Facebook: The Psychology of a Ten Year Old

cartoon illustration design for tenth birthday anniversaryYou can’t have missed it, surely? Facebook is 10 years old today. It is ten years today since the company was first incorporated. Of course, it wasn’t until almost three years later that the system went public. In those initial years it was a private network within Ivy League universities. Nowadays, it is a global phenomenon.

But Facebook is still a child.

Can you remember what you were like at 10? You were probably in your last year at junior school, thinking you were all “grown up” because it wasn’t long before “big school”. You had also realised by this time that you were your own person, you were starting to want your own way much more; the seeds of those teenage conflicts were being planted. And you were starting to realise what real friends were, rejecting some of those relationships you had from your younger years because they were only based on who your Mum and Dad knew; now you wanted to create your own friendships. The tenth year for many children is the beginning of that mental turmoil when we start moving out of dependent childhood on our path to becoming independent individuals.

Of course, Facebook will be popping the champagne corks today celebrating their success. Yet, even within corporate development they are still children. After all, one of the companies on Facebook, the Shirley Plantation, is officially America’s oldest business which started trading in 1613. But even that old-established business has a long way to go to catch up with, for instance, the world’s oldest hotel which has been taking in paying guests in Japan since 705, making the business 1,299 years older than Facebook. I wonder if Facebook will still be running in the year 3313, some 1,299 years from now.

Studies of corporate histories show some striking similarities between the companies that last. In a fascinating study of the history of Shell, published in Business Week magazine, there were some rather comforting details as to what makes a company last a long time. Those that survive more than ten years tend to be tolerant and responsive to the environment in which they work. But crucially, the study of corporate histories found that return on investment to shareholders was completely unrelated to long term success.

So, here we have a ten year old business that has for the past couple of years hooked itself up to the stock market which is baying for better results and greater profits. That in turn is forcing Facebook to introduce more and more methods of raising cash, such as increased levels of advertising, which are annoying its users. “I didn’t join Facebook to be sold to,” is a common complaint. Hang on a minute – those successful long-term companies were responsive to their environment showing tolerance. Does Facebook sound like it is doing that? And those businesses that have been around for hundreds of years haven’t focused on returning an investment to shareholders. Does that sound like Facebook?

At first sight it might look like Facebook is heading for the hills never to be seen again.

But, it is a ten-year-old, the age at which rejection of the past begins to kick in. As the company grows up and starts to mature it may well start establishing its own identity much more, responding to its own “friends” (users) much more tolerantly, rejecting the so-called powers of its investors. It could well be a lesson in future MBA courses that when the company grew up and focused on its real customers it was the turning point in its development.

And that’s something that happens in all ten-year olds – they grow up and start their journey to adulthood, rejecting childish behaviour and focusing on what really matters to them. Facebook may be congratulating themselves today, but in reality their journey is only just beginning.

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