What if Facebook had never been invented?

This past week, Facebook celebrated its 10th birthday. Over at Time, Harry McCracken asks what would have happened if Mark Zuckerberg had never created his famous social network?

But what if it weren’t history? What if Zuckerberg hadn’t created Facebook, and then rolled it out to other colleges, finally opening membership up to anybody over 13 in September of 2006? What if the site’s competitors hadn’t needed to compete with the hyper-ambitious phenom that Facebook turned out to be? What if there were no such thing as the Like button? What if 1.23 billion people a month didn’t sign into the social network on a computer, phone or tablet?

It’s easy to overlook now, but Facebook was far less revolutionary than some people imagine:

It’s easy to forget that social networking was a hot category well before Zuck hacked together the earliest version of Facebook in his dorm. The basic idea dates at least back to 1997, when they appeared in a pioneering-but-not-particularly-successful site called SixDegrees.com.

Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent social networking, and social networking didn’t need him to prove that it was a potentially world-changing idea. One social network founded before Facebook — Reid Hoffman’s LinkedIn — even went on to become huge and stay huge, though its focus on business use meant that it didn’t really compete with Zuckerberg’s creation.

On the other hand, while Zuckerberg’s concept was not unique, the way Facebook and its infamous Like button has proliferated across the internet is:

Facebook only started rolling out its Like button to third-party sites in April of 2010 — a fact that floored me when I just looked it up, because it soon became so pervasive that it’s hard to remember it wasn’t part of the web all along. Many sites also let you sign in with Facebook as well, turning your credentials on the social network into a sort of driver’s license for the web. Some even use Facebook for comments. The social network is like a thread that stitches together the whole Internet, giving it some cohesiveness it would otherwise lack.

The short version is without Facebook, the web is indeed a different place – but the differences are more subtle than you might, at first, imagine.

Is Marissa Mayer really saving Yahoo?

Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer is certainly one of the most high profile executives in Silicon Valley. But after a year and a half, is Mayer seeing positive results at the once-troubled web giant, or are the problems getting worse?

It’s a question Bethany McLean Vanity Fair investigates:

By now the headline-getting series of events has become business lore. In the fall of 2011, New York moneyman Daniel Loeb, who runs the $14 billion hedge fund Third Point Capital, staged a raid on Yahoo, the well-known but struggling Silicon Valley company. After a brutal fight to depose the company’s C.E.O., he helped raid Google for one of its longest-serving and most famous executives, Marissa Mayer, then often called “the face of Google” or “Google’s glamour geek.” Last summer, on the same day that Yahoo announced that Mayer would be its new C.E.O.—becoming the youngest woman, at 37, to lead a Fortune 500 company—Mayer announced she was pregnant, thereby completing her journey from nerdy small-town Wisconsin girl to Stanford-educated engineer to business superstar to cultural idol.

According to McLean, there are many reasons to praise Mayer’s leadership:

Mayer has also done content deals, from purchasing the rights to old Saturday Night Live clips to build an archive of video content to reportedly negotiating a deal to do a video interview show with Katie Couric, to hiring star New York Times technology columnist David Pogue to write for Yahoo. Mayer has also been utterly unafraid to make big, controversial moves. Famously, in early 2013, she sent out an all-hands memo, which was obtained by AllThingsD, telling employees that they could no longer work from home.

And there’s the stunning rise in Yahoo’s stock. Its market value has increased by $14 billion since Mayer stepped in, and the stock has even briefly closed above Microsoft’s 2008 offer price. Mayer, who said she’d do the Yahoo yodel when that happened, apologized to employees for not having had more time to take voice lessons.

However, there have been a few issues that have emerged at the internet giant under Mayer’s watch:

Yahoo’s core business is facing a difficult battle. The improvements in its traffic are not showing up in its financial results. Mayer has argued since her Google days that “money follows consumers… If you manage to amass a huge amount of consumers, and they use it every day, the money will follow.” That was certainly true at Google, and it is a Valley truism.

But there is a caveat, which is that all traffic isn’t created equal. Yahoo’s revenues from so-called display ads—such as banner ads on Web sites—have continued to fall each of the last three quarters that Mayer has been in charge. Yahoo’s share of the global market for digital-ad spending has continued to shrink, while Google’s and Facebook’s are rising, according to EMarketer Inc., which tracks spending. And it isn’t just that the numbers are down. For the last three quarters, Yahoo’s actual business results have disappointed analysts; the company is underperforming its own guidance to Wall Street. Goldman Sachs just cut its growth forecasts for Yahoo’s revenues and profits.

As McLean discovers, while there is little denying Mayer’s excellent performance so far, there have also been a few difficulties along the way.

When privacy concerns crash into auto safety

It seems more and more of our household appliances and everyday items are becoming “smart”. At the recent CES, some of the most popular examples were smart cars from some of the world’s largest auto makers.

As Ars Technica’s Sean Gallagher points out, safety is one of the driving issues:

Early on the last morning of CES, I found myself in a Las Vegas parking lot signing a liability waiver. I was there for a ride in a modified Ford Taurus carrying what could be the future of driving in America: a system that alerts drivers of potential accidents by talking to other cars.

In the real world, I would have been praying that the side-impact airbags would protect me. But in this version of a future US roadway, I was saved by radio signals sent by the car running the light, alerting the Taurus that a collision was imminent. “When you look at what causes accidents, about 90 percent are due to driver error,” said Michael Schulman, the technical leader for vehicle communications in Ford’s Active Safety Research and Advanced Engineering group.

Using a combination of short-range radio, on-board computers and the internet, auto makers hope they can reduce the risk of accidents by allowing cars to communicate risks. It’s a technology big auto makers have been hard at work on:

For the past decade, engineers from a host of auto companies—including Ford, GM, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Daimler, Volkswagen Group, and Hyundai Kia—have been collaborating on the next step in vehicle safety. The system, called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications, or Dedicated Short-Range Communications (DSRC), will allow cars to share data that can alert drivers to prevent the most common—and most fatal—multi-vehicle accidents on American roads.

The idea behind V2V is fairly simple, and it’s based on technology that is already part of many new cars—it’s just put together in a different way.

However, in a post-Snowden America, concerns about privacy and government surveillance have pulled the handbrake on plans to make V2V communications mandatory:

Just how soon this technology will hit the streets is still an open question, however. V2V is largely ready to go. And last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) seemed poised to mandate the technology in every vehicle… But that announcement has been held up. And part of the reason may be the leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden and the heightened awareness among both citizens and legislators of government surveillance.

The matter has been complicated by US politicians jumping on privacy concerns:

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota recently wrote a letter to Ford executives requesting clarification on the company’s practice of collecting GPS data from vehicles. That request came after Ford Global Vice President of Marketing Jim Farley said that for drivers in Ford vehicles equipped with GPS and Sync, “We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you’re doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing. By the way, we don’t supply that data to anyone.”

Farley has since said that Ford does not track customers in their cars without their approval or consent. But the capability to do so still exists, as systems like Sync and GM’s OnStar collect more data behind the scene as part of navigation and safety features.

It seems the road to a safer car might be bumpier than it first appears.


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