Facebook turns 20: How the social media giant grew to 3 billion users

(Al Jazeera)

Still the world’s largest social media platform, Facebook celebrates its 20th birthday on February 4.

In 2004, as broadband was replacing dial-up internet and mobile phones with colour screens were gaining popularity, on February 4, a social network, named “TheFacebook”, was launched by 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg and his college roommates at Harvard University.

Facebook was named after the physical student directory distributed at universities at the start of the academic year, commonly known as a “face book”.

Within a few years, the platform exploded in popularity, becoming the world’s largest social media network, with more than three billion monthly active users today.

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Major milestones

The idea behind Facebook was an offshoot of one of Zuckerberg’s previous projects called Facemash, a “hot-or-not” website used to rate female Harvard students’ faces side-by-side.

To obtain the photos used on the site, Zuckerberg hacked into the university’s security system and copied student ID images without their permission. This prompted the university to shut down the platform within days of its launch and led to disciplinary action against Zuckerberg.

Yet, just a few months later, Zuckerberg and his roommates launched a new networking site that enabled Harvard students to connect with their peers using their “.edu” email address.

Screenshot of thefacebook.com captured by the Internet Archive on February 12, 2004
Screenshot of thefacebook.com captured by the Internet Archive on February 12, 2004

The social network was a big hit and soon spread to other college campuses across the United States.

Within its first year, the platform grew to one million users, and in August 2005, it was renamed “facebook.com”.

By the end of 2006, anyone above the age of 13 with internet access could join. The number of users jumped from 12 million in 2006 to 50 million in 2007, which doubled to 100 million by the end of 2008.

Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg remotely rings the Nasdaq’s opening bell in Menlo Park, California, on May 18, 2012 [Reuters]

In 2012, the year Facebook reached one billion users, it went public, valued at $104bn. Facebook made its initial public offering (IPO) at $38 a share and raised $16bn. The platform’s market share has since grown nearly 12 times, to about $474 at the closing on Friday.

On October 29, 2021, Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook, Inc to Meta Platforms, Inc. The company owns and operates Facebook, Instagram, Threads, and WhatsApp, among other products and services.

How big is Meta?

With three billion active monthly users, Facebook remains the world’s most popular social media platform, accounting for more than half of the world’s internet users and more than one-third of the world’s population.

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To put 3.03 billion users in perspective, that is more than the population of India (1.4 billion), China (1.4 billion), and Bangladesh (173 million) combined.

In 2023, Facebook’s biggest audiences included: India (385.6 million), followed by the US (188.6 million), Indonesia (136.3 million), Brazil (111.7 million) and Mexico (94.8 million).

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Who uses Facebook the most?

According to Datareportal, an online reference library, among Facebook’s global users, individuals aged 65 and above (5.6 percent) outnumber those aged 13-17 (4.8 percent).

Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst with Insider Intelligence who has followed Facebook since its early days, notes that the site’s younger users have been dwindling.

“Young people often shape the future of communication. I mean, that’s basically how Facebook took off – young people gravitated toward it. And we see that happening with pretty much every social platform that has come on the scene since Facebook,” Williamson told The Associated Press news agency.

Facebook’s largest audience group, with just below a third (29.9 percent) of all users, is 25-34 years.

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Issues with data privacy and user safety

Facebook has encountered numerous data privacy and user safety issues over the course of its 20-year existence.

One of the most notable issues occurred in 2018 when it was revealed that a British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica used 87 million Facebook users’ personal information without permission in early 2014 to build profiles of individual voters in the US to target them with personalised political advertisements.

Zuckerberg attended his first congressional hearings at Capitol Hill, Washington, DC where he was questioned about his data privacy practices. The Meta boss agreed to pay fines and said he would enhance privacy regulations on the platform.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg - CTC
The global citizens’ movement Avaaz install life-sized Zuckerberg cutout figures wearing ‘fix fakebook’ T-shirts in a protest action in front of the Capitol Hill in Washington, US, April 10, 2018 [Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo]

On January 31, 2024, Zuckerburg, along with CEOs of TikTok, X and other social media platforms, were asked to testify before the US Senate Judiciary Committee.

In a rare show of unity, Republican and Democratic senators grilled the CEOs about how social media companies have not done enough to curb the damage their platforms do to the health and wellbeing of children and teenagers.

Zuckerberg apologised to the parents of the victims. “I’m sorry for everything you have all been through. No one should go through the things that your families have suffered,” he said, adding that Meta continues to invest and work on “industry-wide efforts” to protect children.

Child health advocates say that social media companies have failed repeatedly to protect minors.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg looks at X Corp’s CEO Linda Yaccarino and TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew as they raise their hands to be sworn in during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation at the US Capitol in Washington, DC [File: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

What lies ahead for Meta?

Despite government scrutiny, and a dwindling younger audience, Meta on Thursday reported a revenue of $40.1bn and a profit of $14bn for the fourth quarter of last year – far surpassing analysts’ forecasts.

Meta, like many other tech giants, has been investing heavily in boosting its computing power to support its ambitious artificial intelligence (AI) plans.

According to Reuters, Meta is gearing up to unleash its own AI chips, referred to internally as “Artemis”, later this year to be used in energy-hungry generative AI products it plans to integrate into Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.



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