For those of us with the right kind of ears, there had been rumblings in the aether. They’d been there long before 2016: A proxy war between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton fought with BOTS on Twitter. Buzzfeed’s editor Craig Silverman, much to his later chagrin, coining the phrase “fake news.” Then finally something about Cambridge Analytica, Russia, and others using Facebook to manipulate its users, push the U.K. out of the E.U., and turn a United States Presidential Election.
No… for those in the know it all started way before 2016. Friendster launched in March 2002 and were basically all but done in 2005 (not accepting Google’s offer in 2003 is still considered one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the industry). The opposite was true of MySpace. Launched in 2003 their purchase by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2005 is widely considered to be their undoing. Mismanaged and slow to adapt, they were all but wiped-out by Facebook come April 2008 when Mark Zuckerberg’s startup decisively overtook them in the rankings. Their reign of five years, however, had been considerably longer than Friendster’s reign of two.
It’s 2018, however. Facebook has more than DOUBLED MySpace’s accomplishment: Ten years at the top. And that’s kind of where the trouble begins.
Disrupting the Natural Order.
You see there’s a reason why all the early tech giants folded. There’s a reason why “Netscape”, and “WordPerfect”, and “Alta Vista”…. once words that anyone who made daily use of the Internet was intimately familiar with… are now faded memories that even those exact same people would be hard pressed to conjure up. Prior to Facebook and Google, tech platforms were never built to last. They were all, ultimately, supplanted as technology improved, rivals emerged, and user loyalty shifted to the next big thing.
The trick that Google and Facebook were able to pull off was getting users to generate their own content and then selling it back them as a service… while simultaneously selling the users personal information and user data to the highest bidders. As laptops and smartphones became both more accessible and more affordable, a tidal wave of millions of new users showed up on the internet. Generating content for these masses quickly became a very expensive issue. Prior to the tech bubble bust of 2001 companies like Microsoft and a newly-resurrected Apple were spending millions of dollars (often to freelance journalists, photographers, and the occasional musician) on content creation. In 1997 Microsoft launched Sidewalk.com (which they had bought the previous year) as a local guide to cities across the United States with content provided by freelance journalists and photographers. But there was never enough content for the new generation of Internet users.
The next solution to this problem were the bloggers. Long before there was Tumblr there was Blogspot and LiveJournal (created in August and April of 1999 respectively). These new platforms made it easy for the newcomers of the internet (who perhaps lacked the skill to spin up a server and build websites themselves) to create and share their content in central these central locations where they could be found. While wildly popular, these early blogs were not widely popular. First of all, not everybody was a blogger. Your average person couldn’t be counted on to provide daily content. In fact… the average person who started a blog and wasn’t accustomed to keeping a journal would stop almost immediately. Even popular bloggers would stop producing content as their jobs, relationships, and other life events would interrupt them.
A breakthrough, of sorts, occurred around the time the first YouTube video was released on April 23, 2005. Like Facebook, the platform had been developed as an easy way for college kids to hook up with each other. But also like Facebook, the users and the content they generated would alter the direction of the company. The first YouTube video to hit one million views wasn’t not a shy science major looking for fun on a Saturday… but a Nike commercial. By that point YouTube was getting 100 million total views a day and had secured $15 million in financing.