Facebook barrels ahead on 10th anniversary
New York • It has been 10 years since a Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg created a website called Thefacebook.com to let his classmates find their friends online.
They did. And in the decade since, so have more than a billion people, not just American college students but also farmers in India, activists in Egypt and pop stars in South Korea.
Facebook has transformed how much of the world communicates. Zuckerberg’s insistence that people use real identities, not quirky screen names, helped blur, if not erase entirely, the divide between our online and offline worlds. Long-lost friends are no longer lost. They are on Facebook.
From its roots as a website with no ads, no business plan and a hacker ethic, Facebook has grown into a company worth $150 billion, with 6,337 employees and sprawling headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley. Born in the age of desktop computers, three years before the iPhone’s debut, Facebook is now mainly accessed on mobile devices. Many of these mobile users never had a PC.
"People often ask if I always knew that Facebook would become what it is today. No way," Zuckerberg wrote — where else — on his Facebook page Tuesday. "I remember getting pizza with my friends one night in college shortly after opening Facebook. I told them I was excited to help connect our school community, but one day someone needed to connect the whole world."
Facebook has had plenty of stumbles along the way, from privacy concerns to user protests when Facebook introduced new features, not to mention a rocky public stock debut in 2012. Even its origin was the subject of a lawsuit and a Hollywood movie.
So far, though, Facebook has trudged on.
As Facebook enters its second decade, the company faces a new set of challenges in reaching the next billion users, the billion after that, and the one after that, including the majority of the world without Internet access. It must also keep the existing set interested even as younger, hipper rivals emerge and try to lure them away.
There are 1.23 billion Facebook users today, or roughly 17 percent of the world’s population. Although that’s far from connecting the whole world, Facebook is here to stay. It’s reached critical mass.
"One of the things Facebook has been good at is that it’s very easy to use and understand," said Paul Levinson, professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University. "It’s a much friendlier system than any email system."
Javier Olivan joined Facebook Inc. as vice president of growth and analytics in 2007. It was a different time. Myspace was the dominant online hangout with 200 million members. Facebook had 30 million.
Facebook’s user base had been accelerating steadily, Olivan said, as it expanded from Harvard’s campus to other colleges, then high schools, and in 2006, anyone over 13. Users in the U.K. and other English-speaking countries then began signing up.
But around 2007, growth plateaued.
"The thinking at the time was (that) we’ll never have 100 million users," Olivan said. "That’s when the growth team was created."
If Facebook was going to connect the world, as its mission states, it couldn’t be an English-only service. So Facebook turned to its users to help translate the site. A Spanish version came in 2008, followed by dozens of others. Growth accelerated again, and volunteer translators are still adding new tongues, whether that’s native African languages or pirate slang.
Facebook got its 100 million users by August 2008 and half a billion two years later. By 2012, a billion people were logging in to Facebook at least once a month.
While sharing photos and updates with friends is a universal experience, Facebook is customized depending on where you live. In Japan, for example, users can list their blood type on their profiles, as it’s something that would typically come up in conversation when you meet someone — kind of like horoscopes in the U.S.
Beyond language, another hurdle was mobile. The iPhone came along in 2007, and Facebook’s iPhone app soon followed. But the app was slow and buggy, fueling concerns that it wouldn’t be able to transform into a "mobile-first" company, as it wanted to be. About the time of its initial public offering of stock, potential investors fretted about its ability to make money from mobile ads.
Washington » Facebook’s numbers are epic. More Americans check Facebook daily than read the Bible and it has more monthly users worldwide than most continents have people.
Facebook, which celebrates its 10th anniversary Tuesday, says worldwide it has 757 million daily active users. Of those 19 percent are in the U.S. and Canada, so that’s more than 143 million people checking Facebook daily.
The Bible used to be the go-to for statistics about reading, pre-digital age. A 2006 CBS News poll found 15 percent of U.S. adults read the Bible or other religious texts daily. There are about 267 million adults in the U.S. and Canada. That means about 40 million people reading the Bible daily.
And then there are monthly users — Facebook claims 1.23 billion of them. That’s more people than live in any country but China. In fact, Facebook is beyond comparing to nations and is more continental in magnitude. Facebook’s monthly user population is larger than six of the seven continents, only behind Asia.
Facebook’s monthly user total is about the population of all of North America and Europe combined.
But all those numbers pale behind this one factoid from Facebook: About 400 billion photos have been shared on Facebook.