Facebook is 20 years today: the inside story here

Mark Zuckerberg works in his Kirkland dorm room in 2004, following the launch of thefacebook.com. 
Credit: Lowell K. Chow/The Harvard Crimson

Facebook, now Meta, started from humble beginnings 20 years ago, on February 4, 2004.

A college sophomore, Mark Zuckerberg, launched the site from his Harvard dorm room, unaware of what the company would become.

Currently, Meta has a market value of $599 billion, and more than 3 billion people use at least one Meta product daily.

Clarified takes a look back through the past two decades at Meta, its achievements and scandals, and posits what the future may look like for the tech titan.

Zuckerberg first formulated the site in 2003 when he infamously created a website that encouraged its users to rank the attractiveness of his fellow classmates.

The website was quickly disbanded after being accused of privacy violations. Shortly after in 2004 he built thefacebook.com to connect students at Harvard.

The site expanded to include other students across the country and by June of that same year, 250,000 students were signed up from more than 34 colleges. By the end of 2005, Facebook had 6 million active users and advertisers.

Facebook then became available internationally and began to prove its importance in the arena of politics.

During the 2008 US presidential election and the 2011 protests in Egypt, activists and campaigners both heavily relied upon the platform to disseminate information and communicate with one another.

In 2012, the company went public and bought Instagram, introducing a new era of diversification.

Later, it bought WhatsApp and Oculus VR. In 2021, the company rebranded to Meta to emphasise the company’s future in driving the metaverse revolution and its dozens of acquisitions.

In those 20 years, a lot has changed in our society, partly because of companies like Meta.

“There are an almost countless number of different types of groups and identities and various formulations of human connection that have been fostered on Facebook,” says Justin Hendrix, the editor of Tech Policy Press.

“That comes with unintended consequences, and we don’t know what it means to connect so many minds together. We don’t know how it changes the way we interact with one another.”

These online connections have come under fire for increasing feelings of isolation and loneliness, as well as being purposefully addictive.

In fact, in October 2023, 41 states and Washington D.C. sued Meta for knowingly using features on its platforms that cause compulsive use in children.

The company has also been behind a host of other scandals, including those related to user privacy and interference with democracy and in elections.

The biggest of those was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which found that millions of Facebook users had their data unknowingly harvested and used for political advertising, particularly for right-wing candidates, including Donald Trump.

The lack of sufficient content mediation in online spaces like Facebook as well as specific algorithms, have led to a more extreme and polarized internet.

Looking to the future, Zuckerberg has put a lot of effort and investment into virtual reality and hopes to be at the forefront of the metaverse.

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Meta has also invested heavily into artificial intelligence, alongside other big tech companies like Microsoft and Alphabet.

For Hendrix, the most important part of the future of technology in our lives will be continuing to research its effects and getting our lawmakers to enact legislation that protects users.

“The lifeblood of all these companies is personal data, personal information on you, me and every one of your viewers,” he says.

“And even if you’re not on these platforms, these companies are collecting data about you. It’s important for there to be privacy protections in place.”