Ten years ago, a cherub-faced, curly-haired 19-year-old freshman from Harvard University hatched his plan to build a website that would fundamentally change the way people across the world interacted with each other.
On February 4, 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched The Facebook: a social network hosted in his dorm room exclusively for college students. It raced like wildfire across American campuses and from 2006 burst into the big time when students' friends, parents and grandparents, eager to keep in touch with kids who had left the nest, were invited to join the social networking phenomenon.
Since then Facebook has engulfed 1.23 billion monthly active users, 80 per cent residing outside North America.
Over its rapid rise, it has seen off waves of challengers and challenges – including a high-profile legal wrangling between co-founders that inspired a Hollywood box office film featuring Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake – as it charged towards a much-hyped $US100 billion stock listing in 2012. That was the biggest valuation ever for a newly listed company.
But as it takes a breath to blow out candles on its birthday cake, Facebook is showing its age. And not just in digital years, which seem to mature online phenomena faster than offline ones, but in its growing audience as well.
Its biggest audience growth is now coming from people over 65. In its Social Media Update 2013, the Pew Research Centre's Internet Project found Facebook now reaches 45 per cent of 65-pluses, up from 35 per cent a year ago.
While it is still by far the social network of choice for people between 18 and 29 (84 per cent use it), this number actually dropped slightly in 2013. A worrying trend was identified by researchers from University College London in December last year, who claim that London teens between 16 and 18 are deserting the site in droves.
Because their parents have joined the party they're ''embarrassed to be associated with [Facebook]'', according to Daniel Miller, professor of material culture. ''What appears to be the most seminal moment in a young person's decision to leave Facebook was surely that dreaded day your mum sends you a friend request. You just can't be young and free if you know your parents can access your every indiscretion,'' Miller said.
''The desire for the new also drives each new generation to find their own media and this is playing out now in social media. It is nothing new that young people care about style and status in relation to their peers, and Facebook is simply not cool any more.''
Facebook is also facing a new wave of competition. Youngsters are turning to apps born in the era of smartphones and mobile internet. Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and this week's newcomer SocialRadar are all vying to become teens' social network of choice.
Looking to eliminate one of its biggest potential threats, in April 2012 Facebook paid $US1 billion for photo-sharing app Instagram, which now has more than 150 million users. It tried and failed to acquire popular private photo-sharing app Snapchat, which destroys some 400 million messages sent daily after 10 seconds and is quickly emerging as the preferred method to privately share spur-of-the-moment photos.
This week Facebook announced a new app, Paper, to try to capture loyalty from audiences keen to view and share news articles from smartphones – a territory well captured by Twitter. But will it be enough?
Princeton researchers have a more damning, and disputed, assessment of Facebook's future prospects. They project 80 per cent of users will desert the social network by 2017. It hasn't stopped the network posting an eight-fold increase in profit this week. The company made $1.7 billion in profit last quarter, raising its founder's personal worth to $33.8 billion.
In an interview published by Businessweek for the anniversary, Zuckerberg admitted Facebook hasn't shifted to mobile as fast as it should have, but ''one of the things that characterises our company is that we are pretty strong-willed''.
So far it has turned out well for Zuckerberg, who turned down a $US1 billion offer from Yahoo to buy out Facebook when it was only two years old and had around 12 million users.
"We're focused on building the company for the long term," Zuckerberg told the New York Times then.
In the realm of social networks, the cautionary tale is MySpace, which News Corp purchased for $US580 million in 2005 and sold for $US35 million six years later (incidentally to a company partly owned by Timberlake). In cyberspace, fortunes are won and lost with a click.
- Sydney Morning Herald