Facebook by Meta is now the biggest social networking platform worldwide, with more than 2.85 billion monthly active users globally, according to Statista. It was also the first social network to amass one billion registered accounts.
Before Meta however, was Facebook. Before that, TheFacebook. And even before that was Facemash. In just a little under two decades, the company we now know as Meta has undergone transformations time and again. This article will explore the evolution of the platform and the history of the company behind it, including its many revolutions and scandals in equal measure.
Facebook was launched in February 2004 by Harvard University students Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. Known as TheFacebook then, the platform was initially only open to those with Harvard email addresses. It was intended for students of the university to connect with each other. It was revolutionary; it was a way of bringing the physical social experience of college online. Half of the student population signed up for the site within the first month of its launch.
This “TheFacebook” is nowhere as comprehensive as it is now, however. During this time, there were only eight core features to the site. This included profiles, adding friends, and listing user metadata like gender, birthday, and favourite music. There was no “poking”, no messages, no walls or status updates many would associate with the platform today.
Still, it was ahead of its time. Later in 2004, TheFacebook received its first external investment—US$500,000 from venture capitalist Peter Thiel—with a lot more to follow particularly in the year after. It was this staggering US$12.7 million investment by Accel Partners in April 2005 that valued Facebook at US$98 million. The company also dropped the ‘The’ from its name this year, after securing the domain name for US$200,000.
With the necessary financial backing, TheFacebook gradually expanded its access: first to other colleges, then corporations, then finally, by September 2006, anyone above the age of twelve with a valid email address could create an account. It garnered 12 million users by the end of the year.
At this point, Facebook was proving to be at the front of an advertising revolution: the firm made an alliance with Microsoft in a bid to advance advertising technology, where Microsoft was to provide Facebook with banner advertising and sponsored links on the platform. The two combined brought new possibilities to the world of marketing and advertising, where social networking could be leveraged upon to gain new audiences and customers.
Facebook’s innovations didn’t stop here. Over the next few years, Facebook launched their Marketplace, Facebook Chat, People You May Know, the Facebook Wall, and so many more—all features that have become signature to the platform.
The year 2012 was pivotal for Facebook. The company had now become a household name as the third largest web firm in the US following only after Google and Amazon. Leading up to the company’s IPO with Zuckerberg at the helm, Facebook acquired social media competitor Instagram for US$1 billion. Other notable acquisitions Facebook made include instant messaging application Whatsapp and Oculus VR—with a grand total of 78 companies under its wings today.
From the very origin of the Facebook social media platform—Zuckerberg’s earlier version, Facemash, aimed to compare the attractiveness of other Harvard students—to scandals surrounding its IPO, Facebook was plagued with its fair share of controversies at every turn, even despite its massive successes.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was one of the biggest exposés in Big Tech in recent years. The New York Times and The Guardian reported in 2018 that data on up to 87 million Facebook users had been shared through an application called This Is Your Digital Life, which were then later used to support the candidacy of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. This led to cries for increased regulations concerning personal data and privacy even today.
The latest scandal to hit the internet’s shores is the whistleblower controversy just last month. NPR named it the most threatening scandal in Facebook’s history: the whistleblower, Frances Haugen, claimed that the company “undermined democracy” and “harms children” in the pursuit of “astronomical profits”. The insider leaked thousands of pages of private documents that revealed the extent of which Facebook has been aware of its damaging actions.
Mark Zuckerberg announced the infamous rebrand to Meta last month. Though some speculated the move was to distract from the ongoing scandal, Zuckerberg claimed that Meta was a better representation of what the company is working towards, since the firm has long since branched out beyond the platform they were previously named for.
He said: “Right now our brand is so tightly linked to one product that it can’t possibly represent everything we’re doing today, let alone in the future. Over time, I hope we are seen as a metaverse company, and I want to anchor our work and our identity on what we’re building towards.”
This aforementioned metaverse refers to the next revolution for the Internet as a whole: it’s a digital space that melds virtual reality with the physical realm. From virtual reality to augmented reality, this metaverse seems to be the logical next step into the digital world, and Meta is now taking the lead. The metaverse is a joint effort, with video game platform Roblox, Microsoft, and Snap among the firms invested in the cause. Whether or not Meta and company are successful? We’ll all have to wait and see.
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