When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosted President Barack Obama in mid-April for a town hall meeting at the social networking giant’s headquarters in Palo Alto, California, and casually discussed with the president the role of technology firms in setting the tone for America’s jobs future, the meeting’s vibe had the air of a party. Nonchalance pervaded the room, and Zuckerberg put on display for the president a picture-perfect show of calm smugness that often comes with tremendous accomplishment.
The sitting president’s visit to Facebook, in its own right, could have been seen as a singular accomplishment of 2011 for the company. But even before Obama visited the company’s headquarters, Facebook had already amassed an impressive list of accomplishments for 2011.
It was a few minor moments in the second half of 2011, though, that proved most exciting for Facebook’s growth. These isolated moments solidified 2011 as the most transformative and pivotal year in the 7-year-old tech company’s history. This year may have brought a few big tangible milestones (plans to build a new corporate campus in Menlo Park, California, lavish praise for Facebook’s role in facilitating the Arab Spring, and earnest discussion of a potential IPO), but it was obscure changes that Facebook made to its privacy policies and clever public policy maneuvering that led to a deal with the FTC to settle long-standing disputes that contributed most to Facebook’s sanguine outlook on the future.
This was the year that Zuckerberg’s private photos were leaked online, opening a vigorous debate about how much information of ours Facebook truly possesses. Even Facebook’s chat features changed, as the social network included the novel option of creating Facebook e-mail addresses and automatically sorting messages in “social inboxes,” much to the chagrin of some Facebook chatters.
As 2012 rolls around, all Facebook talk is turning to the IPO expected sometime next summer or fall. Who knows what Facebook’s IPO will yield, but with social media game-maker Zynga expected to yield $1 billion in its IPO, speculation of Facebook’s potential pay-off in 2012 is again peaking. Even if Facebook decides to prolong its IPO, the changes made this year to privacy policies and status updates are enough to appease many disgruntled users, as the site is cleaner, clearer, and easier to use than it has ever been. Over the course of the year Facebook announced several major changes to status updates, redesigning the interface and including increased character limits, amid a public outcry for more characters that certainly, at one point, may have benefited Google+’s emergence. It is no surprise then, that the over 800 million member social network in the coming years may surpass the 1 billion mark in the coming year.
Indeed, Facebook status updates played a starring role in the evolution of the world’s largest social network in 2011, and they show that Facebook has even cornered the market of influencing the way we receive our news. Today, Facebook data scientists keep their eyes focused on tracking the trends among those status updates, and last week Facebook unleashed that research in a year-end memo, which each December since 2009 has come to be expected because it gives users of the social network a behind-the-scenes look at Facebook’s analytic numbers and attempts to help the public understand the most-popular topics, cultural trends and acronyms on the site. Similar to what was popular on Twitter in 2011, high-profile deaths triggered plenty of discussion on the website. On Facebook, the deaths of Osama bin Laden, Steve Jobs, and Amy Winehouse incited the heaviest activity in status updates.
It was a good year for Facebook. The company appears to have matured from its previously more naïve days, when Facebook’s public relations machine was a fiasco and senior leadership refused to acknowledge that the social network plays an increasingly important role in international politics. Now as a more sophisticated non-governmental actor, Facebook has beefed up its presence in Washington and elsewhere, taking seriously the reality of its ability to really influence the direction of policy decisions both at home and abroad.
It will be interesting to see what is in store for Facebook in 2012. One thing is for certain, though, 2012 looks to be as equally fortuitous for the social network, if not more, than 2011 was.
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