The origins of Facebook have been mired in controversy since Mark Zuckerberg, then a 19-year old sophomore at Harvard, launched the site in February 2004. The concept of a social networking site was not new; indeed a number had been developed in the years preceding Zuckerberg’s launch which allowed users to add people as friends, send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves.
Zuckerberg himself had created one such site the previous year called Facemash, which earned him some celebrity and notoriety. Facemash was a clone, for Harvard students, of a popular website called Hot or Not, which is a rating site that allows users to rate the attractiveness of photos submitted voluntarily by others (The site also offers a matchmaking engine called ‘Meet Me’ and an extended profile feature called “Hotlists”).
Facemash got Zuckerberg into trouble. The way the site worked was that it pulled photos of Harvard students off of Harvard’s Web sites. It rearranged these photos so that when people visited Facemash.com they would see pictures of two Harvard students and be asked to vote on which was more attractive. The site also maintained a list of Harvard students, ranked by attractiveness.
This upset a lot of people on campus and Zuckerberg found himself forced to appear in front of Harvard’s disciplinary board for students, charged with breaching security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy. Fortunately, for posterity, Zuckerberg was not expelled.
Undeterred, Zuckerberg expanded on the original idea that semester, creating a social study tool ahead of an art history final exam. He uploaded all art images to a website, each of which was featured with a corresponding comments section, then shared the site with his classmates, and people started sharing notes.
The origin of the name Facebook was born about this time. A “face book” is a student directory featuring photos and basic information. In 2003, there were no universal online facebooks at Harvard, with only paper sheets distributed and private online directories. Zuckerberg told the Harvard Crimson, the university’s daily student newspaper that “Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”
In January 2004, Zuckerberg began writing code for a new website, known as “TheFacebook”, with the inspiration coming from an editorial in the Crimson about Facemash, stating that “It is clear that the technology needed to create a centralised Website is readily available … the benefits are many.” On February 4, 2004, Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook”, originally located at thefacebook.com.
Membership was initially restricted to students of Harvard College; within the first month, more than half the undergraduates at Harvard were registered on the service. Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz, Andrew McCollum, and Chris Hughes joined Zuckerberg to help manage the growth of the website. In March 2004, Facebook expanded to the universities of Columbia, Stanford, and Yale. It later opened to all Ivy League colleges, Boston University, New York University, MIT, Washington and gradually most universities in the United States and Canada.
In mid-2004, entrepreneur Sean Parker—an informal advisor to Zuckerberg—became the company’s president. In June 2004, Facebook moved its operations base to Palo Alto, California, and it received its first investment later that month from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. One year later, the company dropped “the” from its name after purchasing the domain name facebook.com for US$200,000.
The company attracted further investors; in September 2005, a high school version was launched, and the following year, the site was opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address. Company pages were launched for business, and Microsoft purchased a 1.6% share of Facebook for $240 million, giving Facebook a total implied value of around $15 billion. By January 2009, a Compete.Com ranked Facebook the most used social networking service by worldwide monthly active users, a position it continues to hold with more than 2.2 billion monthly active users as of January 2018.
That is the official story behind Facebook, and the one that Mark Zuckerberg is happy to promote. However, there is another version of the story that paints him in a less glamorous light and it has its origins back with Facemash.
Apart from the controversy surrounding it, Facemash had been an instant hit, with the Harvard Crimson reporting that after two weeks, “the site had been visited by 450 people, who voted at least 22,000 times.” That means the average visitor voted 48 times.
That brought Zuckerberg to the attention of Harvard seniors Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra, who were on the lookout for a web developer who could bring to life an idea the three say Divya first had in 2002: a social network for Harvard students and alumni. The site was to be called HarvardConnections.com.
The three had been paying another Harvard student, Victor Gao, to provide the coding for the site, but at the beginning of the autumn term in 2003, Gao backed away from the project and suggested that they contact Zuckerberg instead.
According to this version of events, Zuckerberg entered into an agreement with the three to develop a similar web site for them, and then, instead stalled on their project and stole their idea and built his own.
Six days after TheFacebook launched, the Winklevoss brothers and Narendra accused Zuckerberg of intentionally misleading them, instead using their ideas to build a competing product. The three complained to The Harvard Crimson and the newspaper began an investigation. They later filed a lawsuit against Zuckerberg subsequently settling in 2008 for 1.2 million shares (worth $300 million at Facebook’s IPO).
This alternative version of Facebook’s founding was explored in the 2010 film The Social Network which eventually won 3 Oscars and 4 Golden Globes.
The Winklevoss brothers later went on to row for the USA at the Beijing Olympics and became Bitcoin billionaires. Narendra is the CEO and co-founder of SumZero, an online community for professional investors which hosts investment research, job opportunities, and capital introduction services. Zuckerberg continues to be chairman and chief executive officer of Facebook with his estimated net worth, as of April 2018, estimated to be US$66.4 billion.