If we are to believe the narrative set forth in David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” Mark Zuckerberg’s TheFacebook.com became a worldwide phenomenon by breaking hearts, ending friendships, and listening to nefarious figures. Was that the whole truth? As good a storyteller as Fincher is, “The Social Network” was a truncated and somewhat exaggerated version of how Zuckerberg went from hacking into the emails of Harvard journalists to running a website with a user base of more than 2.3 billion.

In a time where we gathered on MySpace to share our favorite music and our deepest thoughts, Zuckerberg came in with a more efficient means of connecting the world, and it all started with a derogatory website named Facesmash.

From Facemash to Facebook

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On October 28, 2003, Mark Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard, wrote the code for Facemash. The predecessor to Facebook wasn’t quite the family-friendly affair it is today and offered a "Hot or Not" rating system for Harvard students. According to Zuckerberg, Facemash “was a prank website,” though it drew attention from Harvard for “breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy.”

As degrading as Facemash was, its success became the launching point for TheFacebook, which launched on February 4, 2004. Within six months, Zuckerberg received his first investment, a cash injection of $500,000 from entrepreneur and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. At this time, Harvard was no longer Zuckerberg’s focus. He dropped out, moved to Palo Alto, California, and opened the headquarters of Facebook, Inc.

The investment and the move proved fruitful: By December 2004, TheFacebook drew in just under 1 million active users. At about the same time, there was another powerhouse in the social media circuit that started to learn a valuable lesson.

The fall of MySpace

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For TheFacebook to rise, its major competitor needed to fall from grace. By 2005, social media network MySpace reached 25 million users and had just been sold to News Corp., a move that should have solidified a long lifespan. Within a year, it soared to 100 million users and left Google in the dust as the most visited website in the United States, but, according to “Writing on the Wall” author Tom Standage, News Corp. was making a critical error. “... [It] seemed more interested in maximizing advertising revenue than in fixing or improving the site’s underlying technology.”

It took TheFacebook, then known as just Facebook, only four years to surpass MySpace’s extensive user base. Part of the network’s success relied heavily on watching current social media outlets like MySpace, LiveJournal, and Friendster make mistakes that led to their diminished popularity.

Today, MySpace is an entertainment network, Friendster is dead, and LiveJournal was sold off to a Russian media company, all while Facebook is left thriving on its billions of users. In a way, it was all a matter of timing, but the ingenuity of Zuckerberg and his team, which included former Napster president Sean Parker, guaranteed the platform’s success.

Controlling growth for prolonged success

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As nice as it is for a business to find immediate success, Facebook’s growth required patience. To avoid succumbing to the same technical problems as its bigger competitors, the hive mind of Facebook let the site grow slowly. The reliable platform not only became a safe space for users left uncomfortable by MySpace’s less-regulated format, but it also started to draw the attention of engineers who could help Facebook focus on new technologies and social networking tools.

While some of the technologies developed likely had a hand in the website’s success, many of the ideas were lifted from another internet giant — Google. Much like Facebook was doing, Google had entered the search provider race later in the game but still surpassed Yahoo!, AltaVista, Ask Jeeves, and AOL. The key to success, which Facebook elaborated on, was keeping up with the technology and advancing it.

For Facebook, however, there was one more component to its thriving model — protecting its user base.

In an age of data mining

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Thanks to the Internet, private information is now an oxymoron. Social security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and birthdays are up for grabs across multiple websites thanks to data mining user information. While Zuckerberg found himself on the wrong end of a Congressional hearing in 2018 for questionable data practices, Facebook has largely remained open to its users.

After changing its terms of use in 2009 to state all user content would remain with Facebook even after account deletion, users spoke out and caught the attention of Zuckerberg. To appease the people that kept Facebook alive, he opted to return the terms to their original form, but the network’s founder took things a step further. He put the future of Facebook in the hands of its 200 million users and allowed a vote over how to proceed about the change in the terms of service.

Facebook’s meteoric rise

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Zuckerberg’s grasp of public relations was always a strong point for Facebook. By allowing users to decide the fate of their privacy, it further showcased how the founder of the modern social network went from degrading Harvard students to being worth $74 billion.