A Much-Needed Lesson in Facebook History

Facebook. It’s in our cell phones, it’s mentioned in our television shows, it’s featured in our Hollywood movies, and it’s all over the Web. It’s everywhere! In fact, Facebook could be considered one of the great, if not greatest, social innovations since the creation of the Internet. However, would you believe it if I said that this was Mark Zuckerberg’s plan all along?

“We’re going to change the world,” said Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Thefacebook. He had just begun to believe that Thefacebook could be more than just another side project. But this is not where the story began. It began in a dorm room at Harvard University.

 

The Early Days

As told in The Facebook Effect, Mark Zuckerberg was a big fan of erasable white boards. One just so happened to be placed onto a wall near his cramped Harvard dorm room. It received plenty of use during these times when Zuckerberg was around. On it, he would take his ideas and transform them into intelligible concepts. And he never seemed to lack great ideas.

This served Zuckerberg well on his quest to dominate, a word he and his closest friends used often to describe their goal (oddly enough, I do too). He managed to dominate by creating websites that were useful — incredibly useful, in fact. This lead to the creation of a Web application that would prove to be just that for his fellow students at Harvard University. That application was Course Match.

Course Match was a website that allowed students to keep track of what courses their friends were attending, which, in turn, enabled students to connect with each other in the real world. As you could imagine, this was useful: students liked knowing and taking courses with friends in them. Thousands of students signed up, and it quickly became a success. But this was only the beginning; he could do so much better.

Soon after, Zuckerberg created a Hot or Not clone called FaceMash. Essentially, it allowed fellow students to vote for the hottest kids in school. It too was useful (if not immoral): people loved knowing, even from a superficial standpoint, where they stood amongst their peers. It was also an overnight success, with thousands of hits per hour soon after the site went online. The means to establish such a website, however, were not exactly legal. He was quickly called out and forced to shut down the site.

Zuckerberg was called before a disciplinary board to explain the site, as it had brought up issues of sexism, copyright, invasion of privacy, and more. Things were looking grim. Amazingly, though, he escaped without punishment. Even on the verge of suspension, Zuckerberg couldn’t help but celebrate. He apologized and moved on, knowing that he knew that he had created something amazing. It was time for Zuckerberg to aim even higher.

He set out to create something that would forever change the world of social networking. It would start out simple, sure, but he had to create something huge. It was at this moment when Zuckerberg created the beginnings of the social network we all know and use today.

 

Thefacebook

Zuckerberg named this project Thefacebook. At first, it served as a tool to connect Harvard students to each other. A picture, a list of courses, a few tidbits of personal information, and an impressive suite of privacy controls were the primary functions of Thefacebook. Was it useful? Absolutely!

It had, like all of his previous projects, become an overnight success story. From a few close friends to a few thousand Harvard students, Thefacebook grew so quickly that even Zuckerberg was shocked. Its exclusivity might have been a factor (nearly everyone in Harvard wanted to be part of this network of the elite), but it wasn’t long before other colleges heard about Thefacebook — they wanted in too. Little did they know that Zuckerberg had already planned for such the occasion.

This expansion, however, was difficult. It required several days worth of effort to add a single college. Zuckerberg couldn’t accomplish this by himself. With some help, though, the site was able to expand to other Ivy League colleges. It goes without saying, the site became a hit at every college it came to.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Thefacebook had potential to grow even further. Grow it did.

 

Facebook

In the Summer of 2004, the company incorporated as Facebook. It had expanded to college networks, even those outside of the Ivy League schools it was built upon. Eventually it spread to high schools and a select few work networks. But it was done. Everyone wanted to join. A social Web once dominated by MySpace had wanted something better. Zuckerberg was happy to oblige.

Facebook would go down in history as the one network that would change how we interact online. The site demanded that users to reveal their true identity, a difficult realization for some to swallow, especially on an Internet that prides itself in anonymity. But that is, in part, the appeal of Facebook. It encourages users to make real connections with real people.

It was completely different from MySpace. Adding random strangers was common, but on Facebook it wasn’t. Blinging out your profile page was expected, but on Facebook it was near impossible. Everything MySpace was, Facebook wasn’t. And that was important to many people (including myself) at the time.

Facebook now has a user base that could rival some continental superpowers. It attracts the attention of the typical user for over seven hours a month — I don’t want to imagine what the power user’s numbers looks like. And it’s estimated to be worth $33 billion. It is considered the most important website in the world right now, and everyone has their eyes on it.

It has become an integral part of many peoples’ digital lives. Facebook is available on cell phones, smart phones, computers, tablets, televisions, game consoles, and more. It’s practically everywhere that there is an Internet connection. It is a hub on the Web for communicating, networking, and socializing. It’s a powerful position to be in. It’s one that Google would love to be in.

 

Google's Kryptonite

Speaking of Google, the one thing that Google has not been able to do right is social networking. Buzz has shown promise, but it has failed to recover from its privacy blunders, unpolished features, and a lackluster user experience. Orkut has had its moments, if you live in Latin America. Jaiku was a smart acquisition until Twitter came into existence. OpenSocial… well, I don’t even know what that is about. The point here being that Google does not understand social networking.

Facebook does. The site has even managed to garner more pageviews than Google, which is no small accomplishment. There is regular talks about how impressive Facebook’s growth has been. It’s only a matter of time before the two become more serious about their territory.

Facebook, whether your like it or not, is a threat to Google. It could become (if you don’t already consider it to be so) the most important website on the Internet. Zuckerberg’s company gets to peek at everything you and your friends are up to. It has access to more personal information on about its users than anywhere else — because normal Internet users (those who aren’t the most tech-savvy among us) tend to share quite a bit more on Facebook than elsewhere on the Web, at least from what I’ve seen. This is valuable information to advertisers. This is information that Google doesn’t have. This makes a compelling argument for advertisers to side with Facebook. It’s a drama-filled future, for sure.

But you can be sure about one thing: Facebook will be here for the long haul. No one is buying out this company, at least not while Zuckerberg is at the helm. He intends to take Facebook to an IPO and to become an even bigger name around the globe. It really could become the most important company in the world.

I honestly believe Zuckerberg could make this happen. I guess the real question is… do you?

Written by James Mowery

James Mowery is a passionate technology journalist and entrepreneur who has written for various top-tier publications like Mashable and CMSWire. Follow him on Twitter: @JMowery.
SEE MORE ARTICLES BY "James Mowery"

Related posts
Comments
  • http://www.savthecoder.com SavTheCoder

    really nice article on the history of Facebook. I think Facebook has the potential of becoming a bigger company than Google itself…

  • a facebooker

    The sugestion of FB being the biggest social revolution or the most important site is a little too much. Facebook is great but it’s nothing more than a cool online commodity. It may become big for advertisers, but to the end user it’s just for fun.

    It may become bigger than Google, but will never become as important or as useful.

  • http://onlyjames.com/ James Mowery

    @a facebooker

    I’m curious, why do you think this? It has brought people together.

    In my own life, it has reacquainted me with with people I haven’t talked to in years. It has made making offline connections easier than ever (with the events functionality). It has made communicating with my closest friends easier than ever (managing these contacts strictly from a cell phone or program like AIM is fairly difficult). It has even allowed me even greater insight into my friend’s lives.

    This is something that would have never been possible. Not even a personal blog for all of my friends (granted, most of my closest friends don’t even have blogs), would give me as much insight and connection as Facebook has.

    It is an amazing tool. I admit, it has had its privacy blunders that have ticked me off in the past, and the handling of some of the things has been questionable, but it has done much more than anything MySpace, Google, or any other company has accomplished as far as connecting me to other people.

    I believe that Facebook has the potential to be the equivalent to the White Pages for everyone on the Internet, except this gives you the ability to manage those connections and strengthen them.

    • Matt

      I tried FB for several months but deleted my account back in June, when so many sites began requiring or highly recommending people log-in using their FB accounts. I didn’t want my comments on news articles appearing under my real name–not that I’m a troll or anything, I’m just old fashioned and can’t get past the early-ingrained idea that one should be anonymous online. That was the first lesson we learned back in the nineties, wasn’t it? Never use your real identity online! Times change. But I’m an old man of thirty six, and change is difficult for me. I realize my non-FB use leaves me isolated. My two best friends are avid FB users. I never hear from them via email or phone calls, anymore. They tell me if I’d use FB, I’d know what’s going on in their lives. I’m just not ready to make the trade-off between privacy and so-called “connection.” So for now, I’m walking behind the bandwagon.

  • RLMagyar

    From its inception, Google was always defined in terms of its utilitarian function of searching for data. It has now replaced its old fashioned versions of the textual encyclopedias and dictionaries but has not claimed to be anything more. People had a firm grasp on how to use these old search tools and and they use the online versions today just as they did previously.

    Facebook on the other hand is new in the sense that it gives you the feeling or illusion of being connected in some form with other people but it is not the same thing as forming a true “friendship” with others as it has been traditionally defined. Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn and others are feeble attempts to simulate friendships but in a way that requires you to change or re-define the term friendship.

    When I was a little boy I recall how the father of my best chidhood friend and playmate of mine told us one day that we two would grow up to be best friends, an that our relationship would be much stronger and different than the hundreds of other people we would encounter in the world. These other people would be called “acquaintences” or “collegues” but not “friends in the sense that we had defined it. I am an old man now and realize how true his prophecy was — There are only a handful of people I would refer to as a friend but hundreds of other people which I know but have never formed the same bond with as Ihad my”friends”.

    The same holds true today when I use Facebook –there are a few people that I am true friends with but many others that I am “connected to” as associates or acquaintennces. By accepting their invitation to be “friends”, I am allowing others to view information and facets of my life but we are not true friends in terms of the traditional definition. Twitter in contrast is more accurate in its function since it defines people as “watchers” or “followers” or “socially sanctioned stalkers” . The info we present on twitter is not intended to be a message to our “friends” but instead serves other functions allowing us to become voyeurs or entertainers. Today it functon and utility has abandoned any attempt to be classified as a frienship functtion. Instead it is a source of information about topics that I am interested in but not actively issueing a search command. I “follow” others whose interest in information are similar to mine and I look thru the daily posts to see it their is any informations that I think would be of interest to me.

    I suspect self-proclaimed nerds like Zuckerberg did not, and may not have formed true friends in his life like we all have, but instead he built a tool (Facebook) that allows him tin nthe illusion of having a life full of friends. The problem of course is that he had to blur the distinctions of relationships with other people so that they he had manufactured a world of virtual friendship that is easier to maintain that a reality based world.

    • Peter Chalker

      Hmmm… One thing I have to say about this is that you can group people. You can make a group for your true friends, then make other groups for your “stalkers”. Then you can make posts that only your true friends can see, but is hidden from your “stalkers”. This give you control over what your “stalkers” can see and what they can’t. You have this control over almost all aspects of facebook.

      • Peter Chalker

        Oops, “gives”.

  • Mark West

    Boy, you sure do have a hard-on for this company. You should work there.

    • http://onlyjames.com/ James Mowery

      @Mark West

      I should!

  • http://www.karlikdesign.com Mel

    Could Facebook become the most important company in the world? Nah.

    Facebook is a one trick pony: it’s good at being big. That’s it’s.

    Just look at Facebook….
    Targeted advertising is it’s biggest asset but it’s functionality is a little underwhelming. Page performance reporting is very basic. FBML is rather primitive. I think even the casual Facebook user will agree there are huge limitations to messaging and event creation.

    Yes, Facebook has the information that Google doesn’t have which is incredibly powerful but it has no where near the intellectual property or infrastructure that Google has.

    In my opinion, there’s plenty of room for someone to come in and do it better and advance the technology. It’s just a question on how someone else will get that data. People could just tire of Facebook’s limited functionality once better alternatives are presented. Or with the open APIs Facebook has, it could become very easy for someone to transfer data. We’ll see!

  • http://www.google.com Paddy

    @Mel I couldn’t agree more!

    Markeyboy has obviously done well for himself, Facebook, 6-billion in the bank and possibly one of the most powerful men in the world(on the net)

    One thing I suppose I cant get my head around is…. having all that data on 500mill users, ya think they would be able to come up with better or more ways to generate monjukes than Zanga games and geo-targeted advertisements. I think what people really need to think about is how we analyze user data.

    OMG just thinking about what I would do with all that info, get the camera crew out….. Na “only kidding”

    Anyway, yea I think people will tire of facebook as I and most of my colleagues have, I think that the next zuckerburg, gates or jobs is out their planning the next big thing, ok no friends and a recluse but still, its just a matter of time before we are wowed again.