Facebook at 20: From Harvard dorm room to global behemoth

This week, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified in US Congress over child safety on social media platforms.

“The existing body of scientific work has not shown a causal link between using social media and young people having worse mental health,” the Facebook founder said in a room full of families whose children they say were mentally harmed — some to the point of suicide — by social media use.

Zuckerberg was grilled by a number of senators, taking the brunt of their clear disdain for social media. Lindsey Graham told Zuckerberg and his fellow social media executives that they “had blood on their hands”. After relentless chiding by Josh Hawley, Zuckerberg stood and apologised directly to the affected families in the hearing room.

Critics of Meta, and social media more broadly, have compared the companies’ business tactics and addictive qualities to tobacco, with one attorney, Matthew P Bergman, arguing the companies are “far more reprehensible than asbestos companies”.

“They’re addicting kids and they know it,” said Bergman, who is suing Meta, Snap, TikTok and Discord on behalf of the children of families allegedly harmed by social media.

Flashpoint debates over the safety, usefulness and addictive design of social media aside, Meta — which owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus and Threads — has become one of the most powerful and successful media companies in the world.

As the company approaches its 20th birthday on Sunday, The Media Leader takes a look down memory lane to see how the company, which started in Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, became the behemoth it is today through acquisitions, copying social media trends and significant innovation in artificial intelligence and advertising offerings.

Facebook: A timeline

4 February 2004: Founded by Zuckerberg as thefacebook at Harvard College, with initial funding from Eduardo Saverin. The company is officially incorporated that summer, with entrepreneur and Napster co-founder Sean Parker as its first president.

August 2005: Drops the “The” from its name.

1 October 2005: Arrives at UK universities.

22 September 2006: First mention of Facebook in The Media Leader’s archives as Yahoo! was revealed to be in talks to purchase “MySpace and Bebo rival” Facebook for around $1bn. Zuckerberg ultimately refused the offers.

26 September 2006: Opens doors to any user over the age of 13 with a valid email address, dropping its exclusivity for college (and later high school) students.

24 May 2007: UK popularity surges, growing to more than 3.5m users in the UK.

26 October 2007: Microsoft invests $240m in Facebook and becomes the site’s then-exclusive third-party advertising platform partner.

6 November 2007: Introduces advertising for the first time. Initial offerings included: allowing businesses to build their own pages on the site; an ad system to spread brand messages; and an interface to deliver marketing insights on users’ activity on the platform.

23 July 2008: Overtakes Bebo to become the largest social networking site in the UK.

16 September 2009: Becomes cash flow positive for the first time and reaches 300m global users.

2 November 2009: Extends the amount of user data it shares with advertisers, including location and usage data.

15 October 2010: David Fincher’s The Social Network released to critical acclaim, depicting the founding of Facebook.

23 February 2011: Zuckerberg says Facebook will forego monetising its mobile audience in the short term.

12 April 2012: Buys competitor photo-sharing app Instagram for $1bn; Instagram had just 13 employees at the time of purchase.

18 May 2012: Goes public at $38 per share. The price valued the company at $104bn — the largest-ever valuation at that time of any new public company.

9 July 2012: Launches App Centre in the UK to compete with Apple’s own App Store.

November 2013: Instagram begins offering still-image ads. It began rolling out video ads in October 2014.

19 February 2014: Acquires messaging service WhatsApp for $16bn — a monumental sum at the time, even by Silicon Valley standards.

25 February 2014: WhatsApp begins offering support for voice calling.

25 March 2014: Buys virtual-reality headset maker Oculus for $2bn.

4 June 2014: Instagram announces a new set of creative tools, including the first use of image filters and other basic image-editing tools that have since become a staple of social media.

22 January 2015: Approaches 1bn mobile users.

4 December 2015: Begins testing live-streaming feature, Facebook Live.

23 September 2016: Releases a formal apology for greatly overstating how much time users were spending watching videos over a period of two years.

17 March 2018: The Cambridge Analytica scandal is uncovered, with whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealing that user data was collected without consent to be used for the purposes of political advertising. On 10 April, Zuckerberg was brought to testify in front of US senators over the matter, but emerged practically unscathed.

4 October 2021: Whistleblower Francis Haugen testifies to the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation that “Facebook’s products harm children, stoke division, weaken our democracy and much more” and that the “company’s leadership knows ways to make Facebook and Instagram safer and won’t make the necessary changes because they have put their immense profits before people”.

28 October 2021: Rebrands holding company to Meta as Zuckerberg looks to emphasise its investment in metaverse technology and to distance itself from the negative brand association with Facebook following whistleblower complaints.

9 December 2021: Meta launches Horizon Worlds, a free VR online video game that works with its Meta Quest VR headsets.

28 July 2022: Posts its first-ever decline in year-on-year quarterly revenue, later prompting Meta to target efficiency and reprioritise its relationship with advertisers throughout 2023.

5 July 2023: Launches microblogging app Threads to compete directly with the by-then-weakened Twitter, following its purchase by Elon Musk.

5 September 2023: Formally axes support for news publishers in Europe after months of deprioritising news content on its feeds. In response, publishers accused the company of “choking trusted news”.

31 January 2024: Zuckerberg testifies alongside other social media CEOs on alleged harms caused by social media to children. He apologises directly to families of suicide victims who directly blame social media companies for their children’s deaths.

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