To most observers, 2009 marked the year Twitter conquered the world. Yet it wasn't the only social media company that grew like wildfire. There's another that grew even more rapidly, adding over 200 million new users and raising $200 million dollars — double that of Twitter's most recent round.
2009 was a breakout year for Facebook, even if some of its successes were overshadowed by its emerging rival. In fact, the two have been locked in a new battle for the soul of the web, and the right to be the platform where the world converses. To that end, Facebook's 2009 has partly been about fighting back through the opening up of its data and profiles, a process we sometimes call Twitterification.
While this year has been its biggest year yet, it has endured multiple controversies, attacked multiple threats, and become even more engrained in world culture. It has even helped spark several multi-million dollar industries. As we take a look at Facebook's one-of-a-kind 2009, we get an even better picture of what to expect from the world's largest social network in 2010.
Facebook's Astronomical Growth
At the beginning of this year, Facebook was the #2 social network in the world, second to "the place for friends," MySpace. In December 2008, MySpace and Facebook were neck-and-neck with 59 million U.S. visitors each. Yet we already knew back then that this social networking hierarchy was about to change. By many estimates, Facebook was already bigger than MySpace internationally.
Facebook broke the big barrier in January, surpassing MySpace in U.S. traffic. Facebook grew to 68.5 million U.S. visitors, while MySpace actually lost 1 million people. As you can tell from the Compete graph above, this trend has only continued.
This isn't even the most astounding aspect of Facebook's growth. Its acquisition of new users has been unprecedented. On January 7th, 2009, Facebook announced that it had 150 million users, an impressive number to be sure. But this was the year Facebook went mainstream. No longer was it just college students joining the social network, but older users joined in droves.
It only took four months and a day for Facebook to reach 200 million users. Three months later, it suddenly boasted 250 million users. On September 15th, 2009, it broke the 300 million barrier, doubling its January user count.
At last count (December 2nd, 2009), there were 350 million users on Facebook, and it's certain that the number's only grown. With those 350 million users making over 45 million status updates every day and rising, Facebook has become a towering worldwide presence.
With this kind of unparalleled growth, Facebook should have been the social media story of 2009, right? But as we all know, that honor belongs to Twitter, whose quadruple-digit growth, surge of celebrity tweeters, and pivotal role in the #IranElection crisis all contributed to it becoming the focus of the world.
There's no other conclusion we can come up with: Twitter's quick ascention scared the hell out of Facebook. Its open platform and rapid user adoption threatened Facebook's social media supremecy. It not only stole the company's thunder, but in Facebook's estimation, if it sat around and did nothing, Twitter would quickly become the central plexus for online communication — something it could not allow.
Thus the company implemented a shift in strategy. It began to adopt some of Twitter's features while pushing for its users to be more public with their status updates and information. The first signs of twitterification surfaced when Facebook launched a new homepage design. It focused on the Facebook Publisher tool (to encourage more status updates and content creation) and a real-time homepage with the most recent activities of your friends.
When Facebook launched its Open Stream API though, we knew that it was serious about the Twitter threat. One of Twitter's greatest strengths was its developer network and wide variety of apps that allowed you to access your Twitter account and its data in countless ways. The Open Stream API gave developers access to Facebook's activity streams, opening up a new platform for the likes of TweetDeck and Seesmic.
The twitterification trend continued with a range of other new features in 2009: public content sharing and Facebook usernames launched in June, while real-time search and Facebook Lite emerged in August.
The company's blockbuster move of 2009 though had to be its acquisition of FriendFeed, the social activity aggregator co-founded by Gmail creator Paul Buchheit. While the true fruits of that acquisition have yet to bear, Twitter was clearly part of the equation and part of why it took that talented team in-house.
Facebook has had a history of attracting controversy. Early Facebook users likely remember the News Feed Revolt in 2006, where 10% of its users rebelled against the sudden implementation of the now-essential social networking feature (I remember it well). That streak continued into 2008 with Facebook Beacon and the Facebook redesign.
In 2009, the controversies didn't let up. The first major incident of 2009 was the Facebook Terms of Service controversy. It changed the TOS without informing its users to language that gave Facebook the ability to use your content in any way it chose, even if you quit Facebook. Learning from its past mistakes, Facebook quickly responded, but it didn't offer any resolution or apology, which only increased the firestorm of anger. A day later, Facebook relented: it reverted to its previous terms of service, admitting fault in an attempt to wipe the egg off of its face.
This controversy, while now just a memory, did initiate a major change within the Facebook system. It gave rise to the Facebook Democracy. Now when Facebook makes major changes to its governing documents, it gives users a chance to comment and vote on them before they take effect.
In July, the problems continued. A Canadian privacy commission declared that Facebook was breaching its privacy laws and the network was given 30 days to implement changes or be banned in Canada. In October, those changes were made.
Privacy concerns have only grown, though. This month, Facebook asked its users to update their privacy settings. While Facebook spun it as a simplification of its privacy protection features, others saw it as the company's attempt to slyly make profile information public. Many experts have spoken out against Facebook's tactics and privacy groups are calling for a federal investigation.
Growth seems to have its price. How these controversies play out, and what new ones will appear in 2010, is anybody's guess.
What Will Facebook Do in 2010?
As we close the book on 2009, it's time to look at Facebook's potential plans for 2010. And let us say: they're almost certainly going to be BIG.
With the market recovering and Facebook on the upswing, signs have been emerging that Facebook could file for IPO in 2010. It's well-known that the company founded by Zuckerberg has been interested in an initial public offering for some time, and with Facebook's 2010 revenue estimated to surpass $700 million, this may be the year.
To keep it on track for that big day though, Facebook will continue to fire off new features and leverage its best assets. Facebook Connect recently surpassed 60 million users, but we're sure Facebook would love that number to grow. It also has had an interest in virtual currency, though it's tough to say whether 2010 is the year Facebook makes that a priority.
Even with Twitter bursting onto the scene, 2009 was Facebook's best year yet. And with no signs of slowing down, 2010 could shape up to be a milestone year for the world's largest social network. Only time will tell.