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Facebook, then and now

The social network behemoth it is today belies its original, brilliant functionality

May 10, 2014 3:15AM ET

I joined Facebook in May 2004, three months after it went live. By then, Facebook had become the most popular website at Harvard. Even curmudgeonly friends — those who never thought the idea would stick — were joining, because otherwise, how would they keep up with you? Here was this thing we didn’t have a handful of weeks ago, and now we couldn’t live without it. Or at least we wouldn’t.

The genesis wasn’t as dramatic as you think. There was no cinematic montage of wide-eyed girls whispering in each other’s ears. No writing on windowpanes. No clandestine meetings in exclusive social clubs. Not that we knew of, anyway.

Mark Zuckerberg
The founder of Facebook.com Mark Zuckerberg, right, and Dustin Moscovitz, co-founder, left, have their photo taken in Harvard Yard in November 2004.
Justine Hunt / The Boston Globe / Getty Images

Mark Zuckerberg took thefacebook.com live in the second semester of my freshman year at Harvard. At that point, winter had gone on longer than it should have and the whole campus had cabin fever. That was the year we first experienced Internet memes. Remember that funny End of the World video? The one with the MS Paint–style dramatization of a nuclear apocalypse? There were loads of little things like that — these hilarious, nugget-size pieces of culture — and we were just learning how to toss them back and forth. Of course, in those days, everything happened over email. Dorm listservs were a big part of our digital social lives, but threads got long and littered with inside jokes.

Facebook launched quietly at first, just a few of Zuckerberg’s friends who started sharing the link. But then someone decided to send the link out over the Kirkland House listserv, and sign-ups exploded overnight. Soon I stopped hearing about what was said on the listservs and started hearing about what happened on Facebook. “Did you get my friend request?” “Do you like my new profile picture?” “So-and-so won’t stop poking me!” These were all new phrases then.

The concept caught on so quickly because it was so straightforward, but also immediately familiar to students. When you started at Harvard, everybody got a Freshman Facebook, a real, bound book that showed you the face and name of everybody in the class. When you became an upperclassman, your residential house gave you a similar directory, containing your dorm-mates’ photos and email addresses.

Facebook took the same idea and improved it with one primary innovation: It let you connect with your friends. On this new website — this new Facebook — you could set up a profile and “friend” people you knew or wanted to know. It gave you full control of your profile, so you could be sure your picture showed off your new haircut or your significant other. You could list some interests and add some quotes. And then came the kicker, the gee-golly, look-at-that feature that made the whole thing fun: the Wall.

If you imagine Facebook as the yearbook, the Wall basically represented the blank pages at the back that you asked your friends to sign. Friends could post whole poems on your Wall or make fun of you for falling on your face in the dining hall. You could be a voyeur, checking your friends’ Walls for gossip. There was also the status update, which no one could figure out at first but would become hugely important down the line.

Some kids took it a stage further. Just as people would send out links to funny videos over the listservs, they started posting links on friends’ walls. Before long, there were funny ASCII drawings that went viral. Why? Who cares! It was fun.

I was on the lightweight rowing squad when Facebook launched. I have no idea if the team’s quick acculturation had anything to do with the Winklevoss twins, who were also on the squad and would later sue Zuckerberg for supposedly stealing their idea, but they were 20 feet away from me when a teammate asked, “Are you on the Facebook yet?”  

“No, I’m not,” I replied. He asked why not. “Because I’m already on Friendster,” I said, feeling cool.

The basic features of Facebook are still there, but they’re subsumed by a monstrous amalgamation of apps, photo albums, News Feeds, Timelines and ads. It's the Hyde to the original Facebook's Jekyll.

It seemed like a good answer at the time. Nobody knew what Friendster was yet, but I’d just spent a summer in San Francisco teaching history to kids and watching stragglers from the dot-com bust ginning up new ideas. Friendster was one of those improvisations, a new kind of website for a new kind of Web.

Friendster and Facebook were a lot alike, the game more or less the same. Friendster also let you create a profile and friend people you knew, but anybody could join. At first, you had to go to Harvard to join Facebook. This led to one very important, integral benefit of joining Facebook: You probably actually knew the people on there in real life. It didn’t take long to figure out that it was more fun to hang out online with people you actually knew than with strangers. It was a digital facsimile of your actual community.

A year later, on an assignment for Newsweek’s college magazine, I had the chance to sit down with Zuckerberg and talk about the evolution of Facebook. At that point, Web 2.0 was a term people threw around (way) too much, and everything was social-this, social-that, but Mark shook his head when I referred to Facebook as a social network. “It’s a directory,” he said. He said it over and over: “directory.” It was always a utility in his mind, a tool to help people stay better connected. Like a private phone book.

It was sort of a stodgy metaphor. Growing up, we had several of those fat, floppy yellow things in the house, each of them painstaking to use. To find a person you’d run your finger down the page, and it would turn black with ink. Sometimes the names weren’t quite right and the addresses were out of date.

In other words, the phone book, our primary type of directory, was in dire need of disruption. That’s exactly what Facebook did — and it worked fantastically. You could find your friend’s phone number in five seconds. If someone told you to come over and hang out, you wouldn’t have to ask for the address. It was right there on Facebook. You could even start to see the future of the Internet take shape in front of you. The more people shared memes and links, the more others wanted to share them, a principle that was apparent in Facebook’s early days and would later be called Zuckerberg’s Law.

That’s how it started to spread. There was no well-thought-out marketing mission, either. Facebook opened its doors to students at Stanford and Yale next simply because that’s where kids at Harvard had friends. Either way, Facebook promised something Friendster didn’t: a known community. And based on that prospect, Facebook’s so-called community widened until eventually Facebook would be for everyone, and everyone would be on Facebook.

Since those early days at Harvard, Facebook has, of course, become much more than a student’s phone book. As the movie about its founding confirmed, it is absolutely a social network, one that counts nearly a fifth of the world’s population among its nodes. It’s also a political force, with countless lobbyists in Washington and a CEO who likes to call President Barack Obama to tell him he’s screwing up the Internet. It’s a source of intelligence for the National Security Agency. It’s also the source of much frustration for users who feel that Facebook doesn’t take their privacy seriously. 

The contrast between the Facebook I signed up for in the spring of 2004 and today’s version of it is almost like Jekyll and Hyde. The basic features are still there, but they’re often taken over by a monstrous amalgamation of apps, ads, photo albums, ads, News Feeds, ads, Timelines and more ads.

Still, every time I log onto Facebook.com, I go back in time for a split second. I feel the cool wood of the boathouse floor and see the Charles River out the window. I hear the Winklevoss twins barking in a corner and smell the odor of sweaty men. The rower asks, “Why aren’t you on the Facebook yet?”

And I’m back and it’s 2014 and I’m a blogger in Brooklyn and I want to change my answer. “Good question,” I wish I’d said. “Let me think about it.” 

Adam Clark Estes is a senior writer at Gizmodo. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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