Ten years ago, a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg launched a social network called The Facebook, totally unaware that his creation would soon alter the Web for good.
Given its current status as a multi-billion-dollar behemoth, it’s easy to forget (and perhaps some Facebook executives would like you to forget) that Facebook’s story started out with a simple Hot or Not clone called Facemash that Zuckerberg slapped together using student photos he collected by hacking into the Harvard Houses’ online “facebooks.” That little stunt landed him in trouble with the school’s administration.
“Facemash was a joke, it was funny, but at its root it had its problems—not only the idea, but the implementation. It was distributing materials that were Harvard’s,” Zuckerberg was quoted as saying in The Harvard Crimson at the time.
Despite that setback, Zuckerberg wanted to keep exploring the idea of a social network. After a week of coding, he launched thefacebook.com, which allowed students with a Harvard email address to set up a networking profile filled with personal and academic information. “Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” Zuckerberg told the Crimson. “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”
Facebook wasn’t the first social network, but as its popularity grew—Zuckerberg soon expanded the service to other elite colleges, before opening it to the general public—its user-count managed to surpass that of both Friendster and MySpace. Within a few months of its launch, Facebook collected funding from Peter Thiel, Accel Partners, and other venture capitalists. (Later, Microsoft and other firms would express interest in buying all or part of Facebook.)
“Once we got going with the Facebook idea and it got popular at Harvard, we had a pretty good inkling that social networks were going to be pretty big,” Dustin Moskovitz, one of Facebook’s co-founders alongside Zuckerberg, told Mashable in an interview to mark the social network’s tenth anniversary. “We were not totally confident that ours would be the one to be pretty big, but were confident that one would.” (Other co-founders and early employees, including Eduardo Saverin and Sean Parker, haven’t said very much to mark the occasion—for obvious reasons.)
Why did Facebook (which soon dropped the “the” from its name) continue to grow while other social networks withered and died? Friendster focused more on allowing users to build profiles than share information with one another; once Facebook began to release innovative social products such as the News Feed, it quickly became the go-to site for anyone who wanted to actually network/talk/stalk their friends. Meanwhile, MySpace shot itself in the foot by plastering much of its onscreen real estate with ads, and perhaps giving users too much leeway with regard to customizing their profiles’ look; it simply became too ugly to live.
As Facebook grew in prominence, it rammed into the occasional privacy controversy. Critics have long complained that the social network is an increasingly powerful source of data-mining and surveillance, given the amount of personal data that people dump into its servers on a daily basis; for its part, Facebook argues that it maintains strict controls over how data is used. Psychologists have also suggested that Facebook sparks envy, stress, and addiction in a certain percentage of users.
And even as Friendster and MySpace imploded, Facebook faced (haha) rising competition from other rivals, including Google, which launched its own Google+ social network in June 2011. Twitter, Snapchat, and other apps and services likewise want to out-Facebook Facebook. Zuckerberg has responded by beginning to deconstruct what his social network actually does—Facebook has begun releasing a series of mobile apps (Messenger, Paper, updates to its Instagram acquisition) that extend the company’s presence and functionality beyond its core site. (Given how Facebook draws an increasing amount of revenue from mobile, apps will also help with its bottom line, at some point.)
Now ten years into its history, with more than a billion users, Facebook must figure out how to keep ahead of the technology industry’s constant shifts, as well as its audience’s hunger for the latest and greatest features. Zuckerberg, once just another student, now a powerful CEO, has reportedly crafted some long-range plans for his company’s next several years. Having proven he’s not just some punk with a neat idea, he now needs to show that he’s a visionary.