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The Incredible, Invulnerable, Indispensable Social Network

By Renay San Miguel
Jul 23, 2010 5:00 AM PT

And you thought Apple was the only Teflon technology company out there.

The Incredible, Invulnerable, Indispensable Social Network

Despite a brief six-year lifespan filled with privacy complaints and user gripes over neck-snapping design changes, Facebook just signed up User No. 500,000,000. Businesses continue to pile onboard the Mark Zuckerberg express, thanks to the powerful recommendation engine that is the "Like" button. Tech and mainstream journalists keep tripping over themselves to lock up interviews with the youthful CEO.

And in the real test of whether a tech company has indeed achieved crossover success, Facebook is about to enter "Entertainment Tonight" and TMZ.com territory, thanks to the forthcoming movie "The Social Network" and its A-list creative team of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.

Now that's Face Time.

Welcome to Hollywood

Apple has seen this movie before, thanks to the storied Steve Jobs-Bill Gates rivalry depicted in "Pirates of Silicon Valley." If Zuckerberg knows what's good for him, he'll follow Jobs' lead and have actor Jesse Eisenberg, who portrays the Facebook CEO in the movie, walk out on stage at next year's f8 developer conference in character -- just as Noah Wylie did at a Macworld after the TNT movie aired.

Of course, in "Pirates," Jobs was portrayed as brash and mercurial, but also innovative and a consummate marketer. And his onscreen avatar had to share time with Anthony Michael Hall's version of Gates, since the movie was really about the beginnings of both Apple and Microsoft and their relationship. As far as I can tell from the "Social Network" trailer, Fincher's movie focuses primarily on the drama that ensued from Facebook's early days as a Harvard-based dating website, which you would expect since it's based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires.

The trailer depicts Zuckerberg as ambitious and driven, a brilliant young man with a killer idea, but soon his partners/ex-partners are screaming at him about stealing the company. So I'm obviously not expecting a flattering portrayal of Zuckerberg, and judging from his answers to ABC's Diane Sawyer earlier this week, he isn't either. The words "fiction" and "distractions" came up during the interview.

Zuckerberg, on one hand, may be taking the Oscar Wilde strategy: Better to be talked about than not talked about, and what better place for your company to be talked about than thousands of multiplex cinema screens across the country, fertile ground for the 50 people left out there who still aren't members of Facebook?

But he also may be hoping that there won't be a need for the filmmakers to shoot additional footage, thanks to a last-minute complaint from a New York businessman who claims he signed a contract in 2003 that gives him majority ownership of Facebook. After a Facebook lawyer originally told a judge that the company was "unsure" whether Zuckerberg had put his signature to any contract, Zuckerberg himself told Sawyer that he was "quite sure" he never signed anything that relinquished ownership.

Zuckerberg also promised Sawyer that his company will never charge its users to post status updates, play "Farmville" or upload cute pictures/video of the kids. That probably won't assuage the concerns of the users who answered a recent ForeSee customer satisfaction survey, which rated FB 64 out of 100 possible points. Only one other tech company -- MySpace -- ranked lower. The biggest gripes focused on what I mentioned before: privacy issues and changes to design. But those surveyed (some 70,000 people) also raised fears about more ads creeping onto their profile pages.

Writing on the Wall

So by one measure -- a dubious one -- Facebook really has crossed over to the mainstream; it ranks in ForeSee results right down there with cable companies and airlines that always lose your luggage. But those user concerns about privacy and commercialization have been around for a while. Congress has even hinted at investigations.

Unless Facebook is staging its own work of fiction on a grand scale, it continues to rack up new users and is now half a billion strong. As Sawyer pointed out, Facebook's membership would make it the third largest country on the planet. Clips of Facebook being mentioned in everything from President's Obama's speeches to "South Park" episodes are shown, with Sawyer astutely pointing out that the company is now part of the zeitgeist.

Yet despite what seems to be a perfect storm of media coverage and company benchmarks, many would argue that Facebook already hit its cultural and corporate tipping point at the f8 Conference in February. It introduced a new strategy, and the rest of us reacted to it, whether we were tech reporters, chief marketing officers or privacy advocates.

It's clear the consumers didn't really care all that much about what hitting the "Like" button does to their data and profiles; the membership keeps on reaching for the stratosphere. The mainstream media are the ones playing catch-up here.

So like Apple, Facebook appears to be able to do no wrong -- or at least, it keeps doing what it does, and its users keep griping about the network while they keep sharing what "Seinfeld" called the "excruciating minutiae" of their lives with the entire Web. Forget "The Social Network." It's become The Indispensable Network for half a billion Earthlings.

Apple has iPhone antenna problems, forcing Jobs to stage a press conference to shoot down "Antennagate." And then earnings come out and the company blows away Wall Street analysts. Barring a July surprise in the form of the aforementioned signed contract questioning ownership, Facebook seems to have the same kind of Jobs-like force field protecting its business model at the moment. The fact that it hasn't been around as long as Jobs' company is significant.

And it's still a private company, although Zuckerberg hinted at a possible IPO sometime in the future. That would be the next media tipping point for sure; the blockbuster sequel, if you will, to Facebook's current marquee moment.


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.


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What is the most consequential impact of social media on society today?
It has opened up valuable new channels for civil discourse.
It has destroyed the meaning of "truth" and "fact."
It has made people stronger by facilitating grass roots activism.
It has deepened divisions among groups with opposing views.
It has made it easier for people to support and help each other.
It has made it easier for people to humiliate and hurt each other.