Friday 24 October 2014

Facebook's boy wonder is now the old boy on the cyber block

Facebook's co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook's co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg
Evan Spiegel of Snapchat: The company turned down a €2.3bn bid from Facebook
Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, fires the world's first gun made with 3D printer technology
Cody Wilson, a 25-year-old law student at the University of Texas, fires the world's first gun made with 3D printer technology

Scrawny and freckled, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may be the world's youngest billionaire but he continues to resemble one of the nerds from school the rest of the class used to take turns beating up behind the bike shed. As of today, however, the geeky boy wonder is a boy no longer : Zuckerberg is turning 30, a milestone in the tech realm where the cult of youth is arguably as entrenched as in the worlds of fashion and entertainment.

A company CEO crossing the threshold into their fourth decade would be regarded as insignificant in most segments of the business world (in certain industries someone Zuckberg's age would have barely graduated from making the tea). For Facebook, however, the event is fraught with portent. Now he's old enough to worry about pattern baldness and property prices, a gulf yawns between Zuckerberg and the youth demographic technology companies are obsessed with wooing: he is palatably of a different generation to the teens who use SnapChat, the 20-nothings hooked on Instragram and WhatsApp. At 30, he's the old dude everybody is secretly rolling their eyes at.

The same might be said of Facebook, once on the cutting edge of social media but increasingly the place where oldsters gather to swap baby snaps. Indeed, at the start of the year, researchers warned Facebook was on the brink of the 'uncool zone'. With old people (by which we mean anyone sufficiently withered to have seen The A-Team first time around) migrating to the platform teens, it was suggested, were abandoning Facebook (the entire point of social media, after all, had been to carve out a space free of parental supervision).

"Facebook is not just on the slide, it is basically dead and buried, " Professor Daniel Miller, one of the authors of the report wrote on academic website The Conversation. "Mostly [teenagers] feel embarrassed even to be associated with it. Where once parents worried about their children joining Facebook, the children say it is their family that insists they stay there to post about their lives." (Miller later clarified that his comments were 'retold' by a journalist writing for The Conversation though he had read and approved them prior to publication).

Zuckerberg's success belies his relatively conventional background. The son of a dentist and stay-at-home mother, Zuckerberg was raised in a sleepy town outside New York. He discovered computers in school and was soon a champion programmer: in his early teens he designed a messaging system that allowed computers in his dad's dental practice to 'talk' with those in the family home.

Ironically, Zuckerberg's sister, Randi, has been to the forefront of the campaign encouraging the public to detach, if only temporarily, from social media. In her book Dot Complicated: Untangling Our Wired Lives, Randi, the first marketing director of Facebook, urged users to 'unplug and connect to people in the real world'.

With more than 1.2bn users and annual revenues of nearly $10bn, it is a stretch to think of Facebook as a business on its uppers. Nonetheless, you don't become as wealthy and influential as Zuckerberg without recognising which way the wind blows and the company founder seems cognisant of Facebook's crumbling prominence in the greater scheme.

To that end, recent months have seen him working at giving the organisation an infusion of youthfulness. In what looked suspiciously like a spending splurge, in 2012 Facebook acquired buzzy photo-sharing site Instagram for $1 billion while in February it plonked down an astonishing $19 billion on WhatsApp, the online texting application initially embraced by teens and 20-nothings. If Facebook does sink into irrelevancy, it won't be because Zuckerberg didn't see it coming.

The new tech whizz-kids rewriting the rules

Evan Spiegel (23)

Stanford University student who launched Snapchat in his father's living room in 2011. Turned down a $3bn Facebook bid.

Kevin Systrom (29)

Spent two years working on Gmail, leaving to co-fund Instagram. Pocketed an estimated $400m when Facebook bought the company.

Cody Wilson (26)

The libertarian activist published plans for a functioning gun that could be made using a 3D printer. This month he announced a service called Darkwallet, which allows users of the online currency Bitcoin to carry out anonymous financial transactions.

Irish Independent

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