Facebook: from Harvard dorm to global phenomenon

01 February 2019 - 08:13 By AFP
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Image: CHARLES PLATIAU / POOL / AFP

Fifteen years after its founding, Facebook has made strides toward Mark Zuckerberg's goal of connecting the world. But it has also made some huge missteps that have turned some of its cheerleaders into vocal detractors.

The online social network founded on February 4, 2004 in Zuckerberg's Harvard University dorm heads into adolescence with the grown-up burdens of being held accountable for its behavior and playing in a world where people may not always have the purest intentions.

Facebook has seen unprecedented success by amassing more than 2.3 billion people worldwide who actively use the platform to share updates, obtain information and connect with new people.

But it has also been battered by criticism that it was more focused on growth than protecting users or thwarting deception, bullying and harassment.

"This is a very powerful company that has created an addictive product that many people are dependent on," said author and analyst Josh Bernoff.

"Because of that, there is tremendous responsibility."

Facebook was hammered last year by a series of scandals over data protection and privacy and concerns that the leading social network had been manipulated by foreign interests for political purposes.

It has faced increasing scrutiny on how it collects vast amounts of personal data from users, and how it shares that information with partners to deliver targeted advertising.

'Confronting maturity'  

"After the challenges of 2018, it is no longer lauded for its innovation. It is scrutinized and criticized for its every move," eMarketer principal analyst Debra Aho Williamson said.

"Facebook at age 15 is confronting maturity. It's no longer just an upstart company."

Facebook is second only to colossus Google in worldwide digital ad revenue and is the owner of some of the most widely used smartphone apps.

The platform is behind free, stand-alone smartphone apps Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp, each of which has more than a billion users.

Zuckerberg, 34, recently renewed his defense of the social network's business model, adamant that Facebook did not sell user data.

He maintained that the social network makes money from targeting ads based on what it learns about users, keeping the service free.

Bernoff saw Zuckerberg's latest defense as contending that Facebook is here to help people, and thus can be trusted.

"We have learned in capitalism that when companies get a lot of power and say they are doing what is best for you, we need to scrutinize them more," Bernoff said.

If history is an indicator, then Facebook's true threat could be a lifestyle shift to a different way of interacting with computers.

Bernoff questioned whether Facebook was positioning itself for the rise of smart speakers using the likes of Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.

"The future is going to be increasingly related to voice, and to companies and individuals interacting through artificially intelligent agents," Bernoff said.

"As people change the way they interact with the world, there is no guarantee Facebook will have a place there."

He doubted whether people would turn away from Facebook due to trust issues, arguing that consumers are willing to trade a huge amount of data for a modicum of convenience.

Despite the wave of scandals, Facebook took in a record $22 billion profit for 2018 as revenues surged to $55 billion.

Motivated trolls 

Facebook has acknowledged it needs to do more to restore trust, and ferret out misinformation and abuse.

It now has more than 30,000 people "working on safety" and invests billions of dollars in security, according to Zuckerberg.

"The trolls have a financial incentive to pervert the way Facebook works, and it is costly for Facebook to prevent that," Bernoff said.

And while Zuckerberg has connected the developed world, there is a lot of the planet he has yet to get onto the social network.

According to eMarketer, 46.7 percent of internet users, or slightly more than 23 percent of the world's total population, use the core Facebook app any given month.

"Facebook will need to make international growth a bigger priority this year and in the coming years," Williamson said.

Facebook also needs to be a leader in undermining manipulation and fake news, protecting user data and keeping up with consumers' changing communications preferences, according to the analyst.

Zuckerberg's personal goal for 2019 is to convene a series of public forums on how technology can better serve society.

"I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go," Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post outlining his goals.

Key dates in the history of Facebook

-- 2004 --

JANUARY: Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old computer whiz at Harvard University, begins working out of his dormitory room on an online network aimed initially at connecting Harvard students.

FEBRUARY: Thefacebook.com is launched by Zuckerberg and three Harvard roommates and classmates: Chris Hughes, Eduardo Saverin and Dustin Moskovitz.

MAY: Zuckerberg moves to Silicon Valley and decides not to return to Harvard for the fall semester.

JULY: The new company receives its first investment: $500,000 from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

-- 2005 --

AUGUST: Thefacebook.com officially changes its name to Facebook.

-- 2006 --

FEBRUARY: Viacom offers to buy Facebook for $1.5 billion but is turned down.

SEPTEMBER: Yahoo makes an unsuccessful $1 billion bid for the social network. Facebook adds the "News Feed" and opens up to anyone over the age of 13.

-- 2007 --

SEPTEMBER: Facebook launches a $10 million fund to provide money to companies or individuals who want to build applications.

OCTOBER: Microsoft takes a $240 million stake in Facebook, which has 50 million members.

DECEMBER: Zuckerberg apologizes for "mistakes" in rolling out a new ad platform called Beacon that tracked purchases made by Facebook members and let their friends know what they had bought.

-- 2008 --

FEBRUARY: A $65 million settlement is reached with twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss over allegations that Zuckerberg stole their idea for Facebook while at Harvard. Facebook launches a Spanish site.

MARCH: Sheryl Sandberg, a top Google executive, is hired as Facebook's chief operating officer. French and German Facebook sites are launched.

APRIL: Facebook dethrones MySpace to become the world's most popular social networking website.

AUGUST: Facebook membership hits 100 million.

-- 2009 --

MARCH: Facebook launches its first mobile application.

MAY: Russian Internet company Digital Sky Technologies invests $200 million in Facebook.

DECEMBER: In one of many privacy flaps, activists ask the US Federal Trade Commission to look into whether Facebook deceived users over protection of their personal data.

-- 2010 --

MAY: Pakistan blocks access to Facebook over a competition encouraging users to post caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

JULY: Membership hits 500 million. Lady Gaga becomes the first with 10 million fans on Facebook, breaking the barrier a few days ahead of then-president Barack Obama.

OCTOBER: "The Social Network," David Fincher's story of the origins of Facebook, hits movie theaters. Nominated for eight Oscars, it takes three: best adapted screenplay, original score and film editing.

DECEMBER: Time magazine names Zuckerberg as Person of the Year for "transforming the way we live our lives every day."

-- 2011 --

JANUARY: A private share offering raises $1.5 billion from investors and values Facebook at $50 billion.

FEBRUARY: Facebook announces plans to move from Palo Alto to a sprawling campus once home to Sun Microsystems in nearby Menlo Park.

SEPTEMBER: Timeline pages are introduced that let Facebook users turn their profiles into interactive digital scrap books that tell the stories of their lives.

NOVEMBER: Facebook agrees to tighten privacy policies and submit to external audits in a settlement with US regulators.

-- 2012 --

JANUARY: Facebook files for an initial public offering.

MAY: Some $16 billion is raised in the IPO, giving the company a market value of $104 billion. A hoodie-clad Zuckerberg remotely rings the Nasdaq bell from Facebook's California headquarters on the first trading day.

AUGUST: Facebook closes a deal to buy the popular photo-sharing app Instagram for $1 billion

SEPTEMBER: Shares in Facebook slide more than 50 percent from the IPO price of $38 amid fears on growth and profitability, but the slump will prove transitory.

OCTOBER: Facebook membership tops one billion.

-- 2013 --

JANUARY: Facebook launches a "social graph" search engine to find posts on the network, in collaboration with Microsoft.

DECEMBER: Facebook is added to the Standard & Poor's 500 index, which represents the largest publicly traded US firms. Video ads debut in Facebook feeds.

-- 2014 --

FEBRUARY: Facebook buys smartphone messaging platform WhatsApp in a cash and stock deal valued at $19 billion.

MARCH: Facebook buys virtual reality headset maker Oculus in a deal valued at $2 billion. Zuckerberg predicts VR will be the next major computing platform.

-- 2015 --

Facebook moves into its new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Silicon Valley, with a rooftop park and "the largest open floor plan in the world."

-- 2016 --

NOVEMBER: Facebook and other social networks are embroiled in controversy over manipulation of online platforms by Russia to sow division and sway elections.

-- 2017 --

JUNE: Facebook tops two billion monthly users.

SEPTEMBER: Facebook reveals hundreds of fake profiles evidently orchestrated by Russia bought ads to fuel political tensions ahead of the recent presidential election.

-- 2018 --

MARCH: Scandal breaks that British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica stealthily harvested personal data of millions of Facebook users and used it for political purposes including helping the campaign that resulted in the election of US President Donald Trump.

APRIL: Zuckerberg is grilled in US Congress over Facebook's handling of user data and the social network being manipulated to undermine democracy.

JULY: Facebook's value based on the price of its shares reaches an all-time high of nearly $628 billion.

- 2019 -

JANUARY: As Facebook nears its 15th anniversary, Zuckerberg pledges "public discussions about the future of technology in society" in his latest effort to address heightened concerns about social media. 

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