Sit down. Strap on your virtual reality headset. Now you're navigating the crowd of your online friends, sparking face-to-face conversations in a virtual world peppered with branded "experiences." Gone are the days of clicking through images of your friends' far-flung vacations; now you walk the beaches of Fiji, sipping tropical drinks, watching and hearing the waves crash like you're there -- because you are.
At its start, it was a college-only collection of user profiles and groups based on shared interests.
In the not-too-distant future, our online interactions could feel a lot more real. That's why Facebook has invested $2 billion in Oculus VR, anyway. It's attempting to own the next big shift in computing and communication. Acquiring a startup with popularity on the upswing is a move that we've seen before from Mark Zuckerberg, but there's more to his company's sustained growth. Back in 2004, The Facebook looked more like a database than a key player in social networks. At its start, it was a college-only collection of user profiles and groups based on shared interests. Students on college campuses around the US were logging on and spilling all of their deets on a bare-bones interface. However, the rather sterile aesthetics wouldn't last long.
Other social sites predated Zuckerberg's project, but none of them kept pace with the mass sharing and design tweaks that have contributed to Facebook's longevity. The company has even taken to retooling key pieces of the interface several times in a span of a few months to keep content consumption on the up and up. The old adage is "form follows function," and the folks in Menlo Park are clearly familiar with the sentiment.
While Facebook is busy figuring out what the future of social networking will look like, let's take a look back at where it's been.
Social Networks Take Root
Friendster wasn't always a social gaming site, and though it may not be the first, it was a pioneer of widespread adoption for virtual interaction. As you may remember, that particular social hub debuted back in 2002 and drew over 100 million users through 2011. Focused on user info and a circle of internet acquaintances (ahem, Google+), the hub never evolved much beyond the profile-based system that enabled contact management and sharing between users and their networks. After years of declining traffic in the states, Friendster relaunched in 2011 with a gaming focus and most of its traffic shifted to Asia.
Before The Facebook arrived, Myspace was the largest social network on the web. It launched in 2003 and morphed into its then-popular social format while amassing millions of users through 2008. In fact, it has been reported that in 2005, Myspace considered buying Zuckerberg's site for $75 million before passing. Moving through a News Corp. acquisition and other key transitions, Myspace stuck to portal-like functionality that relied heavily on music and other entertainment content. In the meantime, emerging social media darlings like Facebook and Twitter sought to develop and roll out new features on the regular. The new kids on the block paid attention to how people used their sites and services, and made sure to keep ease of use at the forefront of any new functionality or design tweaks. It turned out to be the difference in continued growth.
Myspace implemented design updates along the way, but they were largely aesthetic and lacked the introduction of key features needed to foster a loyal long-term user base. The site relaunched last year after a "community-led" redesign process, but it still has a heavy focus on entertainment -- music in particular. There's an artist-curated My Radio feature and mobile apps that serve up easy access to content, however it appears to be too little too late. The choice to keep the profile-centric setup, and its inability to roll out new features quickly, doomed the site.
In the early days, user profiles on Facebook were all about information. As you can see from the above image of a profile page in 2005, a person's favorites, relationship status, birthdate, interests and, most importantly, contact info were compiled into a single, easily accessible page. It was very much a digital Rolodex, and not too far removed from the likes of Friendster and Myspace. Each piece of data that you entered placed you in a group based on that criterion. Holmes High School Class of '02? Your classmates are there. Graduating from that college you're attending in '06? Your fellow graduates are a click away. Heck, you could even harness the power of cult classics like Donnie Darko when searching for fellow enthusiasts. Of course, the Wall was there for leaving notes, too.
Once you open up a service to anyone, you've got to keep new features coming on the regular in order to keep users coming back. The masses likely wouldn't have sustained interest in an online directory, and Facebook wasted no time making the necessary tweaks. It added Photos in 2005 while it was still a campus exclusive. The UI for snapshots has been retooled regularly since then, but the ability to share galleries from Spring Break and other exploits has been available from the start. What began as a means to share images with friends online turned into a life-logging activity as time went on.
Nearly a year after galleries of summer vacations and ski trips found a home on Facebook, it introduced a new feature that would become a key piece of its functionality: News Feed. No more clicking through to a user's profile page to get the latest on their activities. That info was now arranged in chronological order when you logged in. Status updates, photo posts and more were compiled in a scrolling list of the latest from your friends. Info from Pages arrived on the feed in 2007 and the all-important Like button for each bit of content landed in 2009.
Once the News Feed became the epicenter of activity on Facebook, design tweaks began to roll out as needed. Just weeks ago, it announced that the next version was on its way, citing the never-ending quest to make its offerings easier to use while keeping them tidy. This marks the third design overhaul of the site's hub in about year, further confirming Facebook's modus operandi: Keep what's important easily accessible.
Over the past couple of years, Facebook has aggressively focused on mobile engagement, but its first foray into mobile actually began back in the spring of 2006. The first offering, a mobile-friendly site, dubbed Facebook for Mobile, launched then and the first native app outfitting the OG iPhone hit iOS in the summer of 2008. Even in the early days of smartphones, the social network was already facilitating sharing on the go. Android, Windows Phone and other operating systems would get their own native apps upon their arrival, with the expected regular updates to add new features and refresh the UI.
After rounds of rumblings spanning several months, the long-rumored "Facebook Phone" broke from cover in April 2013. Sure, other devices had dedicated buttons for quick and easy sharing, but the HTC First offered a skinned Android OS, called Home, built entirely around the social network. The company labeled Home as something between a full-fledged OS and the average app. In terms of aesthetics, the offering took on Facebook's clean look with photos at the forefront. Cover Feed gave a rundown of the current happenings and Chat Heads offered pop-up style text updates from Messenger convos.
While other Android apps were accessible with Home, it wasn't until October of that year that deeper integration launched, bringing more of a user's content to lock and home screens. Despite opening up Home to a smattering of other devices in addition to the First, both the handset and the non-OS have yet to see widespread adoption and are viewed by many to have been a bust.
We've all seen them since they became embedded in the News Feed, but ads on Facebook actually started rolling out in 2006. They appeared in the form of banners then, with the formal rollout of the company's successful platform being officially announced in late 2007. Focusing on targeted ads based on user activity, Facebook has placed these sponsored promotions on the right-hand sidebar and within the main activity feed for the site on the web and mobile devices, draped in the appearance of any other shared item from an internet pal. The long arm of Facebook's ad strategy has also extended to once-ad free Instagram, and while it's promised to keep WhatsApp a commercial free zone, Zuckerberg's hinted at an ad-filled future for Oculus.
The Constant Redesign
Although Myspace looped back with a massive redesign last year, the steep decline that led to its mere $35 million sale has been widely attributed to sticking to its profile-centric setup. Not until the site had all but left the minds of former users did it reach out to entertain feedback. Facebook, on the other hand, has been keen to watch how its now 1 billion users share and consume content, adjusting the UI and adding new features to keep what's of individual importance on top and easily accessible. This strategy doesn't just apply to the web; it's carried out across the desktop, mobile and supplementary apps like Messenger, too.
Facebook has been keen to watch how its now 1 billion users share and consume content.
In recent months, Facebook has adopted a public beta for testing new features inside its apps. The outfit now publicly seeks out user feedback on changes to mobile software offerings -- mostly within Messenger up to this point -- before beaming the tweaks to all of its iOS and Android user base. The designers in Menlo Park have also been quick to adjust when a change doesn't work out quite as intended. As we've already mentioned, News Feed has been retooled a few times in the last 12 months in response to criticism.
This rapid-fire approach can be seen in bigger changes as well. Projects like the @facebook.com email service, Poke, Places, Deals and Camera have all struggled to gain traction and many were eventually shuttered. For all the failures, however, introductions like Graph Search and Messenger have proven to have lasting significance and usefulness. With a growing interest in reader-style apps like Flipboard, Google Newsstand and Feedly, Facebook unveiled its Paper app in January. Citing the need for a "distraction-free" reading experience, the company inserted itself in an area it felt needed improving, and sought to do so with better design. It's too early to tell if this pet project will pay off and it's currently only available for the iOS faithful.
The Next Big Things
While declining traffic amongst teens may be a growing concern, Facebook's track record shows it's willing to rejigger its offerings to cater to what users want, even if that means spending some cash. The company nabbed up Instagram in April of 2012 for $1 billion, adding a loyal base of users concerned with sharing even the smallest details of everyday life. In response to Snapchat's rising popularity and a reported failure to buy that particular service, Instagram Direct added photo swapping between users outside of the regular snapshot timeline in late 2013.
Investing heavily in design and letting form follow function, with a little shopping thrown in, is still paying huge dividends 10 years in.
Global efforts ramped up last month with the whopping $19 billion WhatsApp acquisition, locking down its several hundred million users and proven success in free messaging and upcoming voice features -- an area that's been of interest to the social network for quite some time. When expanding its reach and increasing shared content, Facebook's moves show that sometimes design isn't enough, and expanding by buying up the competition's unique feature set is another avenue for growth. It's even banking on virtual reality as the next big thing for not only gaming, but also for communication as a whole by snatching up Oculus.
With all of the successes, questionable moves and an increasingly mobile mindset, Facebook is still the largest social network on the web and tallies 1.23 billion monthly active users, far exceeding its closest rival, Twitter, which counts 241 million users per month. Investing heavily in design and letting form follow function, with a little shopping thrown in, is still paying huge dividends 10 years in.
To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we'll bring you a new story every week in March that explores how the social media landscape has changed. Check out our hub every Wednesday for more from of our 10 Years in Social Media series, and keep your eyes out for more '10 Years In' content in the months to come.