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.