Sunday, 8 February 2009

Facebook Turns Five

As hard as it is to believe, this month Facebook turns five years old. It has become one of the most popular social networking sites on the Web. In fact, while MySpace surpasses it in popularity in the United States, Facebook is actually the most popular social networking site in English speaking countries.

Facebook grew out of a Harvard University website called Facemash, created by Mark Zuckerberg in October 2003. Facemash was essentially a Harvard version of the rating site Hot or Not--it placed two pictures of people side by side and asked users to decide who was hotter. Facemash was shut down by Harvard University officials after only a few days, who charged Zuckerberg with breach of security, copyright violations, and violating individual privacy. The charges were ultimately dropped.

Zuckerberg had developed the idea of Facemash while looking at the Kirkland Dormitory facebook. Zuckerberg then came up with the idea of an online facebook that would cover all of Harvard. The Facebook, initially located at, was launched on February 4, 2004. In the beginning it was limited only to Harvard, but the next month it expanded to include Columbia, Stanford, and Yale. Eventually The Facebook would be opened to the entire Ivy League, and eventually it would be open to nearly every college and university in the United States. It was in August 2005 that The Facebook became simply Facebook after buying the domain name The following month Facebook was opened to high schools. Facebook first expanded beyond schools by allowing employees of various companies such as Microsoft, Apple, and so on to join. On September 26, Facebook was finally opened to everyone.

Even though it is now open to everyone, Facebook still shows that it was originally set up as an online Facebook for universities. Facebook is set up along the lines of networks based on school, workplace, or geographic region. And it is the networks that largely determine who and who can see one's profile. A person in the London, England network would not be able to see the profile of a complete stranger in the Seattle, Washington network. This is probably a holdover from the days when Facebook was open only to universities and only students at the same university could see each other's profiles.

Facebook has generated controversy among its users from time to time. When Facebook introduced its News Feed feature in September 2006, it caused consternation among its users. The News Feed featured news of nearly every action taken by a user's friends, which led to the complaint that it provided too much information. In response Facebook issued an apology and gave users the choice of what information would appear on the News Feed.

Another controversy developed in November 2007 over an advertising programme called Beacon. Beacon would report back to Facebook its users activities on third party sites which participated in the Beacon programme. It made no difference if a user had logged off Facebook or what his or her privacy settings were. The controversy grew so great that Facebook was eventually forced to allow users to opt out of the programme.

A more recent controversy regarded the new design for Facebook that was introduced in July 2008. The new Facebook was supposed to be simpler and cleaner, but many users actually found it and still find it more complicated and harder. Initially Facebook allowed users to stay with the old Facebook design, but in September 2008 they forced everyone to change to the new Facebook, whether they wanted to or not. Needless to say, this only intensified the controversy. In the end it would be covered in such venues as BBC News and Forbes. I have to admit, I still hate the new Facebook design (I even wrote it about here). Sadly, Facebook has yet to return to its old design or even given its users a choice of returning to the old design.

Like other social networking sites, Facebook has also faced other sorts of controversies. One of these occurred early, when Divya Narendra, Cameron Winklevoss, and Tyler Winklevoss, creators of the website HarvardConnection (later renamed ConnectU) sued Facebook alleging that Zuckerberg had broken an oral contract in which they would have built Facebook and copyright infringement. The case was settled in February, 2008. More recently controversy arose when Facebook banned breastfeeding photos, ruling that they violate its policy on "obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit." The pictures in question apparently showed the areola of the breast.

Since it was founded in 2004, Facebook has seen dramatic growth. Currently Facebook claims more than 150 million users. In the United States it is second only to MySpace as the most popular social networking site. Facebook has survived several controversies over the years. Even after the controversy over the new design, user still visit Facebook daily (I still do, even though I still detest the new look). It looks as if Facebook will be around for a long time to come.

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