Ten Years Later, Facebook’s First Users Look Back at Site’s Earliest Days

On Feb. 4, 2004, then-sophomore Mark E. Zuckerberg launched thefacebook from his dorm room in Kirkland House. A year later, he took time off Harvard to work on the site full-time and never returned to the College.

UPDATED: Feb. 4, 2014, at 1:25 a.m.

Before Facebook swept the globe and attracted more than one billion users, it got its start in a Kirkland House dorm room on Feb. 4, 2004 as an internal directory for Harvard undergraduates, running on a single server at a cost of $85 per month.

A lot has changed in 10 years. Today, the site that was started as an internal social network for Harvard students is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It trades at more than $61 per share on the NASDAQ stock market. Its founder, Mark E. Zuckerberg, formerly of the Class of 2006, is thought to be worth nearly $30 billion.

While today’s Facebook experience may revolve around status updates, news feeds, and photos, the networking site that exploded on Harvard’s campus a decade ago offered undergraduates just a few basic functions. Still, looking back on the site’s earliest days, its first users, Harvard undergraduates, say that adding friends, finding classmates, and ‘poking’ fellow users was enough to completely upturn social interactions on campus.

“It felt like within the first month or so everyone was on it, at some point,” said Chad Brown ‘07, recalling the many conversations about thefacebook he overheard in Harvard dining halls during the spring of 2004. “It was something that people talked about a lot.”

From the beginning, Harvard was hooked.

FROM FACEMASH TO FACEBOOK

The concept of an online collection of faces and biographical information was nothing new for Harvard students. While there existed a searchable directory for the freshman class, the rest of the College was organized by House, and each maintained a separate, and often restricted, rolodex of faces and phone numbers, as well as a print edition.

“Everybody wanted access to a face book for upperclassmen,” said Connie Zong ‘06, a member of Zuckerberg’s class year.

In October of his sophomore year, Zuckerberg himself had entered the social fray by launching facemash, a short-lived site that asked users to choose the more attractive of two Harvard student identification photos, which had been lifted from individual House directories.

The site attracted the ire of numerous student groups across campus, more than 20,000 hits in 24 hours online, and the attention of the College’s Administrative Board. Zuckerberg quickly apologized, both in an interview with The Crimson and in numerous letters to campus groups.

And though the Administrative Board declined to send Zuckerberg home for the breaches, the young programmer had forged a reputation.

“We all knew Zuckerberg for getting in trouble with the Ad Board for Facemash,” remembered Zong in an interview last week. “Facemash was such a big hit.”

If facemash was short lived, it highlighted anew the need for a campus-wide social directory. Cameron S.H. Winklevoss ‘04, Tyler O.H. Winklevoss ‘04, and Divya K. Narendra ‘04 saw a similar need and approached Zuckerberg for help in going a step further and establishing a social network along the lines of Myspace or Friendster, but exclusively for Harvard students.

Zuckerberg’s work with the Winklevoss group would eventually result in a lawsuit, but by the first week in February, shopping week at the College, Zuckerberg was ready to launch his own site. thefacebook.com went live on a Wednesday.

Overnight, the site took off. Within 24 hours, thefacebook had 650 registered users; within two weeks, 4,300 had created accounts. The first invitations, sent out by Zuckerberg and friends over a few campus email lists, had spread like wildfire.

“I remember getting an email from a close friend of mine...with an invitation saying ‘so and so has invited you to join thefacebook.com,’” Samuel L. Sanker ‘05 remembered. “I logged in and it was so early...it was just a very, very bare bones user interface, and from the day that I signed up, I just thought that it was the greatest thing in the world.”

Brandon M. Terry ’05 recalled being taken immediately by the clean aesthetics and intimate community the site offered.

“This site was only your friends...from college,” he said. “It was strange how you could lose so much time on this site.”

Zuckerberg, for his part, was unapologetically proud of his accomplishment and the speed with which he had pulled it off.

“Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” he told The Crimson on Feb. 9, 2004. “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.”

A NEW SOCIAL NETWORK

Within weeks of thefacebook’s launch, the site began to develop its own unique profile, supplanting competitors and integrating itself into undergraduate life. Only Harvard undergrads could sign up, making the online community far more intimate—and seemingly secure—than those offered by MySpace and Friendster, early users say.

“You had to have a harvard.edu address, which made it a lot less sketchy,” Zong said. “With MySpace, you could get spammed really easily by people in the area, and I think a lot of people felt uncomfortable.”

One feature on the initial site, Coursematch, allowed users to see which classes their friends were taking.

“You could enter the courses that you were taking that semester, and for people that were interested in forming study groups it was the perfect thing,” Sanker said.

Another feature allowed users to “poke” their friends using the site. The meaning of this ambiguous term was never officially clarified, but that did not stop Harvard students from using it.

“Let’s say some girl would add me on Facebook who I hadn’t really met,” Brown said in an interview last week. “I’d be talking to my roommates and ask, ‘What do you think about this? What does this mean? Is she interested? I’m not sure what to think?’ So they’d say, ‘Well, send her a poke and see what happens.’”

“I like the poke,” Brown added.

The features added a new dimension to social interactions on campus, early users say.

“We weren’t quite sure how the online social dynamic was going to play out in real life,” said Barbara Eghan ‘05. Because the concept of online “friendship” was so new, Eghan explained, “it felt like a really big deal to say you were friends with somebody, or to unfriend somebody.”

We weren’t quite sure what the rules of it were,” she added. “If you reject somebody as a friend or ignore their request, are they going to get a note that says you’ve rejected them?”

That dynamic was quickly complicated further as the network began to expand beyond Cambridge. By March, the site had gained strong footholds at Columbia, Stanford, and Yale and attracted its 10,000th subscriber.

But amid the social network’s rapid success, some users at Harvard worried that thefacebook’s expansion might alter their experience with the site.

“There was this chatter among the early users that it was losing its exclusivity, losing what made it special,” Eghan said.

DROPPING OUT

As the site grew and questions proliferated, so too did the profile of its creator.

By the time Zuckerberg sat for his final exams in May 2004, thefacebook had undergone nationwide expansion and was approaching its 100,000th user. When Zuckerberg finished those finals, he and his teamDustin A. Moskovitz '06-'07, Andrew K. McCollum ’06-’07, and a group of internsheaded for Palo Alto, Calif. In June, the company changed its name to Facebook. Co-founder Eduardo Saverin '06 did not make the trip to Palo Alto. Christopher R. Hughes '06, who did, ultimately stayed on as the company's spokesperson, but Saverin was soon pushed out of the company.

Zuckerberg never came back to Harvard as a student. He did return after dropping out in 2005 to build the staff of his growing company.

Eghan recalled early recruitment events, often staged outside the Science Center, noting that  they were “heavily attended” by undergraduates. On another occasion, Zuckerberg, in sandals and a t-shirt, appeared before a meeting of CS50.

“[There were] a lot of computer science people who were interested to know how they could get involved,” Eghan said.  “It was the idea of being part of something that was blowing up, and we were watching it blow up right in front of our faces, which was a really cool thing.”

Some, like Zong, regret not following the armada of Harvard students to Facebook.

“A lot of people [from my class] then went to work at Facebook,” Zong said. “I kind of kick myself for not looking into that opportunity. I don’t think any of us expected it to get as big as it did.”

But while Facebook maintained its special relationship with Harvard as an employer, Harvard lost its privileged place in the social network.

“I think the core goal of connecting with people is the same,” said Brown, whose Facebook timeline, like those of many of his classmates, stretches back a decade. “I think that it has added change in that it is less exclusive, it’s become a more inclusive platform that allows people to stay up with each other, and I think that’s been a positive.”

—Staff writer Meg P. Bernhard can be reached at meg.bernhard@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @Meg_Bernhard.

—Staff writer Matthew Q. Clarida can be reached at matthew.clarida@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MattClarida.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: Feb. 4, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the class years of Samuel L. Sanker and Brandon M. Terry. In fact, both men were members of the Class of 2005.

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