NOT since the era of imperial Rome has the “thumbs-up” sign been such a potent and public symbol of power. A mere 12 years after it was founded, Facebook is a great empire with a vast population, immense wealth, a charismatic leader, and mind-boggling reach and influence. The world’s largest social network has 1.6 billion users, a billion of whom use it every day for an average of over 20 minutes each. In the Western world, Facebook accounts for the largest share of the most popular activity (social networking) on the most widely used computing devices (smartphones); its various apps account for 30% of mobile internet use by Americans. And it is the sixth-most-valuable public company on Earth, worth some $325 billion.
Even so, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s 31-year-old founder and chief executive, has even greater ambitions (see article). He has plans to connect the digitally unconnected in poor countries by beaming internet signals from solar-powered drones, and is making big bets on artificial intelligence (AI), “chatbots” and virtual reality (VR). This bid for dominance will bring him into increasing conflict with the other great empires of the technology world, and Google in particular. The ensuing battle will shape the digital future for everyone.