. They were imaginary archetypes, made up to help media companies make sense of our confusing and arbitrary behaviour.
But now, like the picture on a high definition TV screen, we’d come into focus. After 2007, we were no longer personas or profiles. Our real lives were there, spread out over multiple databases, diffuse but whole. We were no longer ghosts.
At the end of his talk, after demos from some of Facebook’s partner companies showing how they will use their new platform, Zuckerberg walked back on stage, applauding slowly to encourage the crowd, getting them warmed up for his big finish. He waited for the polite ovation to finish, then puffed out his chest again, lifting his chin up.
“This is the start of a really great day, and I'm really happy that all of you guys could be here with us to join us as we launch the next evolution of the Facebook platform. And to join us in making the world a more open place, one application at a time.
So there's only one last question: When are we going to launch Facebook platform?
And the answer is tonight.
So let's get started.”
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