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Speed Is A Feature

I spent the past few evenings re-reading The Facebook Effect, by David Kirkpatrick. If I recall correctly, I first read it in 2010, when it was published. In the interim I worked at Facebook (from 2012 - late 2015), so it's been fun to match names of colleagues with those in the book.

Compared to how it was in the early days, the Facebook of today is completely different. It's a family of apps - Facebook (the "big blue" app), Instagram, WhatsApp, and more. And a family of hardware products. Oculus and Portal with - no doubt - more in the works.

In 2012, there were around 3,000 employees. Today, it's more than 60,000. A lot of change.

But one thing hasn't changed much over the years - Mark Zuckerberg's focus on speed.

There's a chapter in The Facebook Effect that describes Facebook's early fight for scale. Even though they had the privilege of "turning on" new colleges and countries at their own pace, each new group of users tipped Facebook's infrastructure to breaking point. A huge risk.

In the late 2000's, Facebook fought an attention war with MySpace, Orkut, Bebo, and countless other "local" social networks. Friendster, by then, had already lost the war - it was too slow. One by one MySpace, Bebo, and others suffered the same fate - they couldn't scale at Facebook's speed.

Facebook won because it was obsessively focused on speed. Speed to features, but also speed as a feature. It complemented fast-paced product innovation with fast-paced pageloads. Facebook even published each pageload time to logged-in Facebookers. That's how important it was.

Earlier this week Facebook turned 17. 17 years of innovation, controversy, connecting - and super fast pageloads. Yet, it seems, most of the rest of us haven't learned the speed lesson from them.

I'm constantly surprised and bemused that so many websites and web apps continue to fail Google's PageSpeed Insights test so badly. Ecommerce brands. Travel websites. Well known ones.

Don't get me wrong, a perfect 100 is still hard to achieve, but so many modern static site generators - like Gatsby, Next, and Hugo - have speediness built in. Cloudflare is 11 years old, and some of their early key features included global CDNs, asset optimization, and something called Rocket Loader.

We've had the right tools for over a decade. They've never been better. Most are free to start using.

Netlify, Vercel and Gatsby Cloud include automated workflows to clean up, tidy up, and speed up websites and web apps at build time. But yet, here we are in 2021, and some of the most popular transactional websites on the web are serving pages up in tens of seconds, not milliseconds.

That's just on desktop. Those who do put their websites through PageSpeed Insights seem to click the "desktop" tab and focus on that, to the detriment of what's most important - speed on mobile.

With Web Vitals playing more of a role from 2021 on, it's time for website owners to act. Fast.

On the modern web, speed isn't just a feature - speed is the feature.