On February 4, 2004, back when “Hey Ya!” was still topping the charts and global dominion was but a glimmer in a young Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, the 19-year-old Harvard sophomore and his roommates unleashed their creation, TheFacebook.com, on humanity. Or at least, they unleashed it on the elite sliver of humanity that occupies Harvard’s halls.
But over the past 15 years, that sliver has expanded far beyond anyone’s expectations—including Zuckerberg’s. In June 2004, when WIRED published its first story on TheFacebook, comparing it to Friendster and whatever the heck Orkut was, Zuckerberg said, “I expected that a few people would do it at Harvard and they’d tell their friends, but I didn’t expect it would take hold as this all-inclusive directory.”
At that point, success meant having 250,000 users on the platform. In the decade and a half since, Facebook has added four zeroes to that figure, transforming from a website for poking your college crush to, arguably, the most powerful engine of communication in the world. Zuckerberg’s creation has, for better and for worse, forever changed how people connect, how businesses make money, how politicians seize power, and how information flows across communities and cultures. It’s where grannies share pictures of their grandkids and where state-sponsored trolls wage cyberwar against other countries. It’s how volunteers raise money for hurricane victims and how hate-mongers rally their followers to kill people.
How did that happen? We took a look back at Facebook’s 15 years for the 15 moments that made the company what it is today and that signaled, sooner than most realized, what it would become.
1. The Winklevii sue Facebook.
TheFacebook.com was just seven months old when ConnectU, a startup founded by Harvard students Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, sued Facebook for breach of contract in 2004. In what would become a years-long legal battle, memorialized in the Oscar-winning film The Social Network, the ConnectU founders alleged that Zuckerberg stole their idea and breached an oral contract he made to develop a social network for Harvard students that was then called HarvardConnection.
Zuckerberg had already launched a short-lived Hot or Not clone called FaceMash the year before. That site got him in trouble with Harvard, because the app used students’ photos without their permission, but it also caught the attention of the HarvardConnection founders, who turned to Zuckerberg for help building their site. What they didn’t know then—and what would later be revealed through court filings and leaked instant messages—was that, while Zuckerberg appeared to be toiling away on HarvardConnection, he was simultaneously building TheFacebook.
The HarvardConnection team sent Zuckerberg a cease and desist letter days after TheFacebook launched and filed a formal lawsuit that September.
The bitter suit ended in a settlement. But the battle with the Winklevii provided an early look at how Facebook would come to use a combination of skill, speed, and eventually, size to copy or crush competitors.
2. News Feed launches.
In the beginning, Facebook was more or less a directory of people’s profiles. Spending time there meant bouncing from one friend’s Wall to the next, checking out the latest posts. The launch of News Feed in September 2006 changed that forever, creating a centralized stream on users’ homepages, where they could see all of their friends’ updates.
When Facebook flipped the switch on News Feed, however, users were outraged. Suddenly, every action they’d taken on Facebook was visible to all of their friends. (In my case, that meant exposing a late-night, not entirely sober decision to friend every member of the New York University men’s cross-country team.) In a blog post for a proposed Facebook boycott, one user wrote, presciently, “It is almost impossible now to keep your information to yourself.”
The News Feed debacle presented Facebook’s first opportunity to defend itself against accusations that it had invaded users’ privacy. It didn’t go so well. “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you,” Zuckerberg wrote in a less-than-compassionate Facebook post responding to the backlash. “Nothing you do is being broadcast; rather, it is being shared with people who care about what you do—your friends.”
Days later, Zuckerberg backtracked in an open letter, saying, “We really messed this one up,” and announcing new controls users would have over what stories populated their News Feeds. “When we launched News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world,” he wrote. “Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them.” It’s the sort of apology that would become all too familiar in the years to come.
But News Feed did more than alert users to the privacy risks inherent in all this sharing. It also began the process of consolidating a world of information into one, ceaseless scroll, personalized to every individual user’s interests and beliefs. The News Feed wrested control away from publishers, putting it in the hands of Facebook’s almighty algorithms.
3. Facebook begins outreach to brands, launching Ads, Pages, and Beacon.
Zuckerberg debuted Facebook Ads and Pages for brands in November 2007, at an event attended by hundreds of marketers. “For the last hundred years media has been pushed out to people,” he said, “but now marketers are going to be a part of the conversation.” By inviting brands to have their own Pages on Facebook and to amplify their Pages with ads, Facebook was not only creating a hugely successful business model, it was pushing forward a new paradigm in advertising, one that Google had already begun. Instead of offering advertisers a general audience the way television and print advertising had always done, Facebook was giving them a way to find exactly the people they wanted to reach, using all the data Facebook had collected on its users over time.
That same day in 2007, Facebook announced another new product called Beacon, through which businesses shared information with Facebook about what their customers were buying. Facebook would then immediately broadcast that information to users’ friends. Just a year after the News Feed fiasco, the outcry was similarly swift. Once again, Zuckerberg apologized and promised to let users turn off Beacon. “I’m not proud of the way we’ve handled this situation and I know we can do better,” he wrote in a post.
Facebook would eventually settle a class-action lawsuit over Beacon, and it shut the product down entirely in 2009.
4. Facebook hires Sheryl Sandberg.
When Zuckerberg met Sheryl Sandberg, then a Google executive, at a party in Silicon Valley in 2007, he was looking for help transforming his massively popular but unprofitable website into a legitimate business. Sandberg, a former high-ranking Treasury Department staffer, joined Facebook in 2008 as chief operating officer, turning the company’s fledgling ad business into what it is today and overseeing its often-rocky relationship with Washington.
5. Facebook debuts the Facebook Platform.
Facebook has always insisted that it doesn’t sell users’ data. But it does share that data with third parties, a decision that dates back to the rollout of the Facebook Platform, which allowed developers to build games and other apps that integrated with Facebook, in 2007. A year later, it launched Facebook Connect, which allowed people to log on to other websites with their Facebook username and password. It wasn’t just an easy way to sign in—it also let you see which of your Facebook friends were on these other websites. Over time, Platform and Connect evolved into what’s now known as the Graph API. Launched in 2010, Graph API enabled developers to suck up vast amounts of data on Facebook users, including users’ friends, a feature that would become controversial years later.
When WIRED covered the announcement of Graph API, Ryan Singel wrote, “There’s a nagging suspicion that when Facebook says it’s simply reacting to changing norms about how public we want our lives to be, that it’s actually forging that condition, not reacting to it.”
6. Facebook launches the Like button.
When Facebook introduced the Like button in 2009, the company created a new currency for the internet. Simply sharing aspects of our lives wasn’t enough. The Like button fed human beings’ constant craving for validation by turning every post into a popularity contest. Likes came to drive corporate decisionmaking. They became informal poll tests for politicians. They helped posts spread virally. They arguably gave birth to a new profession, because what are influencers if not people who are so well Liked, they get paid to push products for a living?
Facebook wasn’t the first company to use something like this, but because of its scale, the blue thumbs-up became ubiquitous. It changed human beings on a deep, psychological level, giving us a sweet, sweet hit of dopamine each time we get another notification. That only encourages us to share some more. Ten years later, it’s hard to remember a world without it. You mean we used to tell each other everything about our lives just because?
7. A Federal Trade Commission investigation into Facebook’s privacy settings ends with a consent decree.
After the FTC concluded an investigation into what it said were deceptive privacy practices at Facebook, the company signed a consent decree in 2011. Among other things, Facebook promised not to misrepresent users’ privacy and security settings and to receive consent before making changes to those settings. It remains one of the few regulatory actions within the US to target the company.
Eight years later, the FTC is investigating whether Facebook held up its side of the bargain. The scandal involving a political consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica last year showed that until mid-2015, Facebook was still giving developers access to users’ friends’ data without their explicit consent. Now, the FTC is reportedly considering levying a “record-setting fine” on Facebook for violating the agreement. It would be the first time Facebook has suffered any significant financial penalty over the privacy concerns that have followed the company since its earliest days. Even a record-setting fine may still be a small price to pay for a company worth more than $476 billion.
8. Facebook and its business model evolve for a world moving to mobile.
The growth of Facebook as a platform for other apps coincided with the rise of smartphones, which posed a challenge for the company. As Zuckerberg put it in a recent post, “Running a development platform is expensive and we need to support it. Back when the main way people used Facebook was on computers, we supported the platform by showing ads next to developers’ apps on our website.” But Facebook couldn’t do that on mobile. So, around 2012, Zuckerberg contemplated whether it might be time to change the business model. The pressure to grow was particularly high, with the company’s IPO in May 2012.
One proposal on the table, according to a previously sealed batch of internal emails released late last year: requiring developers to buy ads in order to access user data. In effect, this would mean Facebook would begin selling user data, something it has always sworn not to do.
In one October 2012 email, Zuckerberg summed up how such a process could work: “The basic idea is that any other revenue you generate for us earns you a credit towards whatever fees you own us for using plaform[sic]. For most developers this would probably cover cost completely.”
Facebook ultimately opted against that approach, and instead, doubled down on mobile advertising to carry it through the transition. Starting in 2012, the company placed sponsored ads in the News Feed itself. Also that year, Facebook launched Custom Audiences, which allowed advertisers to even more precisely target users. Last quarter, mobile advertising accounted for 93 percent of Facebook’s ad revenue. This decision point in Facebook’s history represents a pivotal moment, both for the business and for the people who share their information with it.
9. Facebook buys Instagram.
It was the smartest $1 billion Facebook—maybe anyone—ever spent. The photo-sharing app was less than two years old when Zuckerberg snapped it up in 2012. Acquiring Instagram not only brought a would-be competitor under Facebook’s control, it also helped secure the company’s foothold with a younger generation of users who were fleeing the big blue app.
Today Instagram has more than 1 billion users. In its most recent earnings call, Facebook announced that the app’s Stories feature now has 500 million daily active users. The company has also been incorporating some of Instagram’s most popular features, including stories and photo filters, into the main Facebook app. In 2018, Instagram cofounders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger left, reportedly over objections to their decreasing autonomy.
Instagram may still make up a small percentage of the company’s overall ad revenue, but it accounts for an increasingly large percentage of new ad revenue, leading analysts to believe that Instagram will be critical to Facebook’s long-term growth.
10. Facebook launches Internet.org.
Depending on who you ask, Zuckerberg’s Internet.org program, which he launched in 2013 to make access to the internet—and Facebook—more affordable in the developing world, was either about altruism or world domination. The plan was to beam the internet to unconnected populations using drones and to partner with mobile phone carriers to give people free access to a small subset of apps. Zuckerberg described the endeavor optimistically: “There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” he wrote. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges, including making internet access available to those who cannot currently afford it.”
But in dozens of countries, advocacy organizations protested the project, saying it violated the tenets of network neutrality by making Facebook a gatekeeper of what people could and couldn’t see on the internet. They worried about creating a “single centralized checkpoint for the free flow of information.”
Those concerns turned out to be well founded. In countries like the Philippines and Myanmar where Facebook’s so-called Free Basics program launched, Facebook became synonymous with the internet. That came with some unintended consequences. In Myanmar, Facebook has accepted blame for enabling conspiracy theories to spread, fueling a brutally violent campaign against the Rohingya people there.
Facebook has wound down the Free Basics program in countries including Myanmar. But Facebook continues to have an impact on these places. In its most recent earnings call, Facebook said that the Philippines and Indonesia, two countries where Free Basics launched, are among its fastest growing markets.
11. Facebook announces changes to privacy settings.
In 2014, Facebook announced its Graph API would no longer allow developers to access users’ friends data, and officially shut down this feature in April of 2015. The move spurred a backlash from app makers who said they relied on that data—one company called Six4Three is still fighting a legal battle with Facebook over this change today.
The change was a pivotal one for Facebook. For years, the company had been giving developers unknown quantities of data about people who never knew those apps were snooping on them. If your friend had consented to having their data collected, you became fair game, too. Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union tried to sound the alarm about this loophole, but it would take years for the public to really take notice. When they finally did, Facebook’s best defense was that it realized its mistakes and strengthened its privacy protections.
And yet, years after Facebook made the change, questions remain about what companies received extended access to the data and why. In December, The New York Times reported that Facebook gave companies like Microsoft, Netflix, and Spotify such access as recently as 2017.
12. Facebook’s Trending Topics tool sparks debate over partisan bias in 2016.
Facebook launched Trending Topics in 2014 as a way to show users the top news of the day, across the Facebook platform. The company hired human curators to edit the final list of stories suggested by Facebook’s algorithms. In 2016, during the height of the US presidential campaign, Gizmodo published a story claiming that those curators “routinely suppressed conservative news.”
The story spread across right-wing media, and lawmakers took notice. Zuckerberg called a meeting of conservative thought leaders in Facebook’s offices, but that hardly quelled the outrage. Eventually Facebook bowed to complaints from the right and removed human curators from Trending Topics that same year. As WIRED later reported, this moment “set the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence.” Without human moderators, the algorithm began surfacing fake news for all to see.
Facebook has been pummeled by accusations that it’s biased against conservatives, with Republicans in Congress asking the company to answer, under oath, for the declining reach of far-right websites like the Gateway Pundit. That’s despite evidence that algorithmic changes at Facebook have led to declines in traffic to a variety of news publications, regardless of partisan affiliation. It’s a reputation the company can’t seem to shake, and as it works to crack down on problems like the spread of fake news, accusations of bias only continue to grow.
Last year, Facebook shut down Trending Topics altogether.
13. Facebook acknowledges foreign manipulation of elections.
In the fall of 2017, Facebook made a limited announcement: It had found 5,000 ads, worth $150,000, that had been purchased by a Russian troll group called the Internet Research Agency in the run-up to the 2016 election. In reality, the scope of the problem extended far beyond those 5,000 ads. Facebook eventually acknowledged that the IRA reached 150 million Americans across Facebook and Instagram with its divisive, sometimes racially charged, posts that pitted Americans against one another.
Of course, now we know that the IRA wasn’t the only group spreading disinformation and propaganda on Facebook, and Facebook wasn’t the only platform these global trolls targeted. Google, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, and just about every other open platform on the internet have been hit with some sort of foreign manipulation campaign. Those campaigns continue to this day. Just last week, both Facebook and Twitter announced they were taking down hundreds more accounts and pages that had been masquerading as people and groups they were not.
The initial revelation by Facebook in 2017 forced the company—and its Silicon Valley peers—to be on constant watch for similar campaigns in every country where they operate. They’ve also created some new transparency efforts that require advertisers to report who they are, how much they’re spending, and who their ads are reaching. Facebook’s head of cybersecurity, Nathaniel Gleicher, said last week that the company is getting better at spotting these campaigns and taking them down quickly. But no one has figured out how to prevent them altogether.
14. The Cambridge Analytica scandal breaks.
In March 2018, the world got a wake-up call about the global data trade and the role that Facebook has played as chief supplier. That’s when reports first broke that Cambridge Analytica, a consultant to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, had harvested the data of tens of millions of American Facebook users without their knowledge, thanks to Facebook’s lax policies about sharing data on users’ friends with developers. This is the policy that Facebook changed in 2015. But for most Americans that detail didn’t matter, because there was no clawing that data back from companies like Cambridge Analytica that already had it.
Facebook’s stock price (temporarily) tanked, and the company was forced to answer for its past actions (see below). Zuckerberg committed to rethinking all aspects of Facebook’s business to protect user privacy. But questions remain about whether those changes are purely cosmetic. Last week, news surfaced that the company has been paying people as young as 13 to download an app called Research that allows Facebook to see everything Research users do on their phones, down to their encrypted messages. In a striking bit of similarity to Cambridge Analytica, the Research app could also see information from users’ friends.
15. Zuckerberg testifies before Congress.
Fifteen years after Harvard slapped him on the wrist over FaceMash, Zuckerberg was called before a more powerful committee—the US Congress—to explain Facebook’s last two years of scandals, and the decade and a half of decisions that led to them. It was Zuckerberg’s Big Tobacco moment: a chance for him explain the trade-offs Facebook has made between growth and privacy, a chance to question him on how Facebook treats competitors, a chance to wonder whether Facebook actually has any real competition at all.
They’re questions that we still don’t have all the answers to. If Facebook’s next 15 years are anything like the first, they’re questions we’ll be asking for years to come.
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