“TheFacebook”. That’s what Facebook was called when Mark Zuckerberg and a group of friends launched the platform while living in student housing 20 years ago.
Since then, the world’s most popular social network has been redesigned dozens of times.
But its goal remains the same: connecting people online. And make a lot of money from advertising.
1. Facebook changed the social media game
Other social networks, like MySpace, existed before Facebook — but Mark Zuckerberg’s site took off instantly when it launched in 2004.
This showed the speed with which a platform of this type could consolidate.
In less than a year, it had 1 million users, and within four years it had surpassed MySpace — fueled by innovations like the ability to “tag” people in photographs.
Taking a digital camera out at night and then “tagging” your friends in dozens of photos was a routine part of teenage life in the late 1990s.
The constantly changing post feed was also a big draw for early adopters.
In 2012, Facebook surpassed the 1 billion monthly user mark, and except for a brief drop in late 2021 — when daily active users fell for the first time to 1.92 billion — the platform continues to grow.
By expanding to less connected countries and offering free internet, the company maintained and increased the number of users.
At the end of 2023, Facebook reported that it had 2.11 billion daily active users.
It is a fact that Facebook is less popular among young people today than it used to be. However, it remains the most popular social network in the world and has ushered in a new era of online social activity.
Some see Facebook and its rivals as tools that foster connections, others see them as addictive agents of destruction.
2. Facebook made our personal data valuable… and less personal
Facebook has proven that collecting our likes and dislikes is extremely profitable.
Currently, Meta, Facebook’s parent company, is an advertising giant that, along with companies like Google, holds the majority of global advertising revenue.
Meta reported almost US$40 billion (R$199 billion) in revenue in the last quarter of 2023, coming mainly from highly targeted advertising services; the company also declared US$14 billion in profits.
But Facebook also showed how data collection can go wrong.
Meta has been fined several times for misuse of personal data.
The most publicized case was the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2014, which saw Facebook pay $725 million to settle legal action over a significant data breach.
In 2022, Facebook also paid a fine of 265 million euros (R$1.4 billion) to the European Union for allowing the extraction of personal data from the site.
Last year, the company received a record €1.2 billion fine from the Irish Data Protection Commission for transferring European users’ data outside European jurisdiction. Facebook is appealing.
3. Facebook made the internet part of politics
By offering targeted advertising, Facebook has become an important platform for election campaigns around the world.
For example, in the five months leading up to the 2020 US presidential election, then-President Donald Trump’s team spent more than $40 million on Facebook ads, according to data from the website Statista.
Facebook has also helped change politics among ordinary people — by allowing disparate groups of users to come together, organize campaigns and plan actions on a global scale.
Facebook and Twitter were considered crucial in coordinating the Arab Spring protests by spreading news about what was happening on the streets.
But there are criticisms of the consequences of using Facebook for political purposes.
In 2018, Facebook agreed with a UN report that said the platform had failed to stop people from using it to “incite offline violence” against the Rohingya people in Myanmar.
4. Facebook began Meta dominance
With the enormous success of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg has built a social network and technology empire that remains unprecedented in terms of number of users and power.
Companies like WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus were purchased and boosted by the Facebook group, which changed its name to Meta in 2021.
Meta says that today more than 3 billion people use at least one of its products every day.
And when it fails to buy its rivals, Meta has often been accused of copying them to maintain its dominance.
Facebook and Instagram’s Stories feature is similar to a Snapchat tool; Instagram Reels is the company’s response to TikTok; and the Threads tool is Meta’s attempt to imitate X, formerly known as Twitter.
Tactics have become more important than ever thanks to increased competition and a stricter regulatory environment.
In 2022, Meta was forced to sell GIF (moving image) creation service Giphy at a loss after UK regulators blocked it from controlling the service.
Regulators cited fears that Meta exercised excessive market dominance.
What about the next 20 years?
Facebook’s rise and continued dominance is a testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to keep his site relevant.
But remaining the most popular social network in the world will be a monumental challenge over the next 20 years.
Meta is now striving to build its business around the idea of the Metaverse, in which it is ahead of rival giants like Apple.
Artificial intelligence is also a big priority for Meta.
So, as the company moves away from its Facebook roots, it will be interesting to see what the future holds for the ubiquitous blue app.
*With additional reporting by Iman Mohammed
This article was originally published here.