On February 4, 2004, a Harvard University undergrad named Mark Zuckerberg introduced TheFacebook.com, a social networking site for his fellow students.
Twenty years after its launch, social media giant Facebook continues to show unprecedented staying power after burying early competitors like MySpace and Friendster and establishing a distinct foothold in the burgeoning social media landscape. Facebook has more than 2 billion active daily users and has maintained significant relevancy, often taking center stage in many of our cultural and political debates.
Facebook set itself apart from other early social platforms with its initial exclusivity and its emphasis on gamifying social relationships through “likes,” comments, shares, and friend counts, helped along by a news feed updating users on the lives of their friends and acquaintances.
“From a cultural standpoint, there has been a very clear trend towards the gamification of social relations,” said Pablo Boczkowski, a professor at the department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University who studies digital culture. “Facebook tapped into that and intensified that in society through its success. You can check what others in your peer group have and compare yourself to them, in a way you really can’t do in your personal life.”
In 2004, Facebook was a Harvard-only site. Over the next few months and years, the site expanded, first permitting students from other colleges and universities to sign up, then high schoolers and professionals with corporate email addresses. By 2006, many of its original users had aged out of their initial demographics, prompting Facebook to cast a wider membership net.
“We have two years of alums already, and more than one-third of the people using the site are not in college any more,” Zuckerberg told the New York Times in 2006, right before the site opened its doors to anyone over the age of 13. “If we make it so other young people can use the site, it strengthens the experience for everybody.”
Its early grasp and emphasis on young adults set Facebook’s tone as a space for Millennials to keep up with their family, friends, and friends’ friends, to announce major and minor life updates, and to broadcast their opinions on just about anything.
The home pages of facebook.com and myspace.com are arranged for a photograph on a computer screen on September 7, 2006. Daniel Acker/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Strong social connection was the linchpin of Facebook, differentiating it from other primordial social media sites.
While MySpace gained popularity by allowing users to create profiles and meet new people, Facebook’s priority was expanding networks through real-life acquaintances.
MySpace, which was the most popular social media site between 2005 and 2008, also focused on music, with artists posting their songs on the platform and users curating playlists and sending songs to their online friends. The platform attempted to establish itself as a music destination.
Lagging far behind Facebook, a new team of investors including singer Justin Timberlake bought the platform in 2011. MySpace later launched a free music player with access to 42 million songs — what the company had said was the internet’s biggest collection of free music.
It was too little, too late. MySpace’s monthly active users had trickled down to an estimated 35 million in mid-2011, according to a Comscore report at the time. In contrast, by September of that year, Facebook was seeing almost 800 million monthly active users.
A server migration error in 2019 all but sounded the death knell for MySpace, though the platform remains active. The malfunction resulted in a loss of 50 million songs, including audio and video files, which had been uploaded by users over the previous 12 years.
Friendster, a social network site launched in 2002, also failed to stick around — ceasing operations in June 2015 after transitioning to a social gaming site years earlier. Facebook had been similar to Friendster in its emphasis on maintaining connections with friends and sharing mutual interests.
But a 2013 study by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich found a key factor leading to the site’s downfall was its newer members not having strong connections to others, weakening the social fabric and the resilience of the platform, which relied on active engagement among users.
The researchers also blamed Friendster’s design and configuration for its decline. “At some point in 2009, Friendster introduced changes in its user interface, coinciding with some technical problems, and the rise of popularity of Facebook,” they wrote. “This led to the fast decrease of active users in the community, ending on its discontinuation in 2011.”
Mark Zuckerberg poses for a portrait in 2019.Jessica Chou/The New York Times/Redux
In pictures: Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
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The birth of Meta Platforms, Inc.
As MySpace and Friendster were running out of steam, Facebook was gaining momentum through innovation and acquisitions.
“In a rapidly changing sector of the economy, to be around for 20 years is a remarkable feat,” said Boczkowski. “It seems to me that Facebook as a company is fairly good at trying to listen to what the customers want and deliver a product that is optimized. It has been extremely nimble and successful.”
Updating the user interface and design isn’t absolutely necessary for digital companies to be successful, Boczkowski noted, pointing out, comparatively, “Google has changed much less. You see changes much more in social media companies.”
When it comes to Facebook, “you see many changes over the years, not all of them successful, but you see a platform today that’s much different than what started,” he said.
In April 2012, the company acquired photo-centric social media platform Instagram for about $1 billion. Barely a month later, Facebook went public at $38 per share. On Friday, shares of Meta Platforms Inc. (META), which took on the name in 2021 as the parent company of Facebook and other apps, closed at nearly $475.
Part of Meta’s staying power can be attributed to its investment in messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which it bought in 2014 for $16 billion. The company also dipped into tech hardware in 2014, buying virtual reality company Oculus for $2 billion.
“For a very large portion of the global population, the ability to use a telecommunications company for free is an incredibly cost-saving investment,” Boczkowski said of WhatsApp, which is one of the most popular messaging apps across a slew of countries, including India, Brazil, Argentina and Italy.
“By providing this service, the company generates a significant level of critical mass. Users can reach everybody using this product,” he added. “Then the company collects the data on how we use it and they devise ways to monetize that.”
Meanwhile, Meta has not budged from its position as a social media leader, as Facebook and Instagram compete against TikTok.
And while X, formerly known as Twitter, was embroiled in turmoil following a series of unpopular user policy changes last summer, Meta launched Threads, complete with a character limit and a similar layout to X. The app was intended to offer a space for real-time conversations online, a function that had long been X’s core selling point.
Threads attracted tens of millions of daily users upon launching in July, although engagement has plummeted in the six months since.