It is important to make clear from the very start that the origins of Facebook did not include a corporate wrangle between Lex Luthor and Spider-Man. These characters of course were played on-screen respectively by Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, who previously took on the roles of Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network film. However, the conception of the world’s largest social media platform was nothing less than a seismic event worthy of any Hollywood blockbuster.
Although a dramatisation that understandably overemphasised certain character traits of the main protagonists, David Fincher’s 2010 biopic of Facebook’s early days does at least highlight who the key players were in a saga that began as a college dorm prank and became a multinational business turning over $12 billion dollars a year. Of course, everybody knows the name Mark Zuckerberg. To some he is a philanthropic genius who reinvented the parameters of communication, changing the world in the process. To others, he’s a spoilt and arrogant man-child whose single-minded commercialisation of all of our personal lives has made him billions… changing the world in the process.
The truth, and it’s not always easy to locate that in the Facebook story, is probably somewhere in between. Whatever motivations existed one late autumn night to lead a student Zuckerberg to use his immense programming talents to create the gauche throwaway website named Facemash, it was the first step on a road that would eventually result in the planet’s biggest online community.
The college prank that spawned a commercial powerhouse
Lasting only a few days before being closed down by his Harvard masters, Zuckerberg’s cheeky Facemash programme asked users to compare the appearances of his fellow students using pictures he had illegally hacked from the school’s database. This early foray not only demonstrated Zuckerberg’s supreme talent for programming, but also his apparent apathy towards causing collateral emotional damage to anybody affected by his work. Twin traits that were to prove crucial in his meteoric rise.
He realised that, although trashy, Facemash’s instant and enormous popularity came from the notion that the students were seeing people online that they knew from their classes. From this kernel came Zuckerberg’s vision – a platform for students to interact, communicate and peek into one another’s lives on the internet. An apt lesson for aspiring entrepreneurs is that ability to spot a golden nugget in even the grubbiest of places. Three months after the ‘Facemash incident’, Mark Zuckerberg registered the domain name ‘Thefacebook’ and things really started to heat up.
A legal wrangle with fellow Harvard students Divya Narendra and twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss followed, in which the three accused Zuckerberg of stealing their ideas for a Harvard social networking website and using them to build Thefacebook. This was eventually settled out of court several years later in which the Facebook founder paid the trio a huge sum – reports suggest it could have been up to $120 million.
Expanding the team
After bringing onboard a close team including Eduardo Saverin to manage the business side of the enterprise and programmer Dustin Moskovitz, the work to get Thefacebook live and running at Harvard began in earnest. The site quickly established itself as a cornerstone of social interaction at Harvard, leading Zuckerberg to expand it to other colleges and universities across the US. Being savvy in knowing when, and how, to scale proved crucial for Zuckerberg’s team – another vital lesson for budding businesses.
Something was happening. And the extraordinary growth of Thefacebook was starting to attract the attention of industry observers and investors. One of those was Napster founder Sean Parker who, after meeting and striking up a friendship with Zuckerberg, became the company’s president. He was also instrumental in changing the name from Thefacebook to simply ‘Facebook’. Shortly after, the company received its first major investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Purchasing the domain name facebook.com for $200,000, by 2005 the growing enterprise had expanded its network to a vast swathe of universities across the United States, before a huge cash injection of $12.7 million ushered in the development of a High-School version of Facebook.
A year later came the crucial moment. On 26th September 2006, Facebook went public. The platform was opened up to anybody with a valid email address and was over the age of 13. Though the sheer scale of Facebook’s global reach was still a few years away, it was at this moment, when the Facebook social network became available to any online user, that the landscape of web-based communication, and indeed the entire internet, changed forever.
A global tech giant
Of course, Facebook went on to be the cultural, financial and digital behemoth it is today. Of course, there were more lawsuits, failed projects, and the odd misstep any business can fall foul to. But Zuckerberg took Facebook quite literally to every corner of the world and today the site has over 2 billion monthly active users, not to mention a significant stake in the public’s consumption of news, politics and culture.
The story of Facebook’s conception is one of talent, ambition and downright obduration. Perhaps the greatest lesson Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook can teach other aspiring entrepreneurs, is the power of self-belief and unflinching belief in your product. If what you are offering the consumer is so very strong, then compromise and concession are not necessarily… necessary.
Our concise and brief journey through the early years of Facebook is intended to be an overview of events and should not be taken as a thorough biography. For a more comprehensive read, the Wikipedia entry for Facebook has some very detailed accounts of key developments.