• Riley Draper

The History of Facebook: Humble Start to Global Giant

There is a debate over what was the first social media website, but there is certainly no question as to who was the first to make it big. Facebook is so pervasive that it is sometimes hard to remember that for most people it only came about within the last decade.

Still, there is now an entire generation of people that do not remember a time before Facebook existing, which can be weird to think about. Most people can still probably remember the emergence of the website, and setting up their profiles. Though, while you may have been around for the development of Facebook, you might not be aware of all that transpired for it to get to where it is today.

The story behind Facebook’s rise to the heights of the biggest name in social media is probably a lot more interesting than you might expect. You might have heard of or seen the movie that dramatized the history of Facebook: The Social Network. While the movie makes some artistic choices to make some of the events more interesting, it isn’t that far off from how things happened. 

If you are more interested in the actual history of Facebook, then you’ve come to the right place.

The Man Behind the Machine

It would be close to impossible to discuss Facebook history without mentioning the name Mark Zuckerberg. He came up with the idea behind the website, became the principal founder and head of development for the project, and is now the face and CEO of the company. His Harvard roommates, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes, were initial cofounders for the company, though none of them are part of the Facebook company anymore.

Predecessor and Trouble with Harvard

Mark was a psychology and computer science student at Harvard University, so he was no stranger to programming and creating websites. Facebook was not even his first original project that took off.

He came up with the idea for a website called FaceMash. Its basic premise was to allow Harvard students to compare the pictures of two girls and vote on which one was more attractive, a sort of “hot or not” game. He supposedly got the idea after looking at the facebook directory for his dorm room after a night of drinking and thinking that there were a lot of people who had awful looking photos in the directory. The original idea was to take some of the photos and compare them to farm animals and see who people thought was more attractive, but executing that idea proved to be tricky.

With the revised idea in mind, Mark gathered pictures from the facebooks of nine of the Harvard dorm complexes. He uploaded these photos and coded a website that would put two random pictures head to head with each other and give people the ability to vote on who was hotter. The website attracted 450 visitors and had 22,000 photo views within just four hours of launch.

A few days later, Harvard University officials caught wind of what was going on. They shut down the website and threatened to expel Zuckerberg as well as sue him for breach of privacy, violating copyrights, and similar charges. For reasons that are not widely known, the charges were dropped, and Mark was not expelled, though he would voluntarily drop out from Harvard later on. He never went back to school but did eventually receive an honorary degree in 2017, ironically enough from Harvard.

What is Facebook?”

It was commonplace for American universities to have these things called “face books” that contained a picture of all registered students as well as some basic information about them. Specifically, these were official materials published by a university at the start of every year or semester. As colleges entered the age of the internet, it became more commonplace to have these directories online. Think of them as sort of reverse yearbooks.

The basic concept was the same across the board, but different universities had different ways of handling the more nuanced details — Harvard for example had a face book for each of its individual dorm complexes, meant to serve as a sort of catalog and address book for the students living in the specific complex. The intent was to serve anything as mundane as knowing more about your neighbors or as potentially beneficial as offering networking opportunities.

Rummaging through one of these face books while intoxicated was what led Mark to initially think of FaceMash, but it is no doubt also where the social media giant we use today derived its name from. How this common practice among universities got transformed into the platform that made Zuckerberg famous comes down to a perfect storm of inspiration and circumstances. 

How Facebook Came to Be

FaceMash, while it got Zuckerberg into huge trouble, also received a ton of notoriety. The Harvard University newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, ran a piece covering FaceMash, saying that it proved that the technology to create a centralized, online student facebook directory existed and there was an interest in it.

Harvard was working on something like an online universal directory — it more or less already existed for private use by certain university officials. Mark, perhaps a little motivated out of spite after Harvard had been so harsh with him over FaceMash and embolden by the success of his first project, claimed that not only he could make a better directory, he could do it in a week instead of the years it was taking the university to develop it.

Mark met up with Eduardo Saverin to pitch the idea. They each agreed to invest $1000 into making the website, and in early 2004, Mark launched the initial site. Facebook was born.

The website’s original title was “TheFacebook,” complete with the URL thefacebook.com. The somewhat infamous “the” came from the fact that it’s original purpose was to just serve as a universal directory for Harvard, making it the face book, so to speak. 

After just 24 hours of going live, thefacebook.com had over twelve hundred registered users. Mark Zuckerberg did exactly what he set out to do, provide his fellow students with the desired service better and faster than the university could.

Growing Pains

Less than a week after the website’s launch, three Harvard students — Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra — accused Mark of stealing their idea. They claimed to have discussed setting up a Harvard specific networking website with Zuckerberg, and that he agreed to help them set it up. Instead, he allegedly took their idea and made a competing service. The three students complained to the Crimson, which then began an investigation.

Their accusations may have held a grain of truth since after Mark heard that the Crimson was investigating the situation, you used his programmer background and TheFacebook data logs to access the email accounts of two of the Crimson’s members. The newspaper sued Mark after they found out, but nothing seems to have come out of the accusations by the three students.

Broadening Horizons

Mark created TheFacebook with the intention of it only being reserved for Harvard students. Then over half of the Harvard student body registered on the site within a month. He could tell he had something people wanted. Since the website was drawing so much attention, he was able to bring on a few more people to help him expand, namely Dustin Moskovitz as another programmer, Andrew McCollum as a graphic artist, and Chris Hughes as a spokesperson. 

They, along with the original crew, expanded TheFacebook to be available to some select other schools such as Stanford and Yale, and shortly afterward became accessible to any Ivy League University students. Over a few months, Zuckerberg and his team spread TheFacebook across most universities in America and Canada.

The group became a proper company in the summer of 2004, and Sean Parker — formerly a Napster employee — became the company’s first president. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel of the “Paypal Mafia” invested $500,000 into Facebook, becoming its first independent investor. Facebook also approached Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn as a potential investor, but Hoffman declined as he viewed it as a potential conflict of interest.

 Only a few months after Mark made the website go live, the company moved its base of operations into Palo Alto, California. Somewhere around this time, the company decided to drop the “the,” and became known as Facebook.

The Whole World Over

As Facebook slowly took over the United States and Canada, the company set its sights overseas and expanded into several UK-based universities. At around the same time, Zuckerberg decided that the next logical step was to expand the audience as well as the physical reach.

A highschool version of Facebook launched around September of 2005. It then began offering its service to select companies, some of which were major names like Apple and Microsoft. Shortly after, schools in Australia and New Zealand were added to the network, giving Facebook a proper multinational level reach. By mid-2006, anyone with a valid email address in a region Facebook had expanded into could have created a profile.

Facebook started allowing for different types of profiles and pages to be created. For an overview of the different types of pages and how you can use them, check out this guide.

In late 2008, the Facebook company announced plans to set up its international headquarters in Dublin Ireland.

Becoming a Market Giant

Facebook was growing at such a phenomenal pace that it could no longer be reasonably held together as an independent company. So, in early 2012, the company filed for IPO. Part of their appeal was the announcing of some insanely large online traffic data, such as 845 million monthly active users and a daily 2.7 billion combined likes and comments.

The New York Times anticipated Facebook would struggle to attract early investors, given its primary means of monetization was just Facebook ads.

Their goal was to raise $5 billion, and they more than tripled that mark. With their IPO raising over $16 billion, Facebook as a company was instantly put on the level of business titans like Amazon, McDonald’s, and General Motors. Mark Zuckerberg’s passion project to spur Harvard University had become one of the largest American based companies to have ever existed in less than a decade, and it only continues to grow to this day.

Constant Evolution

Because of its origins as a university student info book and directory, Facebook’s initial purpose was just to be used as a means of creating and maintaining personal networks. Facebook users could contact people they knew readily and were capable of seeing who the people they knew had contacts with, thus expanding their networking capabilities. That’s why you’ll sometimes hear Facebook referred to as a “social networking site,” rather than a social media site.

In a sense, this is still true. You can still use Facebook for the baseline purposes of networking with others, and it serves this purpose rather well.

However, Mark Zuckerberg, ever the clever and savvy programmer that he was, realized the potential of the platform he created. Facebook exploded in popularity due to its novelty and usefulness, but it could not maintain its global presence based solely on being an efficient networking website. This is the point where the transition to a proper social media website began.

Facebook slowly introduced more and more new features to its service to keep its users engaged and offer more ways to keep them around. One of the more novel inclusions was its own independent games services, which was widely popular for a brief period but rapidly died out. 

The company also made the clever choice of diversifying its assets, using its impressive capital to try and corner the market on social media applications and even a few services that were different businesses altogether.

The in-depth history of all of Facebook’s features and business acquisitions is far too long to cover completely, and not all of them are thematically related. Some of the most notable moments in Facebook’s progressions are outlined below in a timeline.

  1. September 2006: The introduction of the News Feed. News Feed presented a constantly updating and algorithmically sorted series of posts and updates based on your friendslists and liked pages. At the time, this was a relatively new idea in the world of social media

  2. February 2009: Facebook introduces the like button. This provided a one-tap way to interact with a social media update and created an entirely new metric to consider for online advertisers.

  3. July 2011: Skype partners with Facebook to add a video calling service to its website interface. 

  4. August 2011: Facebook Messenger becomes available on iPhone and Android. Now Facebook had an independent app that could be used for corresponding with people on your friendslist and beyond. Games would later be introduced to Messenger, allowing you to challenge your friends to virtual games of checkers, pool, and so on.

  5. April 2012: Facebook acquires up and coming picture-based social media platform Instagram for $1 billion.

  6. November 2013: Facebook attempts to buy out Snapchat for $3 billion, but it turned down. This makes Snapchat one of the few major social media services to not be sold to Facebook when offered.

  7. February 2014: Facebook acquires independent messaging service app WhatsApp for $16 billion, including an additional $3 billion in restricted stocks, according to Business Insider. People worried this meant Facebook would dissolve WhatsApp into their Messenger service, but ultimately the two services continued to operate independently of each other. 

  8. March 2014: Facebook acquires Oculus VR, the leading company in virtual reality technology, for over $2 billion total in cash and stock.

  9. February 2016: Facebook releases their reactions feature, expanding on the like button to include a broader range of one-tap responses

  10. October 2016: Facebook Marketplace is launched. This allowed users to list items for sale in their area and allowed them to use Facebook as a virtual storefront. Facebook users could search and browse local offerings, and contact the seller directly.

  11. June 2017: Facebook reaches 2 billion monthly active users.

United States Politics and the Era of Digital Privacy

In the years following the 2016 Presidential Election, more and more events transpired that brought into question Facebook’s role in persuading voters as well as its policing of content and user security. 

The first inklings came in 2017 when it came out that Facebook had banned almost 500 accounts after claiming they were connected to a Russian propaganda agency. This became a hotter topic when it was discovered that Facebook’s algorithms attempted to identify users’ political affiliation and used that to determine the sort of ads someone might see. Facebook then admitted to the US Senate that its algorithm occasionally promoted content created by Russian propaganda accounts, but found the content had no significant connection to one of the 2016 candidates.

Things reached a boiling point when a whistleblower announced that Cambridge Analytica had harvested user information from over 50 million Facebook profiles to build a database on US voters that could be used to make targeted political ads. This led the federal government to begin investigating the privacy practices of Facebook. 

Eventually, Mark Zuckerberg himself had to face a multi-day interrogation by senators and representatives. A similar hearing happened in the UK with Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer. Nothing massive came out of these hearings, but it certainly made more people interested in the debate of privacy and technology in the current age.

Hard to believe what started as a college directory could end up having huge repercussions in the United States legislature

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