What is Facebook?
It’s been 13 years since it launched, and Facebook is still basically the same thing it was when it was a mere glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye: a profile-based social network.
Sure, it’s added a news feed and live video, but Facebook’s core product really hasn’t changed much; even its most visible acquisition, Instagram, is basically the same thing — a giant directory of people who upload photos, video, and text, some of which others will “like.”
Not so anymore. Facebook, in an effort to stay relevant to younger users and keep ahead of the innovation curve, is diversifying like never before. As the company put it in its 2016 annual report, “Our ability to retain, increase, and engage our user base and to increase our revenue depends heavily on our ability to continue to evolve our existing products and to create successful new products,” emphasis ours.
To that end, Facebook is trying out a lot of different things, which is why we’re starting to get increasingly weird and rapid fire announcements from the company. Exhibit A was the slide from Facebook’s developer-oriented conference F8 in April, which asked, “What if you could type directly from your brain?” as a way of introducing the company’s work on a “direct brain interface.”
Poking directly into the brain is probably the most bizarre initiative on Facebook’s list, but there are plenty of other things the company is trying now that have little to do with social networking.
It’s now a hardware company. Facebook is producing Oculus virtual reality headsets and drones that would provide internet during a natural disaster, among other projects run out of its secretive Area 404 and Building 8 labs.
It’s angling to be an entertainment company. Just this week, it was reported that the company is preparing to launch as many as two dozen original shows — an extremely aggressive foray into original programming that would put it up against Amazon and Netflix. It was also in talks earlier this year with Major League Baseball on a deal to live stream one MLB game per week, although those efforts have apparently stalled for the time being.
It’s a Craigslist killer. Last October, Facebook launched Marketplace, a move into Craigslist and eBay territory that it updated with a redesign this month. The company first attempted a version of this in 2007, but it failed to gain traction, and was shuttered in 2014. In February, the move into classifieds continued with a new feature that allowed businesses to post job openings, horning in on LinkedIn’s territory.
It’s training computer brains. Facebook is investing in artificial intelligence as a “longer-term initiative,” as the company said in its annual report. We don’t know all of what Facebook is doing in AI, but it has used AI techniques to identify and catalog faces as well as guess which users might be suicidal, or are potential terrorists.
It’s building alternate worlds. Facebook is of course interested in virtual reality, although the way forward is unclear. The company just shuttered its VR storytelling studio, but continues to fund external development, including allocating $50 million to “non-gaming, experiential VR.”
It’s not just virtual reality, though; Facebook is also into augmented reality, the technology that became mainstream during last year’s Pokemon Go craze. At F8, Zuckerberg used his keynote address to announce the Camera Effects Platform, which will allow developers to create effects like masks and photo frames as well as artwork and animated images.
It’s doing a bunch of other random stuff, including rolling out the ability to order food through delivery.com inside the Messenger app.
Facebook, fresh off reporting yet another quarter of revenue growth, has been swimming in money for years now. According to Forbes, the company’s market cap — the total market value of all its outstanding shares — is $435 billion, up from $58 billion in 2012. With all that cash, it makes sense for Facebook to start experimenting with new ways to make money other than those ads in the newsfeed.
It’s also makes sense for the company to do everything it can to counter the scariest problem of all for any social media or tech business: the loss of its dominance among users.
“If we fail to retain existing users or add new users,” the 2016 annual report said, “or if our users decrease their level of engagement with our products, our revenue, financial results, and business may be significantly harmed.”