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Facebook will stop at nothing short of world domination

How do you keep growing when you're already the world's largest social network? Fast food may provide the answer.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read

How can Facebook keep expanding its user base? The hamburger world may provide a clue.

Oliver Berg/dpa/Corbis

Facebook has more in common with McDonald's than you might think.

Both are at the top of their respective fields, so widely used and recognized that they're the icons of the industries they dominate. It took the fast-food chain eight years to serve up a billion burgers; it took the social network eight years to sign up a billion people.

Now it seems they've taken similar strategies to get more attention and win over more customers.

McDonald's looked beyond its staples of Big Macs and fries and added the Filet-O-Fish, Chicken McNugget and Egg McMuffin to its menu over a few decades, along with salads and gourmet coffees.

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg is pushing his company beyond its bread and butter of the profile, photos and News Feed, all as part of a plan to connect even more people around the world. Instead of McNuggets and coffee, Facebook has added photo sharing, virtual reality goggles and a messaging app to broaden its menu.

But is it enough?

Nathan Eagle, head of a connectivity startup called Jana, said the challenge for Facebook is the sheer scale of its user base. "It gets harder and harder the next billion you have," he said.

There aren't that many companies in the world that think about their next billion customers. Even fewer of them are tech companies. Amazon, the world's largest e-commerce giant counts its Prime-subscription memberships in the millions. Apple's seemingly prolific iTunes Store had 800 million accounts on file last year.

Then there's Facebook. About half the world's online population uses its service each month. That's more than 1.5 billion people, or one out of five people on Earth.

What is it going to take to get the other nearly 6 billion people onto its service? It's going to have be a whole lot more appetizing.

The Quarter Pounder

To keep current customers happy, Facebook expanded its app catalog. Two years ago, it launched Paper, an app that focuses on displaying large photos and news articles from people's posts. The design of Paper inspired other efforts, including partnering with news services (such as CNET parent CBS Interactive) to publish articles on its site.

Not everything has worked. Initiatives like Facebook's Creative Labs, which inspired employees to create experimental apps like the ephemeral messaging app Slingshot or the group-messenger app Rooms, attracted so few people that the company quietly shut them down this year.

Meanwhile, apps that expand on Facebook's core features, like its Moments photo-sharing app and Messenger service, have won over huge audiences. More than 700 million people log into Messenger each month.

Breakfast all day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is looking far and wide for the next big idea.


Sometimes competitors have a better idea and that's OK.

For McDonald's, it was selling breakfast all day. At Facebook, it is WhatsApp, Instagram and LiveRail, all startups whose services -- messaging, photo sharing and advertising -- were different from what Facebook was doing on its own. Since it was founded in 2004, Facebook has paid out about $4 billion to buy up competitors, not including the $19 billion it cost to acquire WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg keeps showing that he and his team aren't afraid of ticking off investors by spending big. The company already warned Wall Street it's going to keep putting down cash to get whatever services, tech or talent it wants. And it's been pretty clear that Facebook shareholders shouldn't expect a return on those investments anytime soon.

Make way for McPizza

Sometimes you have to try something so outlandish that people say "whaa?"

Facebook turned heads when it bought Oculus VR, the startup that makes goggles that place a screen in front of your eyes. The images displayed make you feel like you're in a computer-generated world. You can watch a movie, stand on the sidelines of a football game or chat with a friend on the surface of Neptune. Anything's possible with virtual reality.

What does that all have to do with Facebook? That was the question when the company paid $2 billion last year for the then-2-year-old startup. Since then, Zuckerberg has talked about how he believes Oculus will change the way we use computers, transforming education, entertainment and gaming along the way. Facebook and Oculus, he said, are going to show you how.

"With Oculus," he said in an October 2014 conference call, "we're making a long-term bet on the future of computing."

But that bet isn't a guarantee. Eventually, we'll learn whether it's more of a McLobster, which tops many lists of famous McDonald's flubs, or a McGriddle, which helped dramatically expand the company's sales after its launch more than a decade ago.