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Twenty rollercoaster years of Facebook: what are the main takeaways?

Social network has outlasted all predictions of its demise and the site currently has more than three billion active users

In 2004, Lance Armstrong won his sixth Tour de France, a title he would lose eight years later after being disqualified for doping. Janet Jackson, Justin Timberlake and a “wardrobe malfunction” caused a scandal at the Super Bowl. Nasa put the Spirit rover on Mars, months after it left Earth. The EU added 10 new member states, including Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Malta. And in a dorm room in Harvard, Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes formed Facebook.

Back then, it was “The Facebook”, and it was only open to Harvard students. Its founders wanted to connect college students, but later opened it to other Ivy League colleges before targeting high school students in 2005, and opening to the general public in 2006.

Since then, it has grown to be one of the most popular websites in the world, but also at times one of the most divisive. From its original mission to connect people to accusations of censorship and billions of euro in fines levied by data protection watchdogs, it has been a rollercoaster 20 years for the tech company.

So what are the main takeaways from the past 20 years?


1. It has outlasted all predictions of its demise

Before Facebook, there was MySpace, and before that there was Friendster. For Irish and UK users, there was Bebo. All of these sites have fallen off in popularity and been relegated to the dustbin of internet history. But although many predicted Facebook would go the same way, it has hung around. The site currently has more than three billion active users.

However, Facebook does have an ongoing problem: the age profile of its users. While it has snapped up more dynamic platforms such as Instagram, Facebook’s widely discussed problem in recent years has been attracting new, younger users to its service. And with increased competition from new platforms such as TikTok, it will have to do more to persuade younger users to switch to a service that essentially is where their parents hang out.

2. It has changed how we view friendships

Facebook’s initial mission was to connect the world. And to a certain extent it has succeeded. But there are Facebook friends and there are “friend” friends. Facebook has loosened the definition of the word to a point where it is almost unrecognisable.

You could have hundreds of Facebook friends – former schoolfriends, old colleagues, a person you think you met at a music festival one year, the local handyman – that only get to see a carefully curated slice of your life, with the only interaction being the odd like or two on a photo and an annual “ happy birthday” message when Facebook prompts them. Meanwhile, the handful of real friends in your social circle know what is going on in your life day to day. The two are very different meanings of the same word.

And yet “defriending” or “unfriending” someone, even a relative stranger, can be a fraught experience. Some people approach it with all the gravitas of a real-life break-up, warning people in advance that they have been culling their lists, and congratulations, you made the cut. Others just cut without warning. If it takes more than a week for you to notice, that should tell you all you need to know about that particular Facebook “friendship”.

3. Facebook didn’t invent online communities. But it did make them more accessible

Long before the social network was even an idea in Zuckerberg’s head, people had been congregating online. Before there was Facebook, there was bulletin boards and Usenet groups, messenger software and internet relay chat.

For many people, though, Facebook is somewhere they can find their community, whether it is first-time mothers seeking support or fans of obscure literature forming virtual discussion groups.

It may not have invented online communities, but it certainly made it easier to find them, join them and participate.

During Covid-19 lockdowns, socialising online was the only outlet for many people, and while most of us have been glad to leave that behind, online communities persist.

4. It has made people more aware of privacy

Love it or loathe it, Facebook has made us focus on what we give up to giant corporations in return for free services.

But we have learned the hard way. Facebook has been hit by a string of controversies, from carrying out psychological testing on Facebook users without their knowledge or consent, to the Cambridge Analytica scandal that compromised the personal data of 87 million people, to the alleged manipulation of elections, and crimes being live-streamed on the platform.

Facebook owner Meta has been subject to numerous fines from data protection authorities in Europe, including a record €1.2 billion fine handed down by Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon following a long investigation into transfers by Facebook of Europeans’ personal data to the US.

The good news, though, is we have all become more aware of the rules around data protection, and what companies are allowed to do with our data. When you know better, you do better. And force companies to do better too.

5. It can be a haven of information for hackers

Think of the amount of information that you hand over to Facebook on a daily basis. Your personal information, phone numbers, family relationships. You can “check in” to locations, giving away where you are at any given time. The photographs you upload can give clues to your home and family life.

In the past, malicious users have capitalised on people’s willingness to take random quizzes asking seemingly innocuous questions to scoop up just enough data to get around security questions protecting accounts.

Regular privacy check-ups can help focus on where your weak spots are, but in general it is best to limit what data you provide to any online service.

6. Cofounder Mark Zuckerberg is still at the helm

As chief executive 20 years on, Zuckerberg is somewhat of an outlier. The man who founded Facebook in 2004 is still running the business, long after many of his Web 2.0 contemporaries have handed over the reins.

Twitter, now X, has had several CEOs since it was founded in 2006, although cofounder Jack Dorsey came back for a second stint in 2015 before handing over to Parag Agrawal in 2021. Google cofounder Larry Page stepped down from the day-to-day running of the tech giant in 2015. And Jeff Bezos gave up the CEO role at Amazon in 2021, handing control to Andy Jassy.

It was Zuckerberg who pushed the metaverse as the future of the company, and has now steered the company towards AI.

7. It is now part of the tech establishment

The image of the social network as a plucky, young upstart has long since disappeared, replaced by a multibillion-dollar business. Since it was founded, Facebook has bought Instagram and WhatsApp, emulated the most compelling features from rivals Snapchat and TikTok, and tried to corner the metaverse market.

It even has a rival for X, an Instagram-linked app it calls Threads.

Basically, Facebook – now Meta – is huge. And as such, it may well become the target for break-up at some point in the future.

8. It has helped small businesses reach their audience

For many small businesses, Facebook has provided an easy, cost-effective way to reach customers, from targeted advertising to building communities.

For Fiona O’Neill, founder of Count On Us Recruitment, Facebook was a key factor in building her business.

“It was through creating a community within a Facebook group of family carers in Ireland that my business was launched,” she explains. “Having a Facebook group community of 2,000-plus meant when it came to launching the business, I had already an audience.”

The company is aimed at charities and service providers who help family carers re-enter the world of work.

“Within the group I could run, and still run polls and surveys, among the family carers with usually on average 400 respondents, which helps me in business decisions and ideas.”

But it also underscored the vulnerability of depending solely on one platform. “When there was a Facebook outage in 2021, it opened my eyes that I can’t focus on Facebook only for my business communications,” said O’Neill. “I started to understand the importance of capturing email addresses and building a database.”

9. But not all businesses have had good experiences

Some businesses have also seen the negative side of Facebook. In May last year, Northern Ireland-based tabletop role-playing game company, Penny Dragon Games, found its Facebook account had been hacked. That resulted in £1,000 being taken from their accounts, Kayleigh McLaughlin, one of the founders said.

“Our sales plummeted and, despite our efforts, reaching out to Facebook for assistance was like shouting into the void,” she said. “It took two agonising months and countless lost sales before we regained control of our original account. During this time, I set up a back-up ad account with heightened security measures on new devices. Unfortunately, this too was hacked just weeks later, and six months down the line, the issue remains unresolved.”

The company had relied heavily on Meta advertising for sales, it says. But following its experience – which also includes a second hack on the original account – it has begun building alternative networks in a bid to save its business, including turning to influencers in the gaming community and potential partnerships.

But this will take time. And with the hackers still in control of the original account – and therefore the page the company’s founders worked to build – they are still hoping that Facebook will fix the issue. The company also sees it as a warning to others who may be relying on the platform as they did to connect with customers.

Meta was contacted by The Irish Times about the issue. “We’re investigating the accounts brought to our attention,” a spokeswoman for the company said. “We take the safety and security of our community seriously and encourage everyone to create a strong password, enable two-factor authentication and to be suspicious of emails or messages asking for personal details. We also have a feature called Security Checkup to help people keep their Instagram and Facebook accounts secure.”

10. Metaverse, AI: Facebook is looking for the future

In 2021, hopes were high for the metaverse as the next evolution of the internet. Zuckerberg decided to go all in on his vision of the future, pledging to create up to 10,000 jobs in Europe to help support Facebook’s ambitions. The company even changed its name to Meta to reflect what the Facebook CEO was confident would be the next wave.

Like many predictions in the tech sector, the metaverse has yet to really gain traction as a business. Meta has shed thousands of jobs in the past 18 months as the company refocused its resources.

And now, with the focus on generative AI, the company is also looking at how it can use the technology to grow, and perhaps stick around for at least another decade.