OPINION15 December 2015

The future of Facebook

Charities Opinion Technology

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg may be focused on his new charity but don’t be fooled into thinking the company won’t still be at the forefront of our digital world. By Steven Van Belleghem  

When Mark Zuckerberg posted a heartfelt open letter to his daughter announcing that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, were to give away 99% of their Facebook shares to charity during their lifetime, it caused a few raised eyebrows around the world. Some people questioned if it meant that Zuckerberg had lost his desire to be in the driving seat of one of the world’s most powerful companies. Others saw it as cynical (and extremely expensive) PR exercise.

Personally, I am really excited by the charity idea. Of course the announcement won’t have come spontaneously and I am sure it has been structured to consider every financial implication, but it is a positive move and we should recognise a remarkable act of generosity before cynically pulling it apart. The figureheads of the world’s leading companies now have such power that, working in partnership with governments and charities, they can genuinely change the world. So, if Zuckerberg’s actions make a few more business leaders sit up and take note, then that will be a step in the right direction.

So, aside from this altruistic act, what are the other influences that will shape Facebook over the next decade in its quest to connect the world? I spent a large part of 2015 visiting businesses on the cutting edge of digital around the world, and based on what I saw in California and Shanghai, I believe the following mean we’re going to see plenty more from Zuckerberg’s Facebook:

an immersive experience:

The world has been excited about virtual reality for decades now, but the number of practical uses in the real world is still limited. When Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, however, it clearly had something bigger in mind than a few novelty video games.

Sharing photos was one of the features that first got people excited about Facebook and videos then became a big part of the user experience. Devices like the Oculus Rift, which will soon be available on the mass market, are seen as a way to take this already engaging media to another level. Imagine if those football highlights your friends share could be watched as a 360 degree experience as if you were inside the stadium. It could increase engagement levels dramatically, as well as opening up some exciting opportunities for businesses to use the platform.

an even wider reach:

Today, the internet has around 2 billion users. That might sound huge, but two thirds of the world’s population still isn’t online so both Facebook and Google are working to change that.

Google’s Loon project aims to deliver affordable internet to everyone via a series of balloons that will beam down 4G signals to different parts of the world. Facebook is working on its own project based on a similar idea, but its approach is built around solar-powered aircrafts or drones the size of a Boeing 747 that fly for a period of up to three months again beaming down 4G signal.

Both projects are such big ideas they almost seem like science fiction, but just imagine if they succeed. Suddenly, some of the most remote countries in the world across Africa, Asia and South America will become connected to the rest of the world, creating five billion more internet users. Now that Google and Facebook have announced they are going to collaborate on this, we might see the fruits of the efforts in less than five years.

an operating system for everyday life:

Most European consumers are now reasonably comfortable in the digital world and the three huge companies that dominate that world in the West – Google, Amazon and Facebook – have become part of our everyday life. In Asia however, the digital world is dominated by three different companies – Baidu, the equivalent of Google, Alibaba which is like the Chinese Amazon, and Tencent which is the parent WeChat, a competitor to Facebook.

To look at the future of Facebook Messenger, it is interesting to look at the success WeChat is having in Asia. During a recent visit to China, I was fascinated to see how many people ( 600million users, in fact) had embraced WeChat and were hardly using email as they were just doing business via WeChat. It has become more advanced than Facebook Messenger and gone beyond being a social network to become so engrained in daily life that it has almost become an operating system in the Eastern world. Rather than just simply sending messages, WeChat allows its users to make payments, manage their banking, buy lottery tickets, order a taxi, book a hotel and pretty much anything else you would do on an average day, all via a user-friendly app.

Facebook has already launched payments on Facebook in the US, and I believe this is step one in positioning Facebook as an operating system for everyday life. Combined with Facebook drones, love it or hate it, Zuckerberg’s internet giant is going to play a more important role in the lives of even more people for many years to come.

Prof. Steven Van Belleghem is author of When Digital Becomes Human, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.