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The historic rise of Facebook in photos from a Harvard dorm room to one of the world's biggest companies

Sarah Jackson   

The historic rise of Facebook in photos — from a Harvard dorm room to one of the world's biggest companies
Facebook, helmed by Mark Zuckerberg, turned 20 this year. Here's a look at where it's been and where it's headed.BI

Facebook is a classic Silicon Valley success story: It's gone from an idea hatched in a Harvard dorm to one of the most powerful and influential companies in the world.

Mark Zuckerberg, its CEO and cofounder, has an estimated net worth of $170 billion. These days, Meta has more than 2 billion people using its social network monthly and is one of the world's biggest companies.

Here's the story behind Facebook's insane rise from February 2004 through to this year, its 20th anniversary:

Facebook's origin story is famous by now.

Facebook
Harvard University's Kirkland House is seen on October 10, 2003 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.      William B. Plowman/Getty Images

The website was created in Mark Zuckerberg's room in Harvard's Kirkland House dorm.

In 2003, Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard, built a website called Facemash.

In 2003, Zuckerberg, then a sophomore at Harvard, built a website called Facemash.
A young Mark Zuckerberg in 2004.      Rick Friedman

"Facemash" was a Hot or Not-style site. Zuckerberg used pictures of his classmates that he hacked from the school administration's dormitory ID files. The site got 22,000 pageviews from 450 people in the first four hours it was up.

A few days later, Harvard ordered it to be taken down, citing copyright and security concerns. Zuckerberg faced disciplinary action from Harvard but was allowed to stay at the school.

Undeterred by the Facemash debacle, Zuckerberg launched "Thefacebook" on February 4, 2004.

Undeterred by the Facemash debacle, Zuckerberg launched "Thefacebook" on February 4, 2004.
Thefacebook would become simply Facebook later.      Facebook

The logo featured Al Pacino's face constructed out of zeros and ones.

Six days after the launch, three Harvard seniors claimed Zuckerberg reneged on an agreement to build a site for them and used their ideas to create what eventually became Facebook.

Six days after the launch, three Harvard seniors claimed Zuckerberg reneged on an agreement to build a site for them and used their ideas to create what eventually became Facebook.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, along with fellow Harvard student Divya Narendra, claimed Zuckerberg agreed to work on a website for them before using their ideas to create Thefacebook.      REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Divya Narendra and twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss claimed Zuckerberg had agreed to build a website called HarvardConnection.com for them before abandoning them to create his own site. They eventually filed a lawsuit that was settled in 2008.

As part of the settlement, they received 1.2 million Facebook shares. Those shares were worth $300 million when Facebook had its IPO.

Within a month, half of Harvard's students were members of Thefacebook.

Within a month, half of Harvard
Thefacebook quickly grew in popularity on Harvard's campus.      Scott Eisen

By March 2004, Thefacebook had expanded to other prestigious universities, including Yale, Columbia, and Stanford. Zuckerberg brought in fellow Harvard students Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, and Chris Hughes as cofounders to help manage the site's growth and build it into a business.

At this point, Zuckerberg was still running Facebook out of his dorm room, but it was time to get serious.

At this point, Zuckerberg was still running Facebook out of his dorm room, but it was time to get serious.
Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook's founding.      @zuck via Threads

In 2004, he dropped out of Harvard to focus on it full-time.

In 2004, Facebook brought on its first president.

In 2004, Facebook brought on its first president.
Sean Parker cofounded Napster before joining Facebook.      Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Zuckerberg hired Napster cofounder Sean Parker for the role.

In June 2004, Facebook set up shop in a tiny office in downtown Palo Alto, California.

In June 2004, Facebook set up shop in a tiny office in downtown Palo Alto, California.
Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz is seen here doing a keg stand in Facebook's first office.      YouTube

Back then, the company was known for being as much a party hub as it was a serious startup.

This screenshot was taken from "Now Entering: a Millennial Generation," a 2008 documentary.

The same month it moved into its Palo Alto office, Facebook got its first outside funding.

The same month it moved into its Palo Alto office, Facebook got its first outside funding.
Peter Thiel (left) and Elon Musk (right) pose for a 1999 story about their company PayPal.      AP

The $500,000 investment came from PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel. Thiel has since become a prominent venture capitalist and political donor.

By this point, Facebook was starting its rapid ascent toward cultural superstardom.

By this point, Facebook was starting its rapid ascent toward cultural superstardom.
The early Facebook team pushes the button to launch the News Feed into the site.      Mark Zuckerberg

In May 2005, Facebook raised $13.7 million in funding. In 2006, Facebook created its News Feed, a breakthrough and core feature of the site that gave people a real-time stream of what their friends were doing.

In late 2007, Zuckerberg met a Google executive named Sheryl Sandberg at a Christmas party.

In late 2007, Zuckerberg met a Google executive named Sheryl Sandberg at a Christmas party.
Sandberg became Facebook's COO in 2008.      Justin Sullivan/Getty

At the time, Sandberg was considering taking a new position with The Washington Post. But after meeting her, Zuckerberg decided Facebook needed a chief operating officer, and managed to persuade her to come aboard in early 2008.

Sandberg's hiring was prescient: Facebook was already growing quickly, but the rise of the smartphone brought with it many more users.

In 2009, Facebook moved into a slightly larger Palo Alto office in the Stanford Research Park.

In 2009, Facebook moved into a slightly larger Palo Alto office in the Stanford Research Park.
Stanford Research Park was created in the 1950s through a partnership between Stanford University, pictured here, and the City of Palo Alto.      David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images)

The move came as Facebook's site was experiencing explosive growth. By late 2010, it hit a trillion page views a month.

That year, Facebook would introduce one of the most defining features of the platform and our broader social media landscape.

That year, Facebook would introduce one of the most defining features of the platform and our broader social media landscape.
The like button revolutionized the attention economy.      Screenshot

That's right, we're talking about the "like" button.

The Stanford Research Park space wouldn't hold Facebook for long. In 2011, the social network moved again.

The Stanford Research Park space wouldn
Zuckerberg famously espoused a "move fast and break things" mantra.      Daniel Goodman/Business Insider

This time it set up shop in a corporate campus once occupied by Sun Microsystems, which had fallen from grace and been acquired by Oracle.

Facebook named the campus' main thoroughfare "Hacker Way," referring to Zuckerberg's famous "move fast and break things" philosophy of the same name.

By this point, Facebook was showing that its social network could play a major role in global politics.

By this point, Facebook was showing that its social network could play a major role in global politics.
Egyptian youth Mariam Aboghazi, 20, updates a Facebook page with information about protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on February 7, 2011.      Ed Ou

The site's influence was highlighted by the Egyptian revolution of 2011. That uprising was largely organized via Facebook and other social-networking sites.

Zuckerberg himself was also getting more involved in the political scene.

Zuckerberg himself was also getting more involved in the political scene.
Mark Zuckerberg and former president Barack Obama.      Facebook

Among his first public political actions was to speak to world leaders in support of spreading internet access all over the globe.

The social network was becoming unstoppable.

The social network was becoming unstoppable.
Facebook went public in 2012.      AP

Facebook had its historic $5 billion initial public offering on May 18, 2012.

Over the years, the company has snapped up a bunch of hot startups, including photo-sharing hit Instagram.

Over the years, the company has snapped up a bunch of hot startups, including photo-sharing hit Instagram.
Facebook bought Instagram in 2012.      Anadolu

Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012. The photo-sharing app now has more than 2 billion users.

The purchase was a demonstration of how, despite its rise, Facebook has always been on the lookout for the next startup that threatened to disrupt it.

It also bought virtual-reality headset maker Oculus.

It also bought virtual-reality headset maker Oculus.
Someone uses an Oculus Rift headset during the E3 2016 gaming conference.      Getty

And it purchased mobile-messaging company WhatsApp — for $19 billion.

And it purchased mobile-messaging company WhatsApp — for $19 billion.
WhatsApp mobile app displayed on phone with WhatsApp on screen.      Getty Images

Facebook made the acquisition in February 2014, and the service now has more than 2 billion active users.

By the time Facebook turned 10 in 2014, over 1.23 billion people were visiting the social network every month.

By the time Facebook turned 10 in 2014, over 1.23 billion people were visiting the social network every month.
Facebook turned 10 in 2014.      Nur Photo/ Getty Images

A billion of those users were accessing the social network through their mobile devices.

The world had changed, but Facebook had kept on growing.

To support all that growth, Facebook had to move to a bigger office — again.

To support all that growth, Facebook had to move to a bigger office — again.
Facebook's headquarters are in Menlo Park, California.      REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

In March 2015, Facebook opened a new campus in Menlo Park, California. The campus was designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry to accommodate more than 2,800 employees.

For better or for worse, Zuckerberg has an iron grip on the company's voting shares.

For better or for worse, Zuckerberg has an iron grip on the company
Zuckerberg has huge voting power at Facebook.      Mark Zuckerberg / Facebook / MSQRD

The way Zuckerberg has structured Facebook's stock gives him disproportionate voting power that keeps him in charge, no matter what else happens to the company. So he's not losing control of the company any time soon.

Facebook had a rocky 2017, and a rockier 2018, culminating in Zuckerberg testifying in front of the United States Congress.

Facebook had a rocky 2017, and a rockier 2018, culminating in Zuckerberg testifying in front of the United States Congress.
Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.      Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Facebook spent much of 2017 under scrutiny for its role in the spread of "fake news" and misinformation.

When it came out that firm called Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained the personal data of as many as 87 million Facebook users, Zuckerberg was ultimately called to the floor of the US Congress to answer tough questions about the social network's business.

That year, Zuckerberg announced the company would create an Oversight Board that could overrule Facebook's own content management policies and even Zuck himself.

That year, Zuckerberg announced the company would create an Oversight Board that could overrule Facebook
The announcement of the Oversight Board came amid much scrutiny for Facebook.      JOSH EDELSON

Facebook announced the first members of the oversight board in 2021.

In October 2021, Facebook rebranded.

In October 2021, Facebook rebranded.
Facebook is now Meta.      JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

With an eye towards the digital metaverse, Zuckerberg announced the company was changing its name to Meta.

The metaverse could be accessed by the company's virtual reality headsets, the Oculus Quest line, which was later also rebranded as the Meta Quest.

In 2022, the company lost one of its highest-ranking execs.

In 2022, the company lost one of its highest-ranking execs.
Sandberg was Facebook's COO for 14 years.      Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Sandberg stepped down as chief operating officer in 2022 after 14 years in the role. She was succeeded by Javier Olivan.

"I don't plan to replace Sheryl's role in our existing structure," Zuckerberg said at the time. "I'm not sure that would be possible since she's a superstar who defined the COO role in her own unique way.

"But even if it were possible, I think Meta has reached the point where it makes sense for our product and business groups to be more closely integrated, rather than having all the business and operations functions organized separately from our products," Zuckerberg added.

The company also suffered another blow that year.

The company also suffered another blow that year.
Facebook saw a drop in daily active users at the end of 2021.      Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In February 2022, it reported a decrease in daily active users for the first time in its history, going from 1.93 billion to 1.929 billion in the last three months of 2021.

And the hits kept coming: The company announced the biggest job cuts in its history in November 2022.

And the hits kept coming: The company announced the biggest job cuts in its history in November 2022.
Meta announced a 13% workforce reduction in 2022.      Alex Wong/Getty Images

Meta laid off 11,000 workers, roughly 13% of its workforce at the time, in its first-ever mass layoffs.

Rounding out 2022, the company agreed to pay a $725 million settlement to settle claims it shared users' data with third parties without their consent.

Rounding out 2022, the company agreed to pay a $725 million settlement to settle claims it shared users
Facebook agreed to the settlement in December 2022.      Getty/Yuichiro Chino

As part of the settlement, Meta denied wrongdoing.

The cuts continued in 2023, which Zuckerberg vowed would be a "year of efficiency."

The cuts continued in 2023, which Zuckerberg vowed would be a "year of efficiency."
Zuckerberg proclaimed 2023 a "year of efficiency" for Meta.      Matt McClain/Getty Images

The company announced a further 10,000 job cuts in 2023. Zuckerberg was focused on cutting organizational bloat and reportedly said he hated structures of "managers managing managers."

In July 2023, Meta launched the social networking app Threads.

In July 2023, Meta launched the social networking app Threads.
Meta launched its Twitter rival Threads in 2023.      Jaap Arriens/Getty

It's drawn many comparisons to X, formerly Twitter, and has more than 130 million monthly active users, Zuckerberg said during Meta's fourth-quarter earnings in February.

Facebook hit a big milestone this year.

Facebook hit a big milestone this year.
Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook's founding (left) and Mark Zuckerberg today (right).      @zuck via Threads

The company turned 20 on February 4, 2024. Zuckerberg himself turned 40.

Now, the company has its eyes on AI.

Now, the company has its eyes on AI.
Meta AI's new integration gives you search suggestions.      Business Insider

This January, Zuckerberg said Meta was working on building artificial general intelligence, or AGI.

Meta released its first large language model in the Llama family in February 2023. This April, it announced it's introducing AI assistant Meta AI, powered by Llama 3, to Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger.

Matt Weinberger contributed to a previous version of this article.


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