Can the web make the world go faster?
Matt Warman talks exclusively to Facebook’s engineering chief about life at the world’s biggest social network.
Start searching for a person on Facebook, and results come up the second you press a key. Look for information on Google and the results, too, are billed as "instant", evolving with each keystroke.
The pace of technological innovation means that we're already being pummelled with information as fast as the internet can give it to us.
On Monday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a new system of "Messages" on the social network, too.
It integrates email, text messages and the site's own chat and messaging facilities, and combines all communication with a correspondent into a single stream – just as a text message conversation would appear on a smartphone. There’s no need to look for individual messages in separate locations.
Launching the product in San Francisco, Zuckerberg said that young people found email – the usually "instant" communication system – too formal and too slow.
This need for speed was elegantly examined from a technology standpoint by James Gleick’s 1999 book Faster – or Fstr, as it was billed in America – but it has gathered pace in the intervening decade.
Indeed, the growth of Facebook itself to more than half a billion users since 2004 is just one symptom of an apparently ever-quickening world.
Social networks, however, are both causes of, and responses to, those new trends: where sociologists have suggested that we can maintain just seven close relationships, it’s common for users of Facebook to have more than 200 friends. In Malaysia, the most social country in the world, the average is 233.
Mike Schroepfer is Facebook’s vice-president of engineering. Speaking exclusively to The Daily Telegraph, he says the speed of change is a new development, born from a culture of small, online companies and massive expansion.
"When you’re well past 500?million users, that makes launching products challenging, because if one per cent don’t like a change you’ve made, that's millions of people who are mad at you, and they all tell you about it," he says.
"The natural temptation is not to change anything any more – you get incentives across the board to keep doing what you’re doing and don’t change anything."
Zuckerberg has tried, however, to keep Facebook nimble, despite it now having some 500 engineers. Until recently, just one developer worked on the iPhone app that has hundreds of millions of people using it.
Now, the number of staff has risen to the dizzy heights of "two or three, depending on how you count it", says Schroepfer.
Adaptability is built on retaining the tactics employed not so much by start-up companies as by businesses still based in parents' garages.
Things like the "all-night hackathon" see developers working through the night on a project not usually related to their day jobs.
In a subsequent presentation, limited to three minutes per project, each demo is shown to the whole team. “People get up on stage and say 'I’m a summer intern – this is my third week of work and here’s my demo’,” says Schroepfer.
"I get people to stop working on what they were working on and start working on their hackathon product."
Again, Schroepfer says the pace is maintained by Zuckerberg himself. "He’s tried to instil a culture at the company of consistently re-evaluating everything – time and time again you go into a meeting with him and the question he always asks is 'If you were doing this from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do?'. Then he says, 'Let's figure out how to get there'."
Such an approach is not possible at major corporations with an old-fashioned ethos, Schroepfer suggests.
"At large organisations, there’s a lot of people that say no, and a lot of policies, and the window you can do something in is tiny."
Unsurprisingly, however, this can lead to tension. The Facebook idea is often to “move fast and break things”, its developers will say.
American "angel investor" Reid Hoffman, who has been crucial to the development of PayPal, LinkedIn, Facebook itself and other websites, told Schroepfer: "If you’re not embarrassed by your first version, you waited too long to ship it."
Speed, rather than perfection, now goes hand in hand with a dizzying cycle of iteration. Products are never "finished" and seldom working as they should, but serious problems can be fixed "in hours", says Schroepfer.
"I don’t think it's a conscious choice to desensitise people to change," he says.
"It's more a realisation that to innovate, you have to experiment – and some experiments fail."
Nonetheless, it's a measure of the pace of change that within a week of joining Facebook, Schroepfer expects every engineer to have made a real change to the live site.
"That's a site used by 500?million people," he points out. "It is a little bit intimidating, but we don't do two-year product planning, where we design what the screens are going to look like – because, I think, we don't know what it’s going to be."