Facebook is still thriving 20 years later. Here’s how

Facebook is still thriving 20 years later. Here’s how
  • PublishedFebruary 5, 2024

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.

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.”

Zuckerberg leaves a federal courthouse in San Jose, California, in December 2022. He made a rare court appearance as the Federal Trade Commission tried to block his company's $400 million deal for the virtual reality startup Within.

Mark Zuckerberg poses for a portrait in 2019.

Mark Zuckerberg poses for a portrait in 2019.Jessica Chou/The New York Times/Redux

Zuckerberg, seen here at the age of 8, was raised in Dobbs Ferry, New York, just outside New York City. His father, Edward, is a dentist, and his mother, Karen, is a psychiatrist.
Zuckerberg, left, and Facebook co-creator Chris Hughes work on computers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in May 2004. This was a few months after they launched Facebook from Zuckerberg's dorm room.
Zuckerberg, far left, attends a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2007. With him, from left, are Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake, Orange CEO Sanjiv Ahuja, Reuters CEO Thomas Glocer and Kapor Enterprises President Mitchell Kapor.
Zuckerberg stands outside his office in Palo Alto, California, in February 2007.
Zuckerberg delivers the opening keynote address at the F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco in April 2010.
Zuckerberg watches Facebook employee Ben Gertzfield strike a ceremonial gong, used when a new product is launched, during a news conference at Facebook headquarters in August 2010. Zuckerberg was announcing the launch of Facebook Places, an application that allows Facebook users to document places they have visited.
Zuckerberg and Facebook Groups product manager Justin Shaffer are reflected in a laptop at the end of a Facebook news conference in October 2010. Zuckerberg had announced three new features, including a new way to form groups.
Zuckerberg walks on stage during his induction ceremony for the California Hall of Fame in December 2010. That month, he also signed the Giving Pledge, a public pledge to give away the majority of his wealth to philanthropic causes.
From left, Zuckerberg, Jesse Eisenberg and Andy Samberg appear on a "Saturday Night Live" episode in January 2011. Eisenberg portrayed Zuckerberg in the 2010 film "The Social Network."
Zuckerberg joins President Barack Obama on stage as Obama speaks at a town-hall meeting at Facebook's headquarters in April 2011.
Zuckerberg attends a roundtable session at the G8 Summit in Deauville, France, in May 2011.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Zuckerberg and Google CEO Eric Schmidt at the G8 Summit in May 2011.
Zuckerberg speaks at the F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco in September 2011. He was unveiling new features that would let Facebook users share music, movies and TV shows through the social network's website.
Students gather to listen as Zuckerberg speaks to reporters at Harvard University in November 2011. Zuckerberg was visiting Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to recruit students for Facebook.
Zuckerberg speaks to reporters during a visit to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in November 2011.
Zuckerberg is seen on a screen in New York moments after Facebook's IPO launch in May 2012.
Zuckerberg presents a T-shirt to Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a meeting outside Moscow in October 2012.
Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, arrive for a state dinner at the White House that was held in honor of Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2015. Zuckerberg married Chan, his Harvard sweetheart, in 2012, and the couple have three children together.
Pope Francis talks to Zuckerberg and Chan, who were visiting the Vatican in August 2016.
Zuckerberg wears a virtual reality headset while speaking at an Oculus developers conference in San Jose, California, in October 2016.
Zuckerberg greets graduating students before receiving an honorary degree at Harvard in 2017. Zuckerberg famously dropped out of Harvard to focus on building Facebook.

Zuckerberg leaves a hotel in Dublin, Ireland, with Nick Clegg, Facebook's head of global affairs, in February 2019. Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister, defended Facebook's decision not to take action against inflammatory posts by US President Donald Trump, arguing that "defending free expression is important." Trump was later banned for two years in the wake of the US Capitol attacks on January 6, 2021.
Zuckerberg addresses an audience in October 2019 during a forum about free speech and combating hate speech and misinformation. The forum was hosted by Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
Zuckerberg speaks at the F8 Developer Conference in April 2019.

Zuckerberg walks with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg at a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, in July 2021. Later that year, Facebook rebranded to Meta. The move was framed as reflecting the company's shifting focus to the so-called metaverse, a future version of the internet built on augmented and virtual reality experiences.
Zuckerberg speaks during the virtual Meta Connect event in October 2022. Zuckerberg unveiled his company's newest virtual reality headset, the Meta Quest Pro.
Zuckerberg leaves a federal courthouse in San Jose, California, in December 2022. He made a rare court appearance as the Federal Trade Commission tried to block his company's $400 million deal for the virtual reality startup Within.

Mark Zuckerberg poses for a portrait in 2019.
Zuckerberg, seen here at the age of 8, was raised in Dobbs Ferry, New York, just outside New York City. His father, Edward, is a dentist, and his mother, Karen, is a psychiatrist.
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.


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