Celebrating Facebook at 20

Look at the image above. This is how Facebook, or The Facebook as it was then known, looked when Mark Zuckerberg and a handful of friends launched it from their student digs 20 years ago.

Since then, the world’s most popular social network has been redesigned dozens of times.

But its aim has remained the same: to connect people online. And make mountains of money from advertising.

As the platform turns 20, here are four ways Facebook has changed the world.

1. Facebook changed the social media game

Tom was everyone’s first friend on MySpace, which was launched by Tom Anderson a year before Facebook
Other social networks, such as MySpace, existed before Facebook – but Mark Zuckerberg’s site instantly took off when it launched in 2004, proving just how rapidly an online site of this kind could take hold.

In less than a year it had one million users, and within four years it had overtaken MySpace – fuelled by innovations such as the ability to “tag” people in photos.

Taking a digital camera on a night out, then tagging your friends in dozens of pictures was a staple of teenage life in the late noughties. The constantly changing activity feed was also a big draw for early users.

By 2012, Facebook had surpassed one billion users a month and, aside from a brief blip at the end of 2021 – when daily active users dropped for the first time – the platform has continued to grow.

By expanding into less connected countries and offering free internet, the company has maintained and increased the number of Facebook users. At the end of 2023, Facebook reported it had 2.11 billion daily users.

Admittedly, Facebook is less popular than it used to be with young people. Nonetheless, it remains the most popular social network in the world, and has ushered in a new era of social activity online.

Some see Facebook and its rivals as empowering tools for connectivity. Others see them as addictive agents of destruction.

2. Facebook made our personal data valuable… and less personal

Facebook’s parent company has been fined several times for mishandling personal data
Facebook proved that collecting our likes and dislikes is extremely lucrative.

These days, Facebook’s parent company Meta is an advertising giant which, alongside the likes of Google, takes the lion’s share of global advertising money.

On Thursday Meta reported more than $40bn (£32bn) in revenue for the last quarter of 2023, chiefly from offering advertisers highly targeted ad services. Some $14bn was declared as profit.

But Facebook has also shown where data collection can go awry.

Meta has been fined multiple times for mishandling personal data.

The most publicised case was the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2014, which led to Facebook paying $725m to settle legal action due to a significant data breach.

In 2022, Facebook also paid a €265m (£228m) EU fine for allowing personal data to be extracted from the site.

And last year, the company was issued with a record €1.2bn fine by the Irish Data Protection Commission, for transferring European users’ data outside of the jurisdiction. Facebook is currently appealing against the fine.

3. Facebook made the internet political

President Trump hosts roundtable discussion on the reopening of US economy at the White House in Washington
Donald Trump’s team spent millions on Facebook adverts in the run-up to the 2020 election
By offering targeted advertising, Facebook has become a major platform for election campaigning around the world.

For example, in the five months leading up to the US presidential election of 2020, incumbent President Donald Trump’s team spent more than $40m on Facebook adverts, according to Statista research.
Facebook has had a hand in changing grassroots politics too – by enabling disparate groups of users to gather, campaign and plan action on a global scale.

Facebook and Twitter were said to be crucial during the Arab Spring in helping to co-ordinate protests and spread the news about what was happening on the ground.

But the adoption of Facebook for political ends has been criticised for some of its consequences, including its impact on human rights. In 2018, Facebook agreed with a UN report that said it had failed to prevent people using the platform to “incite offline violence” against Rohingya people in Myanmar.

4. Facebook kick-started Meta’s dominance

Mark Zuckerberg gestures while addressing the audience during a meeting of the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) CEO Summit in Lima, Peru, November 19, 2016.

Mark Zuckerberg said he did not want Facebook to become “arbiters of truth”
With the huge success of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg built a social network and technology empire that remains unprecedented in terms of users and its consequent power.

Up-and-coming companies, including WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus, were all purchased and turbo-charged under the umbrella company Facebook, which changed its name to Meta in 2021.

Meta now says more than three billion people use at least one of its products every day.
And when it hasn’t been able to buy its rivals, Meta has often been accused of copying them – in order to maintain its dominance.

Facebook and Instagram’s disappearing Stories feature is similar to a key feature found on Snapchat; Instagram Reels is the company’s answer to the challenge posed by video-sharing app TikTok; and Threads is Meta’s attempt to imitate X, formerly known as Twitter.

Tactics have become more important than ever, thanks to the increased competition and a more strict regulatory environment.

In 2022, Meta was forced to sell GIF-maker Giphy at a loss after UK regulators blocked it from owning the service due to fears of over-dominance in the market.

From poking to privacy scandals, some of the highs and lows of Facebook from the last two decades.

The next 20 years?
Facebook’s rise and continued dominance is testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s ability to keep the site relevant.

On its 10th anniversary many outlets, including the BBC, questioned whether the platform would still be around for its 20th.

Naysayers will hesitate now before asking when its time might finally be up.

But the reality is maintaining its crown as the most popular social network will be a monumental challenge over the next 20 years.

That’s not just because the industry, as always, is changing at breakneck speed – but because Meta itself is now pushing heavily towards building its business around the idea of the Metaverse.

Artificial intelligence is also a big priority for Meta.

The company is therefore, to some extent, moving on from Facebook. Whether the world is, given its enduring popularity, is another matter.


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