Facebook's awkward adolescence
Fifteen years after its founding, Facebook has made strides towards Mark Zuckerberg's goal of connecting the world. But it has also made some huge missteps that have turned some of its cheerleaders into detractors.
The online social network founded on February 4 2004 in Zuckerberg's Harvard University dorm heads into adolescence with the grown-up burdens of being held accountable for its behaviour and playing in a world where people may not always have the purest intentions.
Facebook has seen unprecedented success by amassing more than 2.3-billion people worldwide who use the platform to share updates, obtain information and connect with others. But it has also been criticised for being more focused on growth than protecting users or thwarting deception, bullying and harassment.
"This is a very powerful company that has created an addictive product," said author and analyst Josh Bernoff. "Because of that, there is tremendous responsibility."
Facebook was hammered last year by a series of scandals over data protection and privacy and concerns that it had been manipulated by foreign interests for political purposes. It has faced increasing scrutiny on how it collects vast amounts of personal data from users and how it shares that data with partners to deliver targeted advertising.
Zuckerberg, 34, recently renewed his defence of Facebook's business model, adamant that it did not sell user data. He maintained that it made money from targeting ads based on what it learns about users, keeping the service free.
Bernoff saw Zuckerberg's latest defence as contending that Facebook is here to help people, and thus can be trusted. "We have learnt in capitalism that when companies get a lot of power and say they are doing what is best for you, we need to scrutinise them more," he said.
But he doubted people would turn away from Facebook due to trust issues, arguing that consumers were willing to trade a huge amount of data for some convenience.
Despite the scandals, Facebook took in a record $22bn (R292bn) profit for 2018 as revenues surged to $55bn. It has acknowledged it needs to do more to restore trust and ferret out misinformation and abuse.
And though Zuckerberg has connected the developed world, there is a lot of the planet he has yet to get onto the social network. According to eMarketer, 46.7% of internet users, or slightly more than 23% of the world's total population, use the core Facebook app in any given month.
"Facebook will need to make international growth a bigger priority this year and in the coming years," eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson said.
Zuckerberg's personal goal for 2019 is to convene a series of public forums on how technology can better serve society.
"I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the trade-offs we face and where we want to go," Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post outlining his goals.