As Facebook goes public with a stock value that's estimated to be worth between $75 billion and $100 billion, the world's largest social networking site boasts 845 million active users worldwide and ranks as the top provider of graphical online display ads in the United States, accounting for roughly 28 percent of the total "impressions" of such ads last year.
Such astronomical numbers may impress stock brokers, potential shareholders and wannabe online millionaires, but with all the financial headlines accompanying the float, the significance of Facebook as a communication tool seems to be taking a back seat as the world puts pedal to metal on the information highway. According to Facebook's maverick founder Mark Zuckerberg, the site was not created to be a company, but rather "built to accomplish a social mission". That mission being "to make the world more open and connected". In his letter to investors, Zuckerberg explains how he and his team are inspired by technologies that have revolutionized how people spread and consume information. "We often talk about inventions like the printing press and the television," he writes. "By simply making communication more efficient, they led to a complete transformation of many important parts of society. They gave more people a voice. They encouraged progress. They changed the way society was organized. They brought us closer together."
It's easy to see how Facebook could be considered the latest contribution to the evolution of conversation. Driven by the communicators themselves, in less than a decade it has become as much a part of some people's daily lives as the telephone. Despite the now tired complaint that "no-one needs to know what you're having for dinner", Facebook users share far more than their menus. In fact, they share everything from witty one-liners and holiday snaps to their deepest moral concerns and intimate secrets. The urge to share is so pervasive it has also inspired thousands of other online and mobile sharing tools, including Instant Messaging, You Tube, location apps like Four Square and more recently Pininterest, which is already 'pinned' as this year's hottest site.
According to tech entrepreneur Elad Gil, three key factors that are becoming significant drivers in the world of online sharing:
1. That it is becoming ever easier to share things online - re-tweet, re-blog, like etc
2. That more people are aware of sharing concepts - the sites are growing at breakneck speed
3. That people increasingly share online around specific topics - using bookmarks, personalised news feeds
A fourth element that might be added to this list is that people love visuals. Although Twitter may have originally been created as a platform on which to share thoughts through words, a quick scan through most of the tweets reveals that links are by far the most common form of communication and as with Facebook and other popular sites, the links posted often open as images, or at least websites full of them. In this sense, the naysayers might argue that online sharing is reducing everything to the lowest common denominator, but then that old adage about a picture re-tweets itself and 140 characters seems quite generous.
The fact remains that online sharing, whether by image or text, goes way beyond recommending products that boost advertisers' revenue. Concerns about privacy are certainly justified in some cases (such as when the state monitors your opinions and removes the right to share them), but if a retailer knows you like the colour red and uses that information to offer you red socks, they are hardly hijacking your personal freedom. You don't have to buy the socks. As Zuckerberg goes on to point out, " People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others." And more important still, he later adds that by helping people form these connections, Facebook hopes to rewire the way people spread and consume information. "We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph," he writes, a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring."
With100 billion friendships formed so far on Facebook, sharing will only grow, and along with it, the share value.