updated 2/7/2012 2:21:31 PM ET 2012-02-07T19:21:31

Everyone is talking about Facebook since it recently filed paperwork to begin selling stock as a public company. In its eight years, Facebook has become more than a huge corporation; it's a cultural phenomenon that has redefined the way people interact and see themselves. To appreciate how influential Facebook has become, let’s imagine a world without it.

Facebook's impact isn't just technological: Mark Zuckerberg didn't invent a new Web browser, operating system or hardware. The tools on Facebook aren't radically new, either, but they are easier to use. For example, FacebookConnect, which allows you to sign up for new websites just by clicking a Facebook button, is a user-friendly variation on an obscure tech called OpenID. Like Amazon and Apple, Facebook stands out for making things people already do easier, or for bringing issues like online privacy to the forefront.

Here are four examples of how Facebook has changed our lives:

1) Photo sharing

Before Facebook, people might use a dedicated photo site like Picasa or Flickr. More technically minded users might have an online portfolio or a blog. But there wasn't a standard way to do it, and people might use different platforms. As a result, Facebook sees 250 million photo uploads per day. By comparison, Flickr hit the 6 billion mark in August 2011 — after seven years. Facebook hits that every 24 days.

Facebook succeeded by creating a standard platform that made sharing pictures simpler. And it tied them to people’s social lives (with features like tagging individuals) to make the photos easy to find and more relevant. That's a double-edged sword: Just ask anyone who has been fired for uploading an embarrassing photo –one that once would likely have remained unknown.

2) Online gaming

12 percent of Facebook’s $3.71 billion in revenue last year was from a single company: Zynga. With top 10 Facebook games, including Farmville, Cityville and Empire & Allies, Zynga draws many people to Facebook. And Facebook draws many to Zynga and rivals such as Playdom and Buffalo Studios. Would Zynga or anything like it exist without Facebook?

Probably not, said Scott Steinberg, head of the strategic consulting firm TechSavvy Global. "The entire social gaming industry would be a fraction of its current size," he said. As with photos, Facebook provides a standard platform for everyone to join and also functions as a kind of catalog. A free game on the Web is usually something you have to look for. Facebook will send a notice that you might want to play something.

On top of that, Zynga's games are free to most users because a small number pay and subsidize everyone else. Access to an enormous number of people on Facebook allows Zynga to find enough of those paying customers.

3) The news

Facebook has become a gateway to news for many people. The ease of linking to articles or videos from any site encourages people to pass on what they find important to their friends. It’s a mainstream version of older sites like Reddit and Slashdot, which are a combination of news aggregator and discussion board that attract a niche, tech-savvy crowd.

Facebook also tailors the top stories on users' news feeds by looking at a combination of what friends post and what the user posts, automating the discovery process.

4) Privacy

People worried about Google, and still do, especially now in light of its revised policies. But Facebook was always a bit more problematic — and so an attention-getter.

Google has said explicitly that it doesn't sell user data. Facebook has been sometimes less forthcoming. For example, its privacy policy once said that it might share users' information with other parties. It has changed since then, but the company has had a habit of revising privacy settings without necessarily informing users. The concerns have been important enough to sometimes result in lawsuits (notably in 2009 over Facebook’s Beacon service that broadcasted what people were buying).

If Facebook didn't exist, it's a sure bet that most people would be more focused on Google and Yahoo! than they already are, and the kinds of data at issue would be different. Having your searches monitored, for example, is less direct than realizing, through a botched privacy setting, that your employers saw a nasty post about them.

Would anyone take its place?

MySpace was the most visited site in the United States in 2006, outpacing even Google. At the beginning of 2008, it was still bigger than Facebook, with 110 million active users versus Facebook’s 58 million. But by the end of the 2008, MySpace had, at best, gotten to 115 million while Facebook shot up to 145 million by the end of 2008. News Corp. bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million, then sold it last year, charging just $35 million for the remaining 35 million members.

But MySpace had problems even before Facebook appeared on the social networking scene. For one, it was too easy for customers to change the site design. Users were able to tweak the code and add scripts for multimedia effects, and that could slow things down. Facebook only allowed text. Facebook's interface was cleaner and simpler to use, even if it didn't have all the customization options.

MySpace also ran into problems with advertising and spam, largely because users could be contacted unsolicited. Facebook, by contrast, allows friend requests, but you aren't going to get news feeds or other messages from people or companies you don't invite or allow.

So while MySpace might have kept going, it is far from clear that it would have enjoyed continued success. Even at its peak, it was seen as a youth-oriented site. Facebook is inviting to a range of age groups, from tweens to their grandparents.

And Friendster, the grand old man of social networking sites, withered because it resisted changes that made MySpace and Facebook  successes, such as allowing networks related to groups rather than just individuals or adding blogging (as MySpace did).

Perhaps Friendster's biggest blunder was rejecting a $30 million Google buyout, which would have put the site in front of many millions more people. Friendster became a niche player in the U.S., though it stayed strong in Asia, with 115 million users concentrated in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines. Finally, last year,  Friendster announced it would delete user profiles and redesign itself as a social gaming site.

Given the fate of its peers, Facebook seems to be more than just the new(ish) kid in town. It brought in new ways of linking people together — and nearly a billion people think it’s the right formula.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily


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