Whichever way you look at it, 2010 was a spectacular year for Facebook. In America, it overtook Google to become the most visited website; globally, it's the third-largest website, behind Microsoft and Google. Its founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was 'Time' magazine's Person of the Year.
Over the new year weekend, Facebook users uploaded 750 million photos. That's more than one picture for each user of the site, which now has a membership of well over 500 million people. And this week it was announced that Goldman Sachs will invest $450m (€342m) in Facebook, taking the valuation of the site to $50bn (€38bn).
Then consider the fact that Facebook is still growing -- at the rate of 700,000 people a day. It's closing in on 600 million users, and as more join, the network becomes more powerful. Its members aren't just chatting and sharing photos, they are also playing games, reading the news and keeping up with famous people.
Facebook Places lets them share their location with friends; Facebook Messages aims to replace our email accounts; and the Facebook experience is now available on more than two million websites.
At the heart of this is Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old Harvard dropout who has become the world's youngest billionaire. According to those around him, he's not motivated by money, which is why he has resisted pressure to sell Facebook. He lives a relatively modest life, by all accounts. His motivation seems to be to drive Facebook forwards -- and his success at doing that has been staggering.
Profiling him last month, 'Time' magazine noted that in addition to his expertise as a computer programmer, Zuckerberg "understands a remarkable amount about other people".
His mother was a psychiatrist and he studied some psychology at Harvard. There is a team of very smart people around him. The site competes aggressively with its Silicon Valley competitors to snap up the best talent. But even with the social networking "think tank" that Facebook has established at its headquarters in Palo Alto, California, it's Zuckerberg who remains the leader.
Achieving long-term success on the web has always been a difficult business. A few companies have made it, notably Google and Amazon, but many more have gone from strength to obscurity in a surprisingly short time. MySpace, which once seemed to have the social networking market cornered, is now struggling after seeing its audience plummet. When tech giants fall, they fall quickly.
Facebook could suffer the same fate, but it doesn't look likely. The site strikes a perfect balance, as far as its users are concerned, between offering an experience that is relatively flexible while also being tightly controlled. It's a tightrope the site walks very well -- regularly pushing users into lucrative new areas but pulling back quickly if the response is negative.
Facebook is more than just a website; it's a mini version of the web. Just as Google dominated the past decade, so Facebook could dominate the coming one. The difference between Facebook and Google is that the latter was only ever a starting point. Facebook is, for many users, the starting point and the destination.
Facebook hasn't just conquered the web, it's becoming a web of its own. (© Daily Telegraph, London)