A brief history of Facebook as a media text: The development of an empty structure
First Monday

A brief history of Facebook as a media text: The development of an empty structure by Niels Brugger



Abstract
This paper tells a history of Facebook from 2004 to 2013. It presents the big picture by focusing on Facebook as it presented itself to a user, that is the available semiotic and interactional elements (e.g., profile, wall, feed, commercials, etc.) as well as the functions and useforms which these elements made possible for a variety of actor types (profile owners, groups, companies, software developers, etc.). In addition, Facebook’s development is inscribed in a longer Web historical perspective with a view to identifying a general mechanism for Internet development.

Contents

1. Introduction
2. 2004–2006: Who are you?
3. 2006–2008: What are you doing, and when?
4. 2008–2013: Where are you?
5. The development of Facebook 2004–2013
6. Facebook in a Web-historical perspective

 


 

1. Introduction

In June 2007 I joined an Internet site which I had never heard of before. It was something called Facebook. I joined because I was to participate in an international Internet research conference, and the organisers had set up a so-called “group” on this Web service, which was almost unknown in Denmark at the time. The most popular networking service back in those days was MySpace [1]. There were only two people that I could add as “friends”: two colleagues who I actually thought were already my friends. In the early days of Facebook, a lot of people probably felt the same as I did: this was unknown territory. But things have changed fast, and in early 2013 there were 3,037,000 Danes with a Facebook profile [2]. The phenomenon has become an integral part of the everyday lives of many people, as well as being part of our political and cultural lives.

But what did Facebook actually look like when it was launched in 2004, and how has it developed in the period from 2004 to 2013? Have there always been automatic status updates, and has there always been an option to “Like” things? And when were the Facebook logos that can now be seen everywhere in the digital world first introduced? The changes made during the short history of Facebook have been both big and rapid — as a matter of fact, Facebook was so boring when it was founded that it would probably not have been successful in that form today.

It is difficult to account briefly for all areas of the history of Facebook. Thus, what follows pretends to be neither the history of Facebook, nor a history of Facebook. Rather is it an outline of a history of one single element of Facebook, namely the textual and interactive media environment that users can see and interact with on the Web site and on mobile media. Or to be slightly more precise: the elements available for users of Facebook with regard to semiotics and interaction, as well as the functions and uses these elements have facilitated for various types of users [3]. This leaves out many other topics which would also have been very relevant: Facebook as a company, the way users actually use Facebook, privacy settings, censorship of content, Web design and aesthetics, Facebook as part of a broader cultural history, to mention just a few. It should also be stressed that the aim is limited only to the accounting of what has happened in Facebooks development as media text, and not why it has happened, for instance as a consequence of the interplay with economic factors, privacy issues, user feedback, etc.

Therefore, this paper is merely a modest contribution to what may later become the history of Facebook in the hands of future historians. However, foregrounding the textual and interactive media environment constitutes an important first stepping stone, since we have to know what Facebook actually looked like and what could be done with it in the past before we can broaden the historical scope and identify some of the reasons for the development of Facebook.

The historical analysis seeks to shed light on two issues: What has actually happened in the development of Facebook? And is there a general development mechanism in the history of Facebook as a media text? The answer to the first question will involve a chronological presentation and discussion of Facebook’s most important phenomena and events in terms of semiotics and possibilities of interaction; whereas the answer to the second will place Facebook in a broader Internet/Web-historical perspective.

Paradoxically enough, the generally high level of interest in Facebook in the academic literature is not balanced by an equally high level of interest in the history of Facebook [4]. There are a few journalistic company biographies which are not academic, but which are very useful sources [5]. There are no proper historical research analyses of Facebook as a whole, but there are a few historical analyses of individual Facebook features, e.g., the development of privacy settings 2005–2011 [6], or the use and perception of Facebook 2006–2008 [7], or the adoption of Facebook in the 2006 and 2012 campaigns for the U.S. Congress [8].

For Web historians, however, it is also a challenge to write the history of Facebook, especially when, as is the case here, the focus is on Facebook as a media text, where the actual Web site is pivotal. One reason for this is that both the content and the various versions of the Web site are regularly disabled [9]. It is also problematic to study Facebook as a company, because it is difficult to obtain access to first-hand sources such as minutes and other internal documents. The following discussion is therefore essentially based on the relevant first-hand sources that have been available. For one thing, screen shots etc. of Facebook found on the open Web, or HTML versions from two Web archives (the Danish Netarkivet [http://netarkivet.dk/] and the U.S. Library of Congress Web Archives [http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/lcwa/html/lcwa-home.html] respectively). Facebook is no longer available in the U.S. Internet Archive (archive.org) because Facebook asked to be removed. Incidentally, the disadvantage of screen shots from the open Web is that their origin and dating may be difficult to determine. And for another thing, the following sub-sites are used at facebook.com: Facebook’s own timeline, which covers the period from February 2004 to the present day, but which is not particularly detailed and therefore often links to the Facebook Blog (covering August 2006 to January 2012) and to Facebook’s press releases (covering February 2007 to the present day). Unless otherwise indicated, the source of the dates of Facebook pages is one of these three Web sites at facebook.com. Finally, statistics regarding the number of users have been published by Facebook. The information should therefore be viewed with some caution, as it has not been verified by other sources.

In the following section, the history of Facebook as a media text is divided into three phases: 2004–2006, 2006–2008 and 2008–2013. This division into phases correlates to changes on the Web site and to the functionalities available to users. If another point of focus had been selected for discussion, the phases would most likely have been different. The chronology of Facebook is analysed and interpreted through five recurring themes: profile and network, sharing, commercial activity, outside the Web, and software development. At the end of the paper, there is a representation of the development in the number of Facebook users and a timeline showing the main phenomena and events on the Web and on Facebook.

 

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2. 2004–2006: Who are you?

On 4 February 2004 the Web service thefacebook.com opened for students at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Thefacebook made it possible for Harvard students to create a profile page with personal information and to maintain contact with each other. The only requirements were that you had to have an e-mail address ending in harvard.edu — and you had to be more than 18 years old. Thefacebook refers to itself as “an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges and universities” [10]. Organisations and businesses were not allowed to create a profile [11]. The service was created by 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, himself a Harvard University student, who ran it from a computer in his college room. He was joined by four fellow students, and the way the founders present themselves clearly shows that this Web service was created by and for young students:

  • Mark Zuckerberg: Founder, Master and Commander, Enemy of the State
  • Eduardo Saverin: Business Stuff, Corporate Stuff, Brazilian Affairs
  • Dustin Moskovitz: No Longer Expendable Programmer, Paid Assassin
  • Andrew McCollum: Graphic Art, General Rockstar
  • Chris Hughes: The Secret Weapon [12].

Shortly after the site is launched, Thefacebook started to add other American universities to the network, first of all Stanford, Columbia and Yale (February-March), and later New York University, MIT, Cornell University and others (March). Students from other universities were invited to suggest further additions to the network on Thefacebook’s open contact page [13]. In May of the following year, Thefacebook was available to 800 American universities. From September 2005 it was also available to upper-secondary school students, and in October of the same year Facebook (the name was changed in September 2005) started opening up to educational institutions outside the U.S. So it was no surprise that Facebook grew rapidly: in April 2004, two months after the launch, there were 70,000 users, but already in December this figure increased to one million, and in December 2005 there were more than six million users.

Thefacebook was apparently addictive from the very beginning: “I have a new addiction. It is powerful. It is disturbing. It is thefacebook.com”, the editorial page of 34th Street Magazine, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported on 25 March 2004 [14].

2.1. Profiles and networks of friends

The two main elements of Thefacebook were the profile and the network. The personal profile was linked to an individual person, and it was visible to all users of Thefacebook if permitted by privacy settings [15]. It may include information such as contact information, whether you are in a relationship, your political views, your favourite music, books and films, information about where you study, and a photo. In addition, the profile page showed whether you were logged in and whether this had been done from one of the places that appear in Facebook’s database of colleges [16]. The profile must not have been created for an animal, a place, dead objects, fictitious persons, or existing persons other than yourself [17].

As the owner of a profile you were included in a large social network consisting of “the group of all users whose privacy settings allow you to view their information” [18]. But you can also choose to link to other profiles — friends — via hyperlinks. This network of friends was shown on your profile page via lists with photos, either as a list of friends or a list of classmates [19]. In addition, you could see your friends’ lists of friends [20], and when you visited somebody else’s profile you could see which friends you share.

2.2. Sharing and creating contact

Because the users of Thefacebook were socially networking with each other, the user’s profile information was available to his or her network, which was the most basic form of sharing on Thefacebook. But about six months after the launch, the sharing options were extended with the introduction of a so-called “Wall” on each profile page, where users could post messages for their friends and write on their walls. Users were now able to share messages with each other, and later on it became possible to share photos (from October 2005). When sharing, however, you had to go to your friends’ profile pages to see if they had made updates, for example written new messages on their wall or uploaded new photos to their site. Updates were thus not visible to your network unless they visited your profile page. However, it was possible to get in touch with one of your friends by “poking” them or by sending a message; and from October 2005 it was possible to “tag” a person in a photo. You did this by writing which of your friends are in the photo and linking to their profiles.

2.3. Adverts

Adverts have been part of Facebook almost from the outset. Already in the spring of 2004, banner ads began to appear on the user profile pages, and this option was typically used by businesses and educational institutions that were of potential interest to students. Adverts could be targeted for users with specific profiles on the basis of their age, gender, university, personal interests, political views etc. [21] Businesses were not allowed to create a profile page [22], nor were users of Thefacebook allowed to advertise on their profile pages or to trade with each other.

2.4. Facebook, a closed Web site for the few

There is no doubt that Facebook was a success in this first phase, judging by its growth in the number of users and users’ enthusiasm. But what made Facebook a novelty, and why was it new?

The individual textual elements and possibilities of interaction of Facebook were already available on the Internet and the Web before Facebook started using them — in many cases a very long time before. A few examples: the personal profile was used in dating Web sites, for instance kiss.com (1994) and match.com (1995) in the U.S.; networks with friends were used in SixDegrees.com (1997–2000), LiveJournal.com (1999), Friendster (2002), Linkedin (2003) and MySpace (2003) [23]; sharing is one of the Internet’s most fundamental features, including until 2004, for example, software and source code (at Bulletin Board Systems in the 1980s, Web source code in 1991, often connected to the open source movement [24], music (Napster, 1999), knowledge (newsgroups and Usenet in the 1980s, Wikipedia from 2001), and photos (Picasa, 2002, Photobucket, 2003, Flickr, 2004); messages could be written on a wall in blogs, which gain popularity in the 1990s; and finally, banner ads on the Web were introduced in 1993.

So the individual elements and functionalities of Facebook are not new. If Facebook was new in any sense, it was owing to the way it created and mixed familiar elements and types of users. What is fundamental here is that Facebook merely makes an empty structure available. It is a structure in the sense that certain options are provided in terms of semiotics and interaction (profile pages, networks of friends, sharing of messages and photos, banner ads) which allow and promote a particular use and specific users, while making it difficult for others (or excluding them altogether) [25]. For example, it is not possible to change the layout of the profile page or to add software to Facebook. But the structure is empty in the sense that the specific content to be added is not decided by Facebook. The structure must be filled in by the profile owners or advertisers with actual writing, photos, clicks, links, adverts etc.

Facebook’s empty structure makes it possible for the features made available by Facebook to interact with three types of user — Facebook as a company, profile owners and advertisers — by controlling the users as well as offering them opportunities, which all in all contributed to make the service grow.

The content which the profile owners can supply for Facebook’s structure mainly involved presenting yourself as a person and as part of a network. In other words: Who are you?

 

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3. 2006–2008: What are you doing, and when?

The transition to the second phase in the history of Facebook as media text took place in the spring of 2006, and for two reasons. For one thing, Facebook opened up to the world outside the world of education. And for another, from 2006 onwards a very large number of new features were launched which change Facebook radically.

In May 2006 Facebook stopped being a purely education-based network and opened up to employees of certain businesses, for example Apple and Microsoft [26]; and in September of the same year Facebook opened up to anyone above the age of 13. On the welcome page, Facebook was described as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you”. In addition, in 2008 Facebook became available in languages other than English. First Spanish (February); then German and French (March); and by June there were 17 Facebook languages, including Japanese, Chinese and Italian. 2006 was the year when the membership of Facebook started to explode: from 12 million users in December 2006 to 100 million less than two years later (August 2008).

Finally, Facebook grew so fast that communication with users was professionalised, as reflected in the creation of the Facebook Blog (August 2006), where many new initiatives were regularly advertised and explained, and the Customer Support Team (October 2006). Facebook’s increased international presence was also reflected in the opening of its international headquarters in Dublin (October 2008).

3.1. New profile types and network options

The profile pages linked to individuals was still the main element of Facebook. But new elements for expression and interaction were added, loosening the close bonds between Web site and individual.

In August 2006, the “Notes” application was introduced, allowing users to have a blog on their profile page, either by writing direct in “Notes” or by importing blog posts from a blog outside the Facebook universe; in June 2007, “Facebook Video” was released, allowing users to add videos to their profile page; 2008 saw the introduction of a chat feature allowing users to communicate with their friends in real time (April 2008), and a redesign of the profile pages (July 2008).

Then it became possible to create new types of Facebook pages, apart from personal profile pages. First, politicians running for mid-term elections in the U.S. in November 2006 were allowed to create profile pages on Facebook in preparation for the election. These pages were visible to all users; all candidate pages were collected in an Election 2006 box made for the occasion. Secondly, Web sites known as “Network Pages” (similar to portals) were launched in April 2007 to collect one-page compilations of information that was already available in a network (for example on users, events and statistics). These networking sites were visible to everyone in the network, with a limited edition being visible to people outside the network. Third, in November 2007 it became possible for anyone to create profile pages — not only individuals but also restaurants, businesses, organisations, single-issue advocates, musicians, film companies, you name it. What was new is that you did not become friends with the owners of these profile pages, although you did have the option to “Become a Fan”. This introduced a new way of creating networks which was based not on mutual relations between two profile owners but on a one-sided relationship, with the profile owner becoming the fan of a page. These pages were visible to all Web users, not only to users with a Facebook profile. In this way, a Facebook page actually functioned like any other Web site, but taking advantage of all the features and functionalities offered by the Facebook universe.

Finally, in September 2007, it became possible to search among all Facebook users, even if you were not their friend. And in December of the same year, lists of friends were launched with the option of dividing your friends into “Family”, “Colleagues”, or whatever you need; this was useful because Facebook had grown so people’s networks had grown too. In 2008 (May) the feature “People you may know” was launched, suggesting that you may know your friends’ friends and wish to become Facebook friends with them. These three initiatives meant that each individual network could grow fast.

3.2. New ways of sharing

Not only are there more forms of content to share, but the ways of sharing also change radically in this phase.

The most important breakthroughs were the option of making status updates (April 2006) and the features News Feed and Mini Feed (September 2006). Status updates made it possible, by means of a small writing area (“My Status”) on your own page to tell people what you were doing without having to change your more permanent profile information whenever you did something new that you wanted to tell your friends about. News Feed and Mini Feed made it easier for you to keep up with your friends’ activities in the absence of a status update. Whereas you previously had to visit your friends’ profile pages to secure new information, it was now possible to allow information to flow into your own Facebook page automatically by displaying either all network activity (News Feed) or only the activity of one particular user (Mini Feed). Status updates and feeds about what was happening, what you were doing and when became a crucial new bonding option in Facebook’s network. In particular, feeds led to an explosive growth in the radius and speed of messages. According to one of the developers of News Feed, it was not really their intention to invent a platform that could be used to support global activism, but this seemed to be what had happened: for example, posts about the creation of new groups on topics such as support for Darfur or breast cancer spread at the speed of lightning, making groups grow from zero to half a million members in just a few days (blog.facebook.com, 6 October 2006).

Another important new sharing functionality was “My Shares” (October 2006), which appears on all Web sites as small Facebook icons, making it possible to share a link to a site with your Facebook friends with a single click. Users had been able to copy a link onto their profile page or their status updates in the past, of course. But now this could be done quickly and easily by a single click. In continuation of “My Shares”, a Facebook toolbar was developed for the Firefox browser in November 2006, enabling users to keep track of their Facebook network’s activity in the browser, even when they were not on their Facebook site, as well as making it possible to share the link to a given site, if the page does not contain the small “share” icon. Finally, an import feature was introduced in 2008, allowing users to import content from other sites, such as photo sites, directly into their Mini Feed (April). With these features, Facebook extended its scope to the rest of the Web, as well as drawing content from elsewhere into the Facebook universe.

Finally, tagging was expanded to include a person who was mentioned in “Notes”, for instance, or appeared in a video.

3.3. Gifts, marketplace and viral advertising

In the early years of Facebook, banner ads were the only form of commercial activity on the site, and individual profile owners were not allowed to advertise on their profiles or trade with each other. However, this was radically changed in the second phase, when banner ads were joined by various forms of trading.

The “Gifts” feature was launched in February 2007, giving users the option of buying small Facebook ”gifts“ for their friends and thus supporting a charitable cause. Gifts consisted of small icons costing US$1 each, with all proceeds going to cancer research, for instance. They were stored in the recipient’s “gift box”, and if they were donated publicly a message appeared on the recipient’s wall.

Later in 2007 (May) “Marketplace” was launched, making it possible for Facebook users to advertise things they wanted to buy or sell, or things they needed (a job or accommodation, for instance). So “Marketplace” could be categorised as somewhere between the classified advertisements and adverts for jobs or accommodation.

Finally, a more sophisticated and integrated advertising platform was added to the simple banner advertising platform: the Facebook Ads service, which was launched in November 2007. Facebook Ads enabled companies to set up a corporate or product site on Facebook, thereby gaining direct contact with Facebook users. Users became “Fans” of these sites, enabling companies to spread their advertising messages virally through the network as well as gathering specific information about the Facebook activity of users. Companies could also be integrated with the “share” function on their own sites, so information about what Facebook users were sharing with their friends on the company site was not only added to the user’s feed but also made available to the company concerned (via the Facebook Beacon service).

3.4. Facebook outside the Web — “Facebook Mobile”

Facebook started life as a pure Web service, and this was still where its main activity was found. But during this phase Facebook also started extending its activities to another platform: mobile phones. Initially to standard mobile phones, but later to smart phones as well.

In April 2006 Facebook Mobile made it possible to communicate with Facebook by text messages, and later it became possible to upload photos as well as visiting Facebook’s site from your mobile phone (January 2007). Less than two months after the launch of the first iPhone, Facebook’s site was accessible via iPhone (August 2007). Shortly after Apple opens its App Store the following year, “Facebook for iPhone” was ready (August).

3.5. Software development for everyone

The last major new type of activity launched by Facebook in this period was the “Facebook Platform” (May 2007), which made it possible for software developers — large companies as well as amateurs — to produce programs that could be integrated with the Facebook universe: either programs on Facebook’s site, or programs which send information from Facebook to other sites or the user’s computer desktop. At the launch in May 2007, a number of examples of such programs were mentioned, including a program for book reviews (“Book Reviews”), produced by Facebook and Amazon to give Facebook users the chance to write and display book reviews on their profile page, where there was a “Buy from Amazon” button for each review. Each Facebook user decided which programs they wanted to use by adding them to their profile page.

There was a lot of interest in the initiative among software developers: the beta version “Facebook Development Platform” was available in August 2006; and in March 2007 the “Facebook Developers” group had more than 4,000 members. Just over one year later, 400,000 developers used “Platform”. “Facebook Platform” made it possible to supply a new type of content for Facebook: software programs as an intermediate layer of content between the content of profile owners and the rest of the Facebook structure.

3.6. Facebook, a powerful media machine for the flow of information

The main characteristic of the relatively short period from the spring of 2006 until the summer of 2008, which was the second phase in Facebook’s history as a media text, was strong and rapid expansion: the number of users grew; the options for expression and interaction increased; anybody could set up a profile page; Facebook expanded to mobile media and other Web services; and new types of user were seen: profile owners such as shops, companies, software developers and owners of other digital services that interact with Facebook.

It is still true to say that none of the new forms of activity on Facebook were actually new. The ICQ instant messaging program appeared in 1996; Web feeds to automatically send updated information were used in RSS (1999) and Atom (2003); micro-blogging was used in Jaiku (2006–2012) and Twitter (2006); video streaming with Real software had been possible since 1997, and video sharing starts with YouTube (2005); chat started with the Bitnet Relay (1985); trading on the Web started in the mid-1990s, with one of the first traders being amazon.com (1995); trading in closed computer networks like Prodigy started in 1984, with trading between private individuals starting with the American Craigslist (1995) and eBay (1995); it had been possible to target Web advertising and monitor user behaviour since the mid-1990s; and users were included in software development in the open source movement (for instance).

Facebook was new because of the way it combined all these forms of activity, and because of the way they were closely connected and integrated within a joint universe.

One important prerequisite making it possible to handle the rapid expansion in all variables was that Facebook was still basically an empty structure. It was true that Facebook added a wealth of new structural elements; but it was still profile owners (now including companies, software developers and owners of other digital services) who supplied content and specific relations to the structure. The way in which the structural elements were mixed seemed to be balanced constantly, enabling more and more users to co-exist and want to be part of Facebook, despite differences in their interests.

The consequence of the many new initiatives was that during this period Facebook acquired a new general function. While the question “Who are you?” was in focus in the first phase, the activities in the second phase tended to support the question “What are you doing, and when?” instead. The digital structure in which this “What are you doing when?” took place was characterised by two simultaneous but contradictory tendencies. On the one hand Facebook, which was a single site in the first phase, expanded to other Web sites, programs and platforms by supplying them with content (via “Platform”, toolbar, “Mobile” and Apps, for instance). But on the other hand, Facebook drew an increasing proportion of its content from the outside world (via “Notes”, “My Share”, toolbar, “Import” and “Ads”). In other words, Facebook’s empty structure was based on a two-way transfer of information. When this two-way transfer of information across the Facebook interface was combined and integrated with status updates and feeds (which were basically internal mechanisms), the large radius and high speed of these feeds supplemented the way the transfer was achieved. The result was that in general terms Facebook worked like a powerful junction or point of focus, with a great deal of the activity that took place on the Web outside Facebook flowed through the Facebook universe in one form or another in an exponential process: the content of other sites passing through Facebook was redistributed to other parts of the Web, from where it was retrieved by Facebook and combined with other content, and so on ad infinitum. The limits to the Facebook site became porous, and the site became a rapidly expanding machine for the flow of information.

 

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4. 2008–2013: Where are you?

By contrast with the rapid expansion of new functionalities during the second phase, there were far fewer new initiatives during the third phase. Even so, Facebook continued to expand at even greater speed than before: from 150 million users in January 2009 to more than 500 million in July 2010. The one billion mark was passed on 14 September 2012. Facebook was now used by one-seventh of the world’s population, and by just under 50 percent of everyone with an Internet connection. From 2009 onwards Facebook was also available in over 70 different languages, including Latin, and had a presence on all continents, even Antarctica. The structure of Facebook as a company also changed when it entered the stock market (NASDAQ) on 18 May 2012. The Facebook phenomenon really penetrated many aspects of culture: for instance, the verb “to unfriend” was chosen as the “word of the year” in the New Oxford American Dictionary (November 2009), and Mark Zuckerberg was elected “Person of the Year” by Time in December 2010. The reason given for choosing Zuckerberg was that “We have entered the Facebook age, and Mark Zuckerberg is the man who brought us here”. And finally, the creation of Facebook was portrayed in the film The Social Network, which opened in October 2010 (directed by David Fincher).

4.1. Profiles and networks of friends

In the third phase there were countless changes in layout, expansions, alterations and changes in the profile pages as well as the many expression/interaction elements and page types that were present in previous phases. New elements were added as well.

First of all, various forms of live streaming were added to video as a mode of expression. Nearly 19 million viewers watched the first live video streaming on Facebook in January 2009: the inauguration of the newly elected U.S. President, Barack Obama (in collaboration with CNN), with continuous friend comments next to the live image. In August 2010 Facebook Live, Facebook’s own live streaming “television” service, opened with guests being invited to a studio that broadcasted at specific times. An interpersonal video chat also became available with the service “Facebook Video Calling” in collaboration with Skype (July 2011).

Secondly, Facebook’s users had the opportunity to review their Facebook past in an entirely new way. “Timeline”, launched in the U.S. at the end of 2011 and to the rest of the world in January 2012, made it possible to go right back to the creation of a profile, from where you could jump to any later activities. This feature expanded the primarily spatial organisation of elements in a “local” timeline (connected to feed, photo upload, etc.) by adding the option of a chronological system which was global for the entire Facebook activity of the profile owner concerned.

Thirdly, a new type of page was launched in April 2010 known as “Community Pages”, which were pages based on a topic, interest or activity (“Cooking”, for instance). This type of page was collective in the sense that it was owned by everyone who used it — not by an individual, company, organisation or any other clearly defined group. Wikipedia was used as the model, so the system started with information retrieved from there.

4.2. “Likes” and Facebook Connect

The types of sharing that have characterised Facebook in the past continued — and were expanded in various ways. The traffic in and out of the Facebook universe was constantly being refined and new initiatives were added. For instance, it became possible to import friends from an e-mail or Instant Messaging account to Facebook, and to write on Twitter via Facebook (although not from personal profiles, August 2009), a small counter was added to the Facebook “Share” buttons which were found on countless sites showing the number of times the site in question had been shared (October 2009), and Spotify was linked to Facebook (July 2011). In particular, a new, small button (“Like”) was added to the Facebook portfolio of share mechanisms in February 2009, making it possible for users to tell their network what they liked quickly and easily. At first this was only available on Facebook’s own pages; but from April 2010 it was available on sites outside Facebook, and it quickly became popular. One year after the launch, more than 10,000 sites a day were adding the “Like” button to their pages. “Like” was clearly an extension of the function known as “Share”.

But the most fundamental new initiative was “Facebook Connect”, which was launched in December 2008 having been available to developers since August that same year. The distinctive feature of “Facebook Connect” was that it enabled Facebook users to take their profiles and all the information about activities, interests, favourite films, books, etc. with them and log in using their Facebook user name and password to any site outside Facebook that took part in the service. These sites then had the opportunity to customise and personalise their site for the profile which logged on. It also worked the other way around: when you were logged onto another service with “Facebook Connect”, the information about your activities on this service could be sent back to the Facebook universe. This means that “Facebook Connect” functioned in two ways. First of all, it worked as a general login to a wide variety of Web services, so users did not need to create an account with their user name and password. Secondly, it was yet another element that extended Facebook beyond the site itself, but in such a way that the users alone elected to take their entire Facebook identity with them to another site with constant feedback to Facebook. The popularity of “Facebook Connect” was demonstrated by the fact that it was available on more than 80,000 sites one year after the launch.

“Facebook Connect” made it possible to extend the range of sites from which you could access Facebook. For example, in April 2009 it became possible to see and write in Facebook via another site or directly via a program on the computer desktop without using a browser, either with Facebook alone in the window or in applications which combine a number of information flows, e.g., from Twitter. From August onwards you could share photos from Nintendo game consoles by using “Facebook Connect”. From November onwards you could play Xbox games with your Facebook friends as well as using Xbox and the television screen to access Facebook. This development turned Facebook into more than just a Web service.

4.3. “Gifts” shut down and reopened, Facebook Credits and Deals

As mentioned earlier, from February 2007 onwards it was possible to make donations to specific charities by buying small Facebook “gifts” for your friends through the service “Gifts”. In the third phase “Gifts” was expanded, shut down and reopened in a new form. First of all, the range of “Gifts” was expanded to include not only charity gifts but also real gifts such as e-cards, music in the form of MP3 files, gift icons with merchandise from favourite sports teams, and gifts in the physical world (October 2009). Then “Gifts” was shut down less than a year after this expansion, being one of the few times that a Facebook activity was ever removed (August 2010). “Gifts” was reborn two years later (October 2012), but now with real gifts you ordered from one of the companies connected to the service, after which the recipient received a message with a picture of the gift. Alternatively, they could gain access to these gifts on the Internet (TV series or music, for instance). But it was still possible to make donations to charities.

As an offshoot of the activities in “Gifts”, Facebook created its own “virtual currency”. Initially this was called “Gift Credits”, and later on “Facebook Credits”. You purchased “Facebook Credits” with your credit card (or PayPal, from February 2010), using them to buy gifts such as goods or game elements in the Facebook universe. From September 2010, it was also possible to buy vouchers or credit cards issued for fixed amounts to use in the Facebook universe.

The most recent commercial initiative was “Deals”, which made it possible for shops near you to offer cheap products, free merchandise or the like when you logged onto their Facebook profile (November 2010, initially only in the U.S., but from January 2011 it became international). This service was based on the ability of mobile media to identify your location.

4.4. Mobile growth and “Places”

The presence of Facebook in mobile phones, starting in the second phase, continued to expand full force after 2008. In addition to regular updates and minor adjustments, Facebook’s presence in mobile media was characterised by the fact that new opportunities created by the ongoing development of mobile phones were exploited in close collaboration with features already available on Facebook’s site. You could secure status updates in the form of text messages from June 2009, you could chat using mobile media from February 2010, you could watch Facebook videos on an iPhone from June 2010, and “Facebook Camera” made it possible to take photos that could be stored in the Facebook universe right away (May 2012). Finally, Facebook was available on the latest mobile platform, the iPad (October 2011). These mobile services quickly became very popular. The number of users accessing Facebook on their mobile phones grew from 20 million in January 2009 to 100 million in February 2010. During the same period, Facebook had 150 million and approx. 350 million users respectively, so the increase was significant.

The most important breakthrough in relation to mobile media, however, was not only that Facebook was becoming increasingly mobile but that the geo-localisation option of mobile units was connected to features that are already part of Facebook. From September 2009 you could see which of your friends were nearby, and “Facebook Places” was launched in August 2010, connecting Facebook users to their location. “Checking in” made it possible to share information about where you were and who you were with — as well as finding out which of your friends were nearby. You could also go back in time to see if you or any of your friends had been in the same location previously. “Places” was basically like the location function from 2004, but much more flexible because the location was determined by your mobile phone and not the physical location of the computer.

4.5. Software development

Since Facebook gave software developers the opportunity to create programs that could be integrated with the Facebook universe in May 2007, thousands of small programs had been developed (for instance, there were 52,000 programs on “Facebook Platform” in May 2009). In the wake of this great popularity, a very natural need for a clear directory of programs arose. This resulted in the launch of an “Application Directory” in May 2009, where you could find a list of all the programs developed for Facebook’s site and other sites and programs outside the Web, as well as mobile media.

4.6. Facebook, a decentralised media machine for the flow of information

During the previous phase from 2006 to 2008, Facebook appeared to have found a form that required very few changes. As a result, the third phase of Facebook’s history was generally characterised by consolidation and expansion of the existing framework, with very few new initiatives. The consolidation involved adapting, developing, adjusting, merging and moving existing functions of a very large proportion of the activities on the Facebook site. The expansion involved not only users (the number of users increased more than six fold), but also the spread of Internet services and platforms outside the Facebook site: other sites, programs on the computer desktop, mobile platforms and gaming consoles. In this respect, two of the most important new initiatives — “Facebook Connect” as well as the services connected to the geo-location potential of mobile media — played a decisive role, as they both made it possible in various ways to take Facebook with you.

As was the case in the two previous phases, the new types of activity that Facebook launched during this phase were already familiar before Facebook decided to use them. Single sign-on had been used by Microsoft Passport (1999), location-based services had been used since 1999, and the connection between location-based network services, mobile media and check-in had been used by Foursquare (2009).

However, as was the case in the past, the crucial thing was that Facebook was successful in integrating and combining these activities in the Facebook universe in a way that was both relevant and applicable to all types of Facebook users. All of this was still based on Facebook as an empty structure. Although Facebook as a company changed and increased the number of structured elements, users were still the ones that provided content and social relations.

As a consequence of Facebook’s way of organising the structured elements during this period, the previous main functions — connected to the questions “Who are you?” and “What are you doing when?” — were still supported, but they were expanded to include yet another main function, connected to the question: “Where are you?” Or to be more precise: “Where are you in the digital universe with your Facebook profile?” and “Where are you in the physical world with your mobile device?” — supported by “Facebook Connect” and “Places” respectively.

The digital structure in which Facebook users now moved was characterised by the fact that it was easier to cross the porous borders of the Facebook site that existed in the second phase. In the second phase the Facebook site still functioned to a large extent as the central unit, despite the flow of content across its borders. During the third phase, however, Facebook as a whole was developing into a decentralised media machine for the flow of semiotic content that was located anywhere on the Internet, and whose most significant coherence-generating feature was the Facebook name and logo [27].

 

++++++++++

5. The development of Facebook 2004–2013

Facebook’s history from 2004 until the beginning of 2013 was characterised by both continuity and change.

Generally speaking, two types of continuity were evident during the entire period. First of all, Facebook as a company provided a digital space that structures the possible interaction of its users — but was in other respects an empty space whose content was provided by others in the form of text, pictures, sound, software and social relations in the form of networks. Secondly, Facebook was always accumulating and expanding, with more of everything constantly being added within the areas of Facebook’s universe, and new areas appearing while hardly anything ever disappeared.

The variation was provided by changes in the specific forms assumed by the empty structure, accumulation and expansion respectively. Facebook’s structures supported answers to more and more general questions: “Who are you?” was first supplemented with “What are you doing, and when?” and later with “Where are you?” (the distinction between these questions was borrowed from the title of a blog post on blog.facebook.com, 18 August 2010). Facebook was spreading geographically. The number of users and the possible social connections between them grew, from students with a Harvard e-mail address to a broad range of very different users. This demonstrates that Facebook involved far more than a number of individuals with profiles. The number of possible functionalities, interaction options and digital presences was growing. The information complexity found in the individual profiles, connections and content flow of Facebook’s network was growing. The seamless integration and flexibility between the many elements in and outside the Facebook universe were growing. All these different types of structuring and expansion were supported and combined in a closed site, and later in a centralised media machine for the flow of semiotic content. Finally, this machine became a decentralised media mechanism for the flow of semiotic content with the constant expansion and retrieval mechanisms of Facebook extending to the entire Web, on any digital device and at any time and any place.

 

++++++++++

6. Facebook in a Web-historical perspective

This section asks whether the empty structure, accumulation and expansion which characterised the history of Facebook in the period 2004–2013 were expressions of a more general development of the Internet and the Web. In other words, this part of the paper questions whether there was a general pattern behind Facebook’s development as a media text, and if so whether this can help to explain how Facebook managed to remain significant and continue to grow — unlike previous Web services of a similar nature. In order to find a possible answer, we need to view Facebook’s modus operandi in the overall history of the Internet.

As each of the three phases has shown, Facebook — based on its empty structure — was able to absorb and combine existing software or usage types of the Web. This could indicate that the more adaptable and flexible a structure is, the greater the possibility of survival.

6.1. From the Internet to the Web

The interesting thing is that this particular mechanism occurred at a crucial time in the short history of the Internet: at the point in time when the specific software system today seen as “the Internet” — the World Wide Web (WWW) — was invented [28]. In August 1991, a British software developer employed at CERN in Switzerland, Tim Berners-Lee, published the results of several years of programming in the newsgroup alt.hypertext with the title “WorldWideWeb — Executive Summary”, after which the source code was accessible to anyone interested in using it or developing it. The WWW was different because it combined two phenomena that had been separate in the past: hypertext programs that made it possible to jump from one part of a text to anywhere in the same text, which had been used in computers since the 1980s; and the option of downloading files from other computers via a computer network. Berners-Lee’s combination of these two phenomena meant that the WWW could be used to jump from one location in a text on one computer to any location in a text on any computer connected to the computer network. The fundamental functionality which made jumping from one computer text to another possible was called the hyperlink. The notion of a hyperlink seems obvious today. At the beginning of the 1990s it was revolutionary, especially when compared to the Internet before the WWW.

The Internet before the Web consisted roughly of a wide variety of different software systems, each made with a specific purpose: Bitnet Relay or Internet Relay Chat were used for chatting; e-mail programs for electronic mail; newsgroups and e-mail lists for sharing knowledge and discussing anything at all; special programs were used for access to information databases; the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) was used to transfer files; and Gopher, a completely new phenomenon at the beginning of the 1990s, used a hierarchical menu structure to download files from other computers as well as accessing and searching in other services. Gopher was the biggest competitor to the WWW. These programs often worked in various types of partially closed networks and were not able (or intended) to communicate with each other. For example, when using the “poor man’s Internet” — the very widespread Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) of the late 1980s — you had to call each BBS via a modem where you could have an e-mail account or participate in discussions. If you wanted to visit another BBS, you needed to close one connection and call again, which today would be the equivalent of opening a new Internet connection each time you wanted to go to another site. From the user’s point of view, there were a myriad of different software types and ways to access the network with their own specific user and communicative situations.

The WWW was added to the computer network environment in 1991, and it quickly became widespread — from 130 sites in June 1993 to 23,500 two years later [29]. At the same time, it slowly began to absorb the functions that each of the other software systems possessed: free Web mail became widespread from the mid-1990s, discussion forums became part of the weblogs, the old news groups were available on the WWW (groups.google.com), and Web browsers started to support functions such as chat and access to FTP servers. There were of course many other important factors involved in the popularity of the WWW, such as the opening of the Internet to commercial activity (1992), which matched the form of the WWW, the emergence of the graphical browser Mosaic (1993), Web search engines (from 1995), and the fact that the Web would eventually handle both sound and images.

6.2. The Web and Facebook — similar patterns?

All in all, the strength of the WWW is that it offered a very flexible framework which made it possible to combine the communicative and social functions which were previously assigned to each specific type of software or network in the same “box”, enabling them to seamlessly communicate with each other via hyperlinks. This possibility was a big advantage from the user’s point of view, so the trend increased exponentially: the more activity the WWW permitted, and the more functions working together, more users joined, increasing activity.

A similar pattern seemed to be an important driving force in the development of Facebook as a media text. Just as the WWW attracted and absorbed previously separate software types in other formats, Facebook absorbed or integrated software types that were already available on the Web as separate services. The effect of the Web on previous types of software outside the Web was matched by the effect of Facebook on contemporary software types on the Web. In this sense, Facebook is almost as diverse as the Web — in terms of software types, usability and users — so it functions like a mini-version of the Web where you can stay in the same program, like a Web2 instead of a Web 2.0.

When comparing Facebook to the Internet’s history, one fact becomes clear: the better a software system is at striking a balance between being open and flexible on the one hand and prescriptive and structural on the other, the greater the chance is of outperforming or absorbing, gathering and integrating other software systems and thus growing and becoming the de facto standard. It should be noted, however, that there are differences between the development of the WWW and Facebook. First of all, Facebook was created in the Web, meaning that it could be integrated seamlessly with sites outside Facebook, whereas the WWW had to absorb software types from which it differed. Secondly, the Web services absorbed or integrated in Facebook do not necessarily disappear, as was the case with the WWW and the previous software systems. In fact, in many cases Facebook actually attracts users. And lastly, a big difference was that Berners-Lee and CERN chose not to commercialise the Web but instead released the source code to the Internet community.

6.3. Social media and the necessity of history

Facebook is often referred to as a social medium or social networking site [30], often with the implication that it was a new phenomenon. But the need for sociality and networking did not arise with the Internet, the Web or Facebook. If anything, that need is an integral part of human life. But through history this need has been reflected in a variety of media technologies, from spoken and written language, to print, film, radio and television to the Internet and other digital media, each creating their own communicative space with different limitations and opportunities.

So an understanding of history teaches us that the need for sociality and networking in itself is not a new phenomenon. However, the way in which this need is handled is subject to a number of transformations or changes — linked to the technologies used to fulfil it — with some features being passed on from one media type to the next and others disappearing. The first profiles were personal ads in newspapers in the nineteenth century; pen pals and radio amateurs created networks of friends over long distances about decades ago; and for many years newspaper columns in family weeklies created a sense of community between readers. Each of these old forms of contact contributed to the forms of sociality and networking on the Internet, the Web and Facebook. Facebook did not start from scratch — what modern networks do is to combine, transform and develop old forms of contact in new ways. The Web and Facebook do this within a media network that (unlike the Internet before the Web) promotes the flexible and seamless integration of these needs within the same software system based on one key feature: the physical manifestation of a relation in the form of a hyperlink.

So as well as providing knowledge of past events, history is also an important voice in any attempt to explain the world today — and perhaps the future as well. The ability to identify recurrent patterns and development mechanisms in history may prove to be of great importance when decisions have to be made today: what we should be doing (or not doing) as a society or organisation, or in connection with the technological development and innovation of companies. The events of the past rarely repeat themselves, but the mechanisms behind them might do so. So studying the past is an important aspect of studying the present.

Finally, history is also important in the short term when we study Facebook. Given the fact that Facebook developed so fast in a relatively short period of time, it is necessary to have in-depth knowledge of Facebook’s features as a media text at the specific point in time that you are considering. For instance, in order to apply academic analyses from 2006 to topics such as user handling of access to their profile pages, Facebook profiles as self-representations, or the use of Facebook in connection with the American mid-term election [31], the historical context of these analyses must be taken into account to ensure that they are not interpreted based on the present-day version of Facebook. These analyses were produced at a point of time in Facebook’s history when there were limited options for profiles and networking and no status updates, News Feeds, Facebook Connect or apps for mobile media. This also means that knowledge of Facebook’s history is necessary if you want to compare analyses from different periods. In other words, it is important to be aware of the changes that Facebook has undergone in the media and text environment in which each of its functions and interaction forms must be understood. For the same reason, any analysis of Facebook should be followed by a brief description of the features of Facebook at the time in question. Facebook is not just Facebook — Facebook is always Facebook at a specific point in time, such as in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Which is why it is so important to know about the history of Facebook. End of article

 

About the author

Niels Brügger is Associate Professor, Head of the Centre for Internet Studies, and of NetLab, Aarhus University, Denmark. His research interest is Web historiography, and within this field he has published monographs, a number of edited books, articles, and chapters in edited volumes. Recent books are Web history (editor; Peter Lang, 2010) and Histories of public service broadcasters on the Web (co-editor with Maureen Burns; Peter Lang, 2012).
Web: http://imv.au.dk/~nb.
E-mail: nb [at] dac [dot] au [dot] dk

 

Acknowledgements

This paper was initially published in a Danish edited volume Facebook: Fra socialt netværk til metamedie (Copenhagen: Samfundslitteratur, 2013). I would like to thank the editors of this volume Jakob Linaa Jensen and Jesper Tække for having invited me to write the article. The present version has been revised and changed.

 

Notes

1. In June 2007 there were 9,000 Danish Facebook users, cf., Larsen, 2007, p. 12.

2. Out of a population of app. 5.5 million, cf., internetworldstats.com.

3. The media/text-theoretical basis of this approach is Brügger, 2009, p. 115–132.

4. For an overview of the academic literature about Facebook see Wilson, et al., 2012, and Caers, et al., 2013.

5. Lacy, 2008; Kirkpatrick, 2011.

6. Stutzman, et al., 2012.

7. Lampe, et al., 2008.

8. Gulati and Williams, 2013.

9. For deliberations on Web archiving, see Brügger, 2011.

10. Coed Staff, 2009, FAQ.

11. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, Terms of use.

12. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, About.

13. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, FAQ.

14. Editor, 2004.

15. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, FAQ.

16. Saverin, 2012.

17. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, Terms of use.

18. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, FAQ.

19. Saverin, 2012.

20. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, Welcome.

21. Saverin, 2012.

22. Coed Staff, 2009, Facebook, Terms of use.

23. boyd and Ellison, 2007.

24. Poole, 2005, pp. 195–203.

25. Cf., also Bucher, 2013, about the software’s structural conditioning of online friendship on Facebook.

26. boyd and Ellison, 2007.

27. Obviously, the decentralisation in terms of what is available to the user does not necessarily correspond to a decentralisation regarding neither technology nor ownership, where Facebook may be very centralised.

28. For overviews of the history of the Internet and the Web in the early 1990s, see Abbate, 1999; Anderson, 2005; Aspray and Ceruzzi, 2008; Banks, 2008; Barnet, 2013; Berners-Lee, 1999; Brügger, 2010; Gillies and Cailliau, 2000; Naughton, 2002; Poole, 2005; Wolinsky, 1999.

29. Gray, 1996.

30. E.g., boyd and Ellison, 2007.

31. Acquisti and Gross, 2006; Gosling, et al., 2007; Williams and Gulati, 2007.

 

References

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Sources

Web sites on facebook.com, blog.facebook.com, newsroom.fb.com/News and www.facebook.com/facebook, all sites accessed 22 January 2013.

Web archives

The public American Library of Congress Web Archives, where Facebook material is archived in two special collections:
The Election 2006 Web Archive, containing two versions from July and August 2006 respectively, http://webarchive.loc.gov/lcwa0017/*/http://www.facebook.com
The Election 2008 Web Archive, containing countless versions from January to November 2008, http://webarchive.loc.gov/lcwa0008/*/http://www.facebook.com

The Danish Net Archive (netarkivet.dk), containing versions from 2006 onwards. This archive is only open to researchers.

Other material

Coed Staff, 2009. “Facebook circa 2004: wtf?” coedmagazine.com (5 June), at http://coedmagazine.com/2009/06/05/facebook-circa-2004-wtf-screenshots, accessed 22 January 2013.

Editor, 2004. “From the editor,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 34th Street Magazine (25 March), at http://www.34st.com/, accessed 22 January 2013.

Matthew Gray, 1996. “Growth and usage of the Web and the Internet,” at http://www.mit.edu/people/mkgray/net, accessed 22 February 2013.

Internet world stats, at internetworldstats.com, accessed 22 February 2013.

Poul F. Larsen, 2007. “Fuld fart frem for Facebook,” Jyllands-Posten, Erhverv og Økonomi (4 July), at http://www.jyllands-posten.dk/protected/premium/erhverv/ECE3888071/Fuld+fart+frem+for+Facebook/, accessed 30 April 2015.

Eduardo Saverin, 2004. “Media kit. Spring 2004,” In: Jack Marshall, 2012. “How Eduardo Saverin sold Facebook ads in 2004,” Digiday (20 August), at http://www.digiday.com/platforms/how-eduardo-saverin-sold-facebook-ads-in-2004, accessed January 2013.

 

Appendix

User development and timeline
Development in the number of Facebook users

 

Development in the number of Facebook users
 
Figure 1: Development in the number of Facebook users (in millions). The dotted lines mark the phase transitions mentioned in this article.
Source: Figures from blog.facebook.com, newsroom.fb.com/News and www.facebook.com/facebook (January 2013).

 

Timeline

Timeline of main events and phenomena on the Web and mobile platforms (left) and on Facebook (right). The dotted lines mark the phase transitions mentioned in this article.

 

Timeline
Timeline
Timeline
 
Figure 2: Timeline of main events and phenomena on the Web and mobile platforms (left) and on Facebook (right). The dotted lines mark the phase transitions mentioned in this article.
 
Note: PDF version of image available here.

 

 


Editorial history

Received 20 June 2014; accepted 29 April 2015.


Creative Commons License
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

A brief history of Facebook as a media text: The development of an empty structure
by Niels Brügger.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 5 - 4 May 2015
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5423/4466
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i5.5423





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