Were you there at the beginning? You know, in the pre-Facebook era when snazzy flip and swivel screens were replacing Nokia bricks, and Google launched on the stock market taking it from hot start-up to major technology marvel? If you need a nudge to think that far back, Friends came to an end but the Rachel haircut lived on (and is on trend again now) and ‘Bennifer’ broke up (both of which prove if nothing else, that most things in life are cyclical).
While there were plenty of existing social networks in the States such as MySpace, Classmates.com, Friendster, Six Degrees etc. in the UK, we were generally making do with Friends Reunited. This platform helped us get in touch with old family and friends by school or by interest group but its business model wasn’t sustainable and so it was virtually wiped out by the titan that we now know as (The) Facebook entered the scene.
Twenty years ago in February, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his student digs at Harvard, famously saying, it only took him two weeks to build the first iteration of the platform. With no ads and a clean, user-friendly interface, the kids at Harvard lapped up the opportunity to socialise and share messages, rather than relying on existing paper-based directories. Within just a month, half of the student population had signed up.
Soon, all the Ivy Leagues were using Facebook and the roll-out continued to high schools, UK universities and then the wider public. Company pages soon followed groups which allowed these organisations to prospect for customers amongst the platform’s quickly growing users.
The ability to store photographs, tag friends, a newsfeed, and mobile support all followed swiftly and the platform began to resemble the site we are all familiar with today.
2009 saw the introduction of the ‘like’ button which quickly became one of the site’s most iconic features and changed the internet forever. It took a further 7 years though for ‘reactions’ (love, angry, haha, wow, sad) to roll out, which meant we no longer had to give a thumbs up to a friend’s sad news.
Instagram and WhatsApp acquisition helped it expand its reach but it’s been far from plain sailing for Facebook in recent years, with the platform being accused of spreading misleading and harmful information, not least during the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2014. Subsequently, the rebrand to Meta helped it separate itself from some of the negative press and position the business away from a single product and more about a new connected, joined-up, interactive world online.
Today Facebook has more than 3 billion active monthly users – Millennials, like me, account for a large proportion in the UK but numbers are dwindling amongst younger audiences. On average, users log in for an average of 35 minutes per day. Frighteningly, in the UK, Facebook is one of the most-used news sources, behind only the BBC and ITV.
In terms of being a marketing vehicle, more than 200m businesses use Facebook (and other Meta apps) to reach their customers and over 70% of Facebook users view local business pages at least once every week.
What the next 20 years will hold for Facebook is impossible to second guess: while the immediately recognisable royal blue branding of Facebook remains, the social channel has evolved beyond all recognition from the not-for-profit enterprise it initially started as.
Various scandals and criticisms have erupted over the years and will, no doubt, continue to do so: remember Facebook was conceived amongst controversy from the outset with the issues around Facemash, Facebook’s precursor, and the lawsuits with the Winklevoss twins.
User numbers and profits have ebbed and flowed over the years but it’s hard to imagine a world without the social media monolith that has infiltrated our daily lives.
Happy 20th anniversary Facebook. You’ve helped me maintain oodles of friendships around the world and put me in touch with countless companies and their products and services – although this has, in recent years, more than monopolised my feed. Back in the day, I was just starting out in my career when I joined and so my timeline and memories serve as a regular trip down memory lane – yup, cats and babies and so much more.
Do I hanker for a world without social media? As a mother to two largely addicted teenage boys, you bet I do. But I can’t help but feel a little sentimental as Facebook reaches this milestone.