Twenty years ago, scattered reports of something cool began popping up in college newspapers across the country: a website called thefacebook.com.
A “very popular place for college students to ‘hang out’ and meet other students across the nation,” reported the Georgia Southern University student newspaper.
“Hundreds” had registered, reported the Harvard Crimson.
“Already an instant hit,” wrote the Cornell Daily Sun.
“Many report getting friend requests from people they haven’t spoken to in years,” reported the Wesleyan Argus.
Launched on Feb. 4, 2004, for Harvard University students, Facebook is now as old as many of its earliest members were when they first joined - not quite old enough to legally drink. And for many of those early users, the site itself might now feel like that old friend they haven’t spoken to in years. Someone whose company they used to enjoy but who has since changed quite a bit. The kind of person whose life they only know about via, well, Facebook.
Before it was a forum for your weird aunt to post Minions memes and terrible opinions, before it contributed to the possible ruin of our democracy, before its nerdy founder was scolded by the Senate for having “blood on [his] hands,” thefacebook.com (the “the” - so quaint!) was actually fun. Elder millennials remember.
Dan Bobkoff, the author of that Wesleyan story, is now 41. But 20 years ago, “if you existed on campus,” he says, “you had to be on Facebook.”
Are you in your late 30s or early 40s? Then you were probably there 20 years ago, too, ironically “poking” your friends and posting status updates in the third person (“Maura is going to the Wilco concert!”). You may have attended a very ordinary party and posted 28 photos taken on a digital camera of your friends in various states of inebriation, tagging them all, in an album with song lyrics as its title. You probably had a discussion with a romantic partner about when to take the relationship from “It’s complicated” to “Facebook Official.”
It was an election year. Howard Dean had just screamed his way out of contention for the Democratic nomination for president. A CIA weapons inspector had recently revealed that U.S. intelligence was wrong about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Martha Stewart’s insider trading trial was underway. Three days before Facebook went live, Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast in a “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show. The following week, San Francisco would begin issuing its first same-sex marriage licenses.
Glenda Mauck will never forget that time, in part because Facebook’s “memories” function relentlessly wants to remind her of it. Even if she were to ignore that feature, her zeal for early Facebook would still be memorialized in the Gainesville Sun.
In a 2005 article, Mauck - then Glenda Camacho - talked about how easy the site made it to find friends from her classes, and how it helped her romantic life. When she prompted a guy she was dating named Lewis Kirvan to update his page, he clicked “in a relationship,” thus upgrading the pair to boyfriend and girlfriend.
“It felt special because you had to have the .edu email to have an account,” says Mauck, now 38. “It was silly, a lot of the things that you would share on there.”
Facebook first became a playpen for college students to flirt. Also: inside jokes among friends, posted on a friend’s “Wall,” so everyone else could see you had an inside joke with them. Stream-of-consciousness thoughts as status updates. Groups like “Flip Cup Champions” or “I went to a public school ... Bitch,” a once mega-popular group founded in 2004 that somehow still exists ... with 618 members.
“‘Cringe’ is the word that comes to mind when I think about all these things,” says Mauck. “Now nobody’s interested in seeing 17 pictures of you and that top from Forever 21 at, you know, whatever club. But I posted all of them.”
But if you want to talk about cringe, let’s talk to Becky Goldstein, Wesleyan University class of 2005. In two time capsule quotes, Goldstein marveled to then-cub reporter Bobkoff about all the marvelous things you could learn about your classmates using this new tool - a skill that would soon be rebranded “Facebook stalking.”
“One thing I’ve learned from thefacebook is that I’m not the only one on campus who’s into the Olsen Twins,” Goldstein said in September 2004. And: “It’s better to find out the guy you like is gay from the start, instead of after you’ve had a crush on him for a year.”
“I guess that has always been a preoccupation for me,” she says 20 years later, of the “mortifying” quotes. Goldstein, now Becky Albertalli, writes young adult novels. One of them was adapted into the film “Love, Simon.” “When I gave the quote, I definitely was not anticipating that I would go on to write an entire canon of work of very online queer love stories.”
And she definitely wasn’t anticipating the trajectory of Facebook. Says Albertalli: “I don’t know that I would have even had the frame of reference to understand what Facebook has become.”
What has it become? A malevolent force on our culture, probably. Uncool, definitely. A time capsule of some of the best years online? That, too.
“The internet was better in 2005, and we should go back,” says Kirvan, Mauck’s college boyfriend. “Like, it used to be useful and fun. Now it’s just five bad websites.”
The promise of early Facebook was the ability to quantify and solidify the friendships of young adulthood in a way that made both new and old connections feel substantial. You would not lose touch with your high school pals, or that friendly person you sat next to in Poli Sci if you “friended” them.
For anyone (like me) who graduated high school in 2003 and went straight to a four-year college, signing up for the site was a defining millennial milestone. Because the site opened up to high school students in 2005, this particular cohort was the last to experience at least one full year of college without it, forced to connect with their friends via AOL Instant Messenger, MySpace and T9 texting, or one of the homegrown social networks that had popped up at certain schools.
In 2004, Kara Strait told a reporter for the Harvard Crimson that she didn’t really think this Facebook thing - then open only to Ivy League students - was going to take off. She was a freshman at Columbia, which already had its own social network.
Facebook eventually won over Strait - and the whole country.
“For years it was just one of the tabs that I always had open,” she says.
And now? A common refrain: “I haven’t been on Facebook in years.”
Facebook dropped the “The.” It opened up to everyone. It launched the News Feed, with its all-powerful algorithm. It introduced “likes.” It redesigned, and redesigned again. In 2012, it rolled out “Featured Posts,” also known as ads. In 2015, it hit 1 billion active users, a number it would double within two years. In 2016, a data firm called Cambridge Analytica obtained the personal data of millions of users via the network’s quizzes and used it to help elect Donald Trump. In 2021, Zuckerberg changed the company’s name to Meta, and, the following year, released an extremely dorky selfie from the Metaverse, a term for a virtual reality utopia that has instead become a punchline.
“I remember feeling profoundly uncomfortable that this thing that I had joined when it did feel like this walled garden, just for my friends and classmates, all of a sudden was open,” says Bobkoff, who is now as a podcast producer. “I think I got a friend request from a boss. And that was a turning point for me.”
Being on Facebook, 20 years later, feels “a little bit like going to a mall that used to be vibrant,” says Bobkoff. “And now it’s full of terrible pop-up stores for things I never want.”
Logging on to Facebook now, I see ads for toddler shoes and a kit that promises to teach me how to knit cardigans, and a group I do not follow called “Our Old House.” A post from one of my high school teachers, now retired. Then an ad for “posture-correcting activewear.”
If being on Facebook in 2004 was a hallmark of being young, it’s now a microcosm of middle age.
Younger generations’ nostalgia for early Aughts tech has encompassed flip phones and digital cameras, but has not extended to Facebook. It has not been a place for the young for a long time now. Only 19 percent of teens age 13-17 visit Facebook daily, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in December.
How do early adopters of Facebook use the site now, if they even use it at all? For buying furniture on Marketplace, mostly. For looking up the menus of food trucks that don’t have real websites. For “Buy Nothing” neighborhood giveaways. A few are in local groups for parents. That’s the only thing that gets Albertalli to log in these days. On the rare occasions she does, her time there is brief.
“It’s like playing Operation,” she says. “Like, with surgical precision, I will carefully enter Facebook and go straight to that group just to get the details” on a local event for her kids. She never scrolls through her feed, she says.
Strait, the former Columbia student, logged back into the site this week, as an experiment. The “memories” function unearthed some gems.
“Oh, there’s [a picture] of me from 2009,” she says. “That’s a great picture, actually.”
“If I scroll down past the memories, I immediately just see, like for some reason, ‘The Office’ memes,” she says. “Here’s a post from someone I had a pretty substantial falling-out with last year. There’s someone I slept with in 2007 and haven’t talked to since.”
You’ve probably already guessed that Mauck and Kirvan eventually changed their Facebook relationship statuses back to “single.” It was less than a year after they joined Facebook. It was amicable.
“I ended up marrying one of his friends,” she says.
Kirvan quit Facebook entirely in 2009, after an experience living in Tanzania convinced him that he did not need it in his life. He deactivated his account but realized the company kept his data.
“I had to essentially send them a legal demand letter,” to have it formally deleted, back then. He’s now on Instagram, which is owned by Meta. (Zuckerberg is still winning, somehow.)
Mauck still uses the site occasionally. She’s pleased with a credenza she recently purchased on Marketplace.
“My fiddle leaf fig plant - I’m in a group for it,” she says. “Young me would never have predicted that I would be so into a specific kind of houseplant that I belong to a Facebook group about it.”
It’s very active in a way that much of the rest of Facebook is not. “Oh, my gosh,” Mauck says, “people get so upset when people trim their plants too much and they don’t think they’ll root again.”