Facebook turns ten years-old today, which may still be young, but certainly seems like a lifetime in the tech industry. The social networking site made its entry into the world on February 4, 2004, at Harvard, and quickly began expanding. Most of its now 1.23 billion members are likely quite familiar with what the site is today. However, unless you were a U.S. college student in 2004, you probably missed some of the most dynamic years in the evolution of this social giant.
“The Facebook,” as it was originally called, made it to my undergraduate university just a few months after its launch, and I joined with an initial 223 other students, from our 25,000+ student body. I have logged onto the site nearly everyday since (minus a number of months in Afghanistan, where access was, needless-to-say, limited). It is almost embarrassing to have Facebook make the short-list of activities I’ve conducted nearly every day for a decade straight, but with 757 million people logging on daily, any embarrassment is alleviated by knowing I share this habit with the equivalent of more than twice the U.S. population.
In its first couple years, Facebook was devoid of most aspects users are familiar with today. No check-ins, no tagging, no ads. It initially did not even have the ability to host multiple photos and the “wall” was nothing more than a text box, with contents which anyone could freely edit. (Though, that did make for some very entertaining misattribution).
The best part was that it was an exclusive club. If you were not a college student, tough luck; The Facebook was just for us. This made new features even more desirable, such as photo albums with the ability to tag your friends. Students were excited and jumped in quickly, spelling the imminent demise of…whatever service we had previously been using to share photos. It didn’t matter. Out with the old, and in with this new, all-in-one social network. A great way to make connections and share pictures that would never go beyond our college friends…or so we thought.
A year and a half after Facebook launched, the unthinkable happened: it expanded to high school students and the exclusivity we had enjoyed was gone. Fortunately, the two demographics could not actually interact. They were entirely separate entities with no ability to share photos, send messages, or even become friends across the education gap. As college students, we appreciated this attempt at upholding our private college community, but we also recognized its quite-obvious flaws. Before long, the two merged. One year later, and one more sweeping change to grow the site, Facebook opened to everyone. So much for keeping anything even semi-private anymore.
September 5, 2006, just a few weeks prior to Facebook opening its doors to all, ushered in another change. Anyone who wasn’t in college or high school during 2004-2006 presumably is unaware that for more than its first two years, Facebook had no News Feed. Many might wonder what the point of logging-on was without such an integral part of the site, and, in hindsight, this is a fair question. However, for us early adopters, the News Feed was a very foreign concept and sparked one of the largest backlashes Facebook has ever encountered.
This “facelift” was announced in the morning with students seeing the change when they logged-on. Within hours, the group “Students Against Facebook News Feed (Official Petition to Facebook)” had been created and amassed more than 284,000 members, all on its first day. I was one of them. Mark Zuckerberg suddenly saw the power of what he had created as it turned against him. By that evening, he had already issued an apology.
Today, it is somewhat difficult to fathom why there would be such an opposition to the News Feed, but for students at the time, the problem was simple: everything we had been doing on Facebook would now be publicized. For the previous two years, we had posted to our friends’ walls, uploaded pictures, and tagged each other. If our close friends were interested, they were welcome to go look, and that was enough. However, now, everything we did on Facebook was placed on users’ homepages to be sure they would not miss a thing. There had never been an assumption that information on the site was private, but at least people had to actively look for it. Now, we were all going to know a lot of information about other people without even trying. It just felt wrong. Nevertheless, you can only complain so much about a free product you willingly use, so we decided to see if Zuckerberg and company knew what they were doing. Turns out, they did.
It may have taken a little “poking,” but users began to embrace the connected world Facebook was hoping to establish. By August 2008, Facebook had overcome the News Feed revolt, defended itself against a few lawsuits, and expanded to mobile platforms. It also reached a new milestone: 100 million users. In July 2010, that number crossed 500 million and the site’s membership has continued to grow at a staggering rate. The next major facelift was the introduction of Timeline, but this time around Zuckerberg did not make the same mistake as with the News Feed. Between Timeline press announcements and a slow-but-steady rollout, the main opposition faced by the new profile seemed more focused on a resistance to change, rather than a slam to the product itself, and change had now become something users would accept. Facebook had completely shifted the way millions interact with businesses, communities, and each other.
To the IPO and beyond
On May 18, 2012, Facebook made its long-awaited initial public offering, resulting in both a massive influx of cash and a significant increase in the pressure to make more. Waiting so long to conduct an IPO caused Facebook to receive an incredibly high valuation for a company whose methods of monetization were not overwhelmingly clear to the market. Consequently, the market’s reaction was less than stellar, and from day one, the stock price slid. More than a year later on July 31, 2013, it finally returned to its original offering price at $38, and has generally continued to move north ever since. The resulting capital has given Facebook the opportunity to introduce major new features like Graph Search, make significant acquisitions, and even attempt others despite how over-the-top they may seem. However, the concern for profit seems more prevalent than ever and advertisements appear to be reaching an all-time high.
Last June, Facebook announced it had more than one million active advertisers on the site. A quick scroll through my News Feed and I am left with little reason to doubt this figure. Lately, it seems that more and more of the “stories” dominating my Feed are sponsored posts and other advertisements. I certainly understand this site is a free product and the money has to come from somewhere. However, Facebook is nearing a point where it needs to improve its ability to monetize advertisements, without alienating users, or, risk those users seeking an alternative.
Given the current drift toward monetization over user happiness and the potential for competition from existing and new players, it would be difficult to claim that in another decade, Facebook will still be the powerhouse it is today. But Facebook has surprised me time and time again in the past ten years, so I am certainly excited to see what it has in store for the next ten. Happy Birthday Facebook!
Scott Sasser is a J.D. Candidate at Pepperdine University School of Law. He formerly served as a Captain in the U.S. Marine Corps, is a combat veteran, and now writes on technology, focusing on its intersection with business and law. Follow him on Google +ScottASasser and Twitter @ScottSasser.