You know somebody has become a pretty big deal when they fly their own couches from California to Sydney for a one hour presentation. Either that, or Freedom Furniture is now selling items in 'Facebook Blue'. Which is equally likely, given the site's astounding popularity. Whatever the reason, they looked very impressive up on stage in between the four large presentation screens.
Ad:tech Sydney marked the first time that anyone from Facebook had spoken in Australia. As you would expect, the room was packed with marketers eager to hear from Mike Murphy, VP of Facebook media sales. Not that I am looking down on them, mind you. I was second row, centre. And I got there early.
Gotta say, Mike painted a fascinating picture of the web's pace of change. Here are a few fun Facebook facts: They get two hundred thousand new members a day, thirty five million people (half of the total userbase) return daily and one in five Australians are Facebook members. At that point, he paused, smiled, and said "we love Australia".
New Zealand has three hundred and seventy thousand members, which is a bit under one in ten. I guess that means he likes us rather than loves us. This are still some serious numbers and were I Bebo or Myspace I would be reasonably concerned.
This, it turned out, was the real value of attending a digital media conference. It gives you a kind of snapshot of the web, like a chart hanging at the end of a hospital bed. How we use it, how quickly we change our uses and how much time we are spending there. One of the speakers pointed out that in two or five years time, given the sheer volume of user submitted information on sites like Facebook, the aggregate of information about yourself and your friends will be astronomical. And available to anyone. We have no precedence to determine what sort of social change this might bring.
And this is something companies, governments and individuals need to look seriously at –- even if they don't consider this phenomenon relevant to them. Mike made an excellent point that "you can't choose to 'sit out' of social media. You can choose to ignore it, but I don't recommend it." People are talking about you, your business, your government in social media right now. Just because you aren't there doesn't mean there aren't photos of you on Bebo and whole discussions about how much better your competitors are on blogs and in Facebook groups.
The other issue that really struck me in the web's 'health check' was access –particularly broadband access. At the moment only 20% of the world's population are online, which almost exactly matches the total population living in developed countries. Three hundred thousand people access the web for the first time every day, mostly in the developing world. There is no way to tell what influence this huge population will have on the shape of the web.
Speaking of access, it appears that Australians like to moan about broadband speeds just as much as we do. In fact, on the first day they showed a graph of broadband speeds by country and New Zealand was ahead of Australia by four places. Now, I am blogging from a hotel room in Sydney and I have to tell you that my speeds are fairly zippy compared to what I get in Auckland. The data was from March 2008 but either we or the Australians are lying here and I cannot work out why. The presenter actually suggested that Australia needs to "take their lead from New Zealand". I kept my mouth shut. (Why did I sit in the second row??)
The final piece of data that was released for the conference was that –for the first time- in the last couple of months, Australians have spent more time online than watching television. This is apparently the mystical tipping point that web media people like myself have been waiting for but I ain't buying it. Nobody mentioned the writers strike which took everything good off the TV. If this really were a check up for the web, I would just tell the patient to wait and see.