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CAPE TOWN – Fifteen years ago this week, in February 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg and friends created what we know today as Facebook.

The social network started as an environment for students to connect online. Today, Facebook is no longer a baby but a giant on the internet with 2.3billion people who use the service every month.

Facebook’s path to 2.3 billion users has been filled with highs and lows. The giant digital platform is no longer the innocent website that it was in 2004. At the age of 15, what is Facebook and what will Facebook look like in the future?

Over the past 15 years, Facebook has evolved and transformed.

Today, Facebook is many things in one, there’s no one word yet to describe Facebook.

It is a giant with the potential to harm if not understood (just ask people affected by fake news on Facebook).

It is a media company (although this is denied by Facebook leadership) wrapped in a technology company skin. This is true when one considers the fact that Facebook has been eating the lunch of media companies.

Facebook makes most of its money - $55billion last year - out of advertising revenues that used to be enjoyed only by traditional media companies.

Facebook is also a telecommunications company through WhatsApp (a Facebook subsidiary). In other words, in the South African context, it is similar to Telkom if you consider the fact that a consumer can make calls using a Facebook product (WhatsApp).

The social media giant can also be considered a data company. The data it sources from its users is turned into dollars which make its leader one of the richest in the world. In 2015, the company became aware that Cambridge Analytica had used data bought from Facebook to influence elections in the US.

Acquisitions by Facebook in the past are also telling us something that this internet giant will become in the future.

In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus, a virtual reality headset company. This particular acquisition by Facebook gives us a sense of where the company is headed in the future.

In 2017, Facebook launched Facebook Spaces, a virtual reality version of the social network. Future versions of Facebook Spaces will see us living in Facebook virtual reality world.

Before we get there, according to recent reports, Facebook may just integrate all its acquisitions into one product. This means Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook may be one thing.

This means that their technical infrastructure will be unified. This also means that three of the world’s largest messaging networks will be one thing, which between them have more than 2.6billion users. This will allow people to communicate across the platforms for the first time.

This development should raise concerns for people who care about privacy.

As Facebook celebrates its 15 years of existence and plots its future, it’s important that users and authorities understand the true nature, make-up and future plans of this internet giant.

Understanding Facebook will assist users and authorities to know how to use the tool and protect themselves. On the other hand, authorities will be in a better position to develop laws that can protect citizens from any harm that may come from using the tech platform.

Facebook today is a teenager that is beginning to misbehave. Governments of the world and its people will have to be stricter to ensure that Facebook does not grow old to become an irresponsible adult that will damage the fabric of society.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of The Infonomist and founder of the Kaya Labs. You can follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko

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