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Can Facebook sustain its revolutionary leap?

india Updated: Nov 28, 2010 21:57 IST
N Madhavan
N Madhavan
Hindustan Times
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Last week, I saw The Social Network, the blockbuster Hollywood biopic on Mark Zuckerburg, the founder of Facebook — and the world’s youngest billionaire. While the movie is a fascinating story of social dynamics and emotions that occur on the path to a young, brash computer programmer from the Harvard University making it big in the Silicon Valley, the story is also in a way about the Internet itself, and how it is changing the world.

In my previous column, I had talked about the quiet return of the Internet “dotcoms” — startups based on content, e-commerce and/or services. Something I could not dwell on at that point was the element of “community.” The social media revolution ushered in by the Internet first happened through blogs (Web logs) but sites such as Facebook, Orkut and Twitter took it to a dramatic level because of the manner in which people connect with one another.

Zuckerburg’s quest for success — as the movie argues — was less about business and technology and more about his own yearnings and learnings in the quest for an attractive girlfriend. And yet, the tool he built to connect people in a manner that helps them break into exclusive social groups created a business far beyond what his simple quest would have suggested.

There lies the power of timing.

Ten years ago, when Internet startups crashed, it was because not only did they not have real revenue models, but the Web itself was too young. People were talking about B2C (business to consumer) and B2B (business to business) models, but forgot that a new magical power of P2P (peer to peer) networks will soon alter the world.

This is ironic, because some of us who were following the Internet had access to visionary statements on this by people who understood the emerging laws. Things have actually happened according to what they had predicted in terms of direction, but not in the pattern. Yet, both entrepreneurs and investors took wrong bets that seemed to defy simple explanation.

The answer to this muddle seems to lie in an old saying whose exact words I don’t recall. It says that whenever a path-breaking technology arrives, the pace of its influence is overestimated but its magnitude is underestimated.

The arguable success of Google Gmail over Microsoft’s Hotmail (now Live) proves that in a way. I think Google understood the magnitude and pace issues better in driving the power of e-mail on the Web.

Looking forward, I wonder what is the lesson for Facebook or Twitter or other social media startups. Am not right now in a position to guess whether there will be something bigger than Facebook. The movie shows how Zuckerburg could not “friend” the girl he wanted although he became a billionaire. Some things are very, very unpredictable.