FEATURE17 November 2021

The history of the data economy: The new kings and queens of data

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Data analytics Features Impact

Data is now the fuel that drives business – identifying potential markets, shaping new products, and targeting consumers. Impact has partnered with Significance, the magazine of the Royal Statistical Society, to jointly publish a series exploring the past, present and future of the data economy. This third part tells the story of the evolution of social media, which created rich and detailed data sources and positioned tech giants as data economies in their own right. By Timandra Harkness.


Until February 2004, a ‘face book’ was a paper directory that US students received to help them get to know each other, with names, photographs and a few biographical details. That was until Harvard University student Mark Zuckerberg had the idea of creating an online version.

Well over a thousand Harvard students signed up within 24 hours of TheFacebook’s launch. Today, Facebook (which dropped the ‘the’ in 2005 ) claims to have 2.85 billion monthly active users worldwide – more than half the world’s internet users and getting on for a third of the planet’s human population. Total revenue in 2020 was more than $85bn.

Any platform that attracts an audience of more than a billion people a day could expect to make money from advertising, but what makes Facebook’s advertising space so valuable is the ability to target the right pairs of eyes, and what makes that possible is data.

The ability to gather data from someone’s online behaviour, ...