Facebook at 15: charting its journey from dorm room side project to marketing giant

Mark Zuckerberg laid down the roots for what would become Facebook with the slapdash launch of FaceMash / Flickr

Facebook is celebrating its 15th birthday this week. After a decade and a half, it has 'connected' billions, serving people a volume of ads that would have been imperceptible in the pre-Facebook era. Here, The Drum charts its rise from dorm room passion project to digital ad giant.

Among the $327bn spent worldwide on digital advertising in 2019, 61.2% will go toward advertising on Facebook, Google and Alibaba.

Below, we explore the moments that – for better or worse – shaped the business and the entire digital ecosystem, as well as the habits of its users and the marketing industry.

Looking beyond only the scandals, of which it faced many in 2018 alone, here are some the defining moments in Facebook's history.

2003: FaceMash launches from a Harvard dorm room

Founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg laid down the roots for what would become Facebook with the slapdash launch of FaceMash as a Harvard student.

The website was created to rank the 'hotness' of students, populated with profiles hacked from a Harvard faculty database. A blog post written by an intoxicated Zuckerberg suggested he would build it out so users could compare students' looks with farmyard animals.

At the time, Zuckerberg was also accused by colleagues of stealing their idea for the social network, but more on that later.

Much of the bosses' early behaviour has since been used to characterise the businesses' later attitudes to data privacy and users. Echoing the accusations that brought him in front of Congress in 2018, Zuckerberg faced similar allegations of breaching "security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy" from Harvard during his student years.

2004: TheFacebook is unveiled

On 4 February, TheFacebook came to be.

Within its first month, 50% of the Harvard students had reportedly signed up. It was later broadened to incorporate students in the wider Boston-area.

Rather than a social network we've come to know it as, TheFacebook more closely resembled a message board.

2005: Dropping the 'The'

TheFacebook sunk $200,000 into acquiring the snappier domain Facebook, which Zuckerberg had to purchase from a company called About Face.

Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, suggested the name change to Zuckerberg.

It's a marque which clearly had lasting power.

2006: Expansion

In September, Zuckerberg opened membership of the ad-supported network more widely.

Anyone over 13 with an email address was welcome to join. At this early stage, Yahoo and Google were rumoured to be eyeing an acquisition of the company.

At the time it claimed to boast "more than 500 regional networks" at the time. It also said it had "industry-leading privacy controls"; an issue that would continue to be debated until the present day.

The original wave of users had graduated and were keen to continue using the service. This year the news feed was also launched, a media space which would eventually turn the social network's fortunes flying. Tech Crunch reports that users "revolted" at the launch of the product.

2007: Microsoft seeks ad exclusivity

Before Facebook was an advertising giant, it was cutting deals with Microsoft.

Microsoft had agreed to oversee the site's advertising, exclusively running banner ads and sponsored links for three years.

The same month, Google sealed a similar deal with MySpace.

At the time, Facebook was talking up the value of its audience "young, educated spenders" - much like a publisher would.

It also joined the mobile web, sensing the tide before the storm. Facebook was optimised for the iPhone's touchscreen around this time.

2008: Founders lawsuit

Zuckerberg had previously been working on a similar social network concept with students Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra before the launch of TheFacebook.

They accused him of stealing their ideas a week after it launched and each received 1.2m worth of shares as a result of a four-year dispute.

This year Facebook Chat also rolled out, the predecessor to separate app Messenger. It also looked to launch its own currency, Facebook Credits were created so users could buy each other gifts.

2009: The launch of the like button and hitting 350 million users

A decade ago the company accumulated more users than the population of the United States. Of its 350m members, 100m were logging into Facebook mobile each month.

New features included liking comments and tagging friends in images.

The 'like' became one of the unique selling points of the platform as well as one of the ways Facebook started tracking the sentiment and mindset of users. There is a broader range of emotional responses available now.

2010: David Fincher's The Social Network

Jesse Eisenberg portrayed the rise of the teen entrepreneur in a none-too-pleasing light. As per BBC, it showed Zuckerberg as a "socially-awkward, insecure, devious, ego-maniac".

David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World said the movie is only 40% correct. He added: "Zuckerberg is unbelievably confident and secure. And he is not snide and sarcastic in a cruel way."

One issue Zuckerberg had with the script is the idea that he had created the site to attract women; he responded that he had been dating now-wife Priscilla Chan.

Nonetheless, the Sorkin-written movie opened the chief executive up to a line of scrutiny he would have to get used to in the coming years. It carried the memorable tagline: "You don't get to 500 million friends, without making some enemies."

This came as the business hit a $41bn valuation and had grown to the third most visited US website behind Google and Amazon.

2011: Mobile becomes a priority

The app, which was originally launched for bulky desktop computers, had to adapt for increasing mobile access and 3G internet access across its markets.

Messenger was also launched as a standalone app on iOS and Android, built on the bones of group messaging service Beluga.

With it, it promised a 'Faster way to message on mobile'. A Blackberry app soon followed. Group messaging and integration proved attractive to users and outlined future acquisitions and a 2012 pivot towards a mobile-first Facebook.

The entire site was to be retooled for these devices. Meanwhile, Google scrambled to launch rival Google+ which has been recently sunset for good.

2012: Instagram acquisition

Facebook sank $1bn into image sharing social network Instagram one month before its IPO (which sealed $161m a share) although that price took a steep dive.

At the time, Instagram only had 30 million users and absolutely no revenue. Facebook executive, former director of global business marketing Mike Hoefflinger said the acquisition sent "a clear message to the best builders in the world that if you want to play truly big, come work with Facebook.”

It wasn't long before the app had company. Around this time, it also started better monetising the homepage with the launch of Featured Posts which showed ads from Pages that friends had engaged with.

2013: Video autoplay ads

Seeing that video ads were going to make up a substantial chunk of its income, Facebook made the decision to implement an autoplay feature which could massage engagement figures higher.

The news feed was beset with soundless ads playing without prompt. This move alone had the advertising industry reconsider what a 'view' even is.

Of course, further down the line awaited scandal in how the company was measuring its video engagements, and its reluctance to adhere to third-party measurement in 2016 - something it's since sought to fix.

2014: Facebook snaps up WhatsApp

WhatsApp set Facebook back 16-times more than Instagram, it cost $16bn. The messaging app was creeping towards 1 billion users and in 2014 the service asked users for $1 after a year of free support. This payment model was shelved years later.

With only 50 employees at the company, it was overseeing 18 billion messages sent between users in 2014.

Zuckerberg promised that it would remain a standalone app and claimed he wouldn't impede its existing roadmap. Now, Facebook is reportedly looking to integrate the platform with its Messenger and Instagram Chat tools.

2015: Fakebook

Fake news emerged as an issue for the social network in 2015.

In the years since, the business has been accused of giving a platform to misinformation, been involved in allegedly swaying elections with lax political ad labels, and even contributing to systems of genocide in Myanmar.

It also launched Instant Articles in order to convince publishers to post content natively on its site. Publishers are reportedly turning away from the feature. Of the 72 publishers that partnered with Facebook for the 2015 launch of Instant Articles, only 38 were still posting in 2018.

While the health of the system was under question, this was the year it announced it had hit the milestone of one billion daily users.

2016: Say hello to Reactions

In 2016 Facebook built upon Likes with reactions which included 'love', 'haha', 'wow;, 'sad', and 'anger'. This was an update that helped it map user sentiment and pass on valuable information to advertisers.

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg continued to insist it was not a media company but a tech platform. Nonetheless, increasing scrutiny was thrown upon the information in its system. In particular its Trending bar and the prominence of clickbait.

2017: 2bn users

Facebook makes the pledge to double its 10,000-person safety and security staff by end of 2018. This showed it taking increased responsibility for the wider effects of the site upon society.

It also asked Australians to submit nude pictures in a heavy-handed attempt at training an algorithm to block revenge porn.

Fake news and privacy scandals followed.

2018: 'Senator, we run ads'

Last year was undisputedly the most challenging year for Facebook in its history thanks to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, data breaches, questions from politicians and some high-profile exec departures.

2018 saw the sudden exit of Oculus co-founder Brendan Iribe in October, just weeks after Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Kriege headed out the door and months later both were followed by WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum who elected to leave.

What is clear is Zuckerberg is ready to forge a new app ecosystem in the wake of all this and it's ne that does not require the founders of its sister apps to deliver. A hint at this future is the proposed merger of WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger into a single product all of which would be ideally more effectively monetised together.

But, it has not all been outgoing traffic, former UK deputy minister Nick Clegg was brought in last year to guide the company through its scandals and help it navigate the possibility of regulations.

Two issues he will be steaming are the Cambridge Analytica scandal which saw 87 million profiles harvested for political gain and a hack which compromised the data of at least 50 million accounts.

In the most high profile chapter in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook Zuckerberg was grilled by US lawmakers on Capitol Hill in April. He faced hours and hours of questions about the set up of the company.

In his response, he said: "We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake, and it was my mistake, and I’m sorry, overall, we’re going through a broader philosophical shift in how we approach our responsibility."
Nonetheless, company morale has dropped by as much as 32% as the seemingly endless line of scandals take their toll on staff. Scandals aside, recent UK research from Streetbees said 98% of people who do not trust Facebook will use it anyway.

Facebook now boasts 2.32bn accounts, almost one-third of the world's population. Whether we like it or not, 2019 will be Facebook's year of reckoning.

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