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7.2 What’s the Big Deal?

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Recognize that Facebook’s power is allowing it to encroach on and envelop. other Internet businesses.
  2. Understand the concept of the “dark Web” and why some feel this may one day give Facebook a source of advantage vis-à-vis Google.
  3. Understand the basics of Facebook’s infrastructure, and the costs required to power the effort.

The prior era’s Internet golden boy, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, has said that Facebook is “an amazing achievement one of the most significant milestones in the technology industry in this decade.”Fred Vogelstein, “How Mark Zuckerberg Turned Facebook into the Web’s Hottest Platform,” Wired, September 6, 2007. While still in his twenties, Andreessen founded Netscape, eventually selling it to AOL for over four billion dollars. His second firm, Opsware, was sold to HP for $1.6 billion. He joined Facebook’s Board of Directors within months of making this comment. Why is Facebook considered such a big deal?

First there’s the growth: between December 2008 and 2009, Facebook was adding between six hundred thousand and a million users a day. It was as if every twenty-four hours, a group as big or bigger than the entire city of Boston filed into Facebook’s servers to set up new accounts. Roughly half of Facebook users visit the site every single day,D. Gage, “Facebook Claims 250 Million Users,” InformationWeek, July 16, 2009. with the majority spending thirty minutes or more getting their daily Facebook fix.Thomas Krivak, “Facebook 101: Ten Things You Need to Know about Facebook,” Information Today, March 2008. And it seems that Mom really is on Facebook (Dad, too); users thirty-five years and older account for more than half of Facebook’s daily visitors and its fastest growing population.John Hagel and John Seely Brown, “Life on the Edge: Learning from Facebook,” BusinessWeek, April 2, 2008; and D. Gage, “Facebook Claims 250 Million Users,” InformationWeek, July 16, 2009.

Then there’s what these users are doing: Facebook isn’t just a collection of personal home pages and a place to declare your allegiance to your friends. The integrated set of Facebook services encroaches on a wide swath of established Internet businesses. It’s not just that the site offers tools for messaging and chat; it’s the first-choice messaging tool for a generation. E-mail is for your professors, but Facebook is for friends. In photos, Google, Yahoo! and MySpace all spent millions to acquire photo sharing tools (Picasa, Flickr, and Photobucket, respectively). But Facebook is now the biggest photo-sharing site on the Web, taking in some twenty-eight million photos each day.F. Vogelstein, “Mark Zuckerberg: The Wired Interview,” Wired, June 29, 2009. And watch out YouTube. Facebookers share eight million videos each month. YouTube will get you famous, but Facebook is a place most go to share clips they only want friends to see.

As for search, Facebook’s got designs on that, too. Google and Bing index some Facebook content, but since much of Facebook is private, accessible only among friends, this represents a massive blind spot for Google search. Sites that can’t be indexed by Google and other search engines are referred to as the dark WebSites that can’t be indexed by Google and other search engines.. While Facebook’s partnership with Microsoft currently offers web search results through Bing.com, Facebook has announced its intention to offer its own search engine with real-time access to up-to-the-minute results from status updates, links, and other information made available to you by your friends. If Facebook can tie together standard Internet search with its dark Web content, this just might be enough for some to break the Google habit.

Facebook is a kingmaker, opinion catalyst, and traffic driver. While in the prior decade news stories would carry a notice saying “copyright: do not distribute,” today major news outlets, including the New York Times, offer Facebook icons alongside every copyrighted story, encouraging users to “share” content on in their profile pages. Like digital photos, video, and instant messaging, link sharing is a Facebook sharp elbow to the competition. Suddenly Facebook gets space on a page along side Digg.com and Del.icio.us, even though those guys showed up first.

And Facebook is political—in big, regime-threatening ways. The site is considered such a powerful tool in the activist’s toolbox that China, Iran, and Syria are among nations that have, at times, attempted to block Facebook access within their borders. Egyptians have used the site to protest for democracy. Saudi women have used it to lobby for driving privileges. ABC News cosponsored U.S. presidential debates with Facebook. And Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes was even recruited by the Obama campaign to create my.barackobama.com, a social media site considered vital in the 2008 U.S. presidential victory.D. Talbot, “How Obama Really Did It,” Technology Review, September/October 2008; and E. McGirt, “How Chris Hughes Helped Launch Facebook and the Barack Obama Campaign,” Fast Company, March 17, 2009, http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/134/boy-wonder.html.

So What’s It Take to Run This Thing?

The Facebook cloudA collection of resources available for access over the Internet. (the big group of connected servers that power the site) is scattered across multiple facilities, including server farms in San Francisco, Santa Clara, and northern Virginia.Alan Zeichick, “How Facebook Works,” Technology Review, July/August 2008. The innards that make up the bulk of the system aren’t that different from what you’d find on a high-end commodity workstation. Standard hard drives and eight core Intel processors—just a whole lot of them lashed together through networking and software.

Much of what powers the site is open source software (OSS)Software that is free and where anyone can look at and potentially modify the code.. A good portion of the code is in PHP (a scripting language particularly well-suited for Web site development), while the databases are in MySQL (a popular open source database). The object cache that holds frequently accessed objects in chip-based RAM instead of on slower hard drives is managed through the open source product called Memcache.

Other code components are written in a variety of languages, including C++, Java, Python, and Ruby, with access between these components managed by a proprietary code layer the firm calls Thrift. Facebook also developed its own media serving solution, called Haystack. Haystack coughs up photos 50 percent faster than more expensive, proprietary solutions, and since it’s done in-house, it saves Facebook costs that other online outlets spend on third-party content delivery networks (CDN)Systems distributed throughout the Internet (or other network) that help to improve the delivery (and hence loading) speeds of Web pages and other media, typically by spreading access across multiple sites located closer to users. Akamai is the largest CDN, helping firms like CNN and MTV quickly deliver photos, video, and other media worldwide. like Akamai. Facebook receives some fifty million requests per second,Sharon Gaudin, “Facebook Rolls Out Storage System to Wrangle Massive Photo Stores,” Computerworld, April 1, 2009, http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9130959/Facebook_rolls_out_storage_system_to_wrangle_massive_photo_stores. yet 95 percent of data queries can be served from a huge, distributed server cache that lives in over fifteen terabytes of RAM (objects like video and photos are stored on hard drives).Alan Zeichick, “How Facebook Works,” Technology Review, July/August 2008.

Hot stuff (literally), but it’s not enough. The firm raised several hundred million dollars more in the months following the fall 2007 Microsoft deal, focused largely on expanding the firm’s server network to keep up with the crush of growth. The one hundred million dollars million raised in May 2008 was “used entirely for servers.”S. Ante, “Facebook: Friends with Money,” BusinessWeek, May 9, 2008. Facebook will be buying them by the thousands for years to come. And it’ll pay a pretty penny to keep things humming. Estimates suggest the firm spends one million dollars a month on electricity, another half million a month on telecommunications bandwidthTransmission rate, typically expressed as the number of bits per second that can be transmitted by a particular telecommunications mechanism., and at least fifteen million dollars a year in office and data center rental payments.A. Arrington, “Facebook Completes Rollout of Haystack to Stem Losses from Massive Photo Uploads,” TechCrunch, April 6, 2009.

Key Takeaways

  • Facebook’s position as the digital center of its members’ online social lives has allowed the firm to envelop related businesses such as photo and video sharing, messaging, bookmarking, and link sharing.
  • Much of the site’s content is in the dark Web, unable to be indexed by Google or other search engines. Some suggest this may create an opportunity for Facebook to challenge Google in search.
  • Facebook’s can be a vital tool for organizers—presenting itself as both opportunity and threat to those in power, and an empowering medium for those seeking to bring about change.
  • Facebook’s growth requires a continued and massive infrastructure investment. The site is powered largely on commodity hardware, open source software, and proprietary code tailored to the specific needs of the service.

Questions and Exercises

  1. What is Facebook? How do people use the site? What do they “do” on Facebook?
  2. What markets has Facebook entered? What factors have allowed the firm to gain share in these markets at the expense of established firms? In what ways does it enjoy advantages that a traditional new entrant in such markets would not?
  3. What is the “dark Web” and why is it potentially an asset to Facebook? Why is Google threatened by Facebook’s dark Web? What firms might consider an investment in the firm, if it provided access to this asset? Do you think the dark Web is enough to draw users to a Facebook search product over Google? Why or why not?
  4. As Facebook grows, what kinds of investments continue to be necessary? On a per-user basis, what are the trends in these costs over time? Do you think Facebook should wait in making these investments? Why or why not?
  5. Investments in servers and other capital expenses typically must be depreciated over time. What does this imply about how the firm’s profitability is calculated?
  6. How have media attitudes toward their copyrighted content changed over the past decade? Why is Facebook a potentially significant partner for firms like the New York Times? What does the Times stand to gain by encouraging “sharing” its content? What do newspapers and others sites really mean when they encourage sites to “share?” What actually is being passed back and forth? Do you think this ultimately helps or undermines the Times and other newspaper and magazine sites? Why?