Ten-year-olds do a lot of questionable things. They start watching R-rated movies behind their parents' backs. They discover the opposite sex. They experiment with different looks and fashions. (In the interest of disclosure, I should state that around the age of 10, I had an extremely unfortunate run-in with a jar of blue Manic Panic hair dye.)
Facebook, which turns ten today, is not in danger of doing anything that dumb. As a $150 billion company that grew out of a Harvard dorm room, it's already tried on several identities — as a scrappy student start-up, as a venture-funded rocket ship, as a controversial privacy-destroyer, and most recently, as a public leviathan that is hell-bent on saving and connecting the world. This is, relatively speaking, the easy evolution — from David to Goliath. The next ten years will be where Facebook enters an adolescent identity crisis of sorts.
You can see this starting already. Yesterday, Facebook released Paper, a news-reading app that features stories from your Facebook friends in a stripped-down, good-looking reader. Paper is part of a new strategy for Facebook. It used to be that there was one Facebook, with hundreds of functions packed inside a central platform. Now Facebook is starting to break some of those functions — and new ones they're thinking up — off into their own mobile apps.
The goal is to "build a handful of different experiences that people don't think of as Facebook," Zuckerberg said last month.
This is a massive change — akin to McDonald's deciding it's going to open a bunch of specialty food trucks in addition to the regular drive-throughs. And it's likely to create an awkward, fractured culture at Facebook's headquarters. The core part of Facebook is the Facebook site and mobile app itself, and the company's Menlo Park office is filled with thousands of ad-tech gurus and salespeople who work night and day trying to figure out how to squeeze more dimes out of Facebook's advertisers. They're the engine of revenue growth at Facebook, and, for years, they've been the most vital part of the company's success.
But now, with the stand-alone-app model, there's a group of new, privileged rock stars in town. These are the people who are going to have the fun jobs of making a bunch of new apps and hoping that some of them are hits. These people won't have to make money — in fact, it's likely they'll be told explicitly not to make money, and focus only on growth and user acquisition.
Part of the culture clash will come from the top. Mark Zuckerberg is, at heart, a hacker, more interested in building things than making money from them. As this Wall Street Journal story from last month says, it took years for Zuckerberg to be convinced that making money was important to Facebook's future. ("Oh, my gosh, he's actually open to it," one executive said, when Zuckerberg had an epiphany about putting ads in News Feed.) Now, with non-core apps like Paper commanding more of Facebook's attention, there's a danger that Zuckerberg will go back to his wheelhouse, and leave the ad team in the lurch.
To be clear: I think the stand-alone-app strategy is a great idea. As Benedict Evans says, the main News Feed of Facebook is a mess, and users are flocking to simpler, less-cluttered single-function apps. A lot of the new apps Facebook builds will probably fizzle out (Exhibit A: Poke.) But rather than rely on the huge, overwhelming content fire hose that is a Facebook feed, people will feel more at ease using lots of little garden hoses to perform disparate functions. And if just one of these mini-apps blows up and becomes the next Snapchat or Tinder or Whisper, it will justify the entire project. There's also precedent, as Will Oremus notes, in the example of Instagram, which "has not seemed to suffer from the same complaints about coolness as Facebook, even though it’s part of Facebook."
In many ways, Facebook is at a crossroads. It has all the trappings of a giant, established corporation — the Frank Gehry touch, the rock-star executives, the beautiful campus with restaurants, arcade, and coffee bar. But it wants to remain nimble and young, and appeal to people too young to have grown up using it. Robinson Meyer gets at this tension nicely:
Paper seems like a prototypical attempt at self-disruption, where an upstart internal team within a larger company develops a product that could, eventually, supplant the company’s main offering. The company knows that no one can seriously challenge it at its own game right now, so, if it wants to stay relevant, it must challenge itself—even if its own attempts don’t produce any revenue.
You can sense that Zuckerberg sees stand-alone apps as the primary way Facebook will grow in the future. In his tenth anniversary post today, he says, "Today, social networks are mostly about sharing moments. In the next decade, they'll also help you answer questions and solve complex problems."
The problem, of course, is that there are thousands of people at Facebook who still work on that sharing-moments stuff — and who don't want to become yesterday's news. As the stand-alones hog more of the attention within Facebook, internecine conflict and jealousy on the part of the old-line Facebookers could become a problem.
Facebook's "teen problem" is often spoken about, in the context of the company's attempts to attract young users. But what isn't discussed nearly as much is the way that the company itself is exhibiting teenage tendencies. It's left childhood behind. Like a preteen deciding on Goth vs. Skater Boy, it's lurching between new identities, trying to find one that feels right. And in the next ten years — slowly, awkwardly, with a few missteps along the way — Facebook is going to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.