Death of the private self: how fifteen years of Facebook changed the human condition

John Harris:

Thefacebook is an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges. We have opened up Thefacebook for popular consumption at Harvard University. You can use Thefacebook to: search for people at your school; find out who are [sic] in your classes; look up your friends’ friends; see a visualization of your social network.”

On 4 February 2004, this rather clunky announcement launched an invention conceived in the dorm room of a Harvard student called Mark Zuckerberg, and intended to be an improvement on the so-called face books that US universities traditionally used to collect photos and basic information about their students. From the vantage point of 2019, Thefacebook – as it was then known – looks familiar, but also strange. Pages were coloured that now familiar shade of blue, and “friends” were obviously a central element of what was displayed. However, there was little on show from the wider world: the only photos were people’s profile pictures, and there was no ever-changing news feed.

Everything on offer was centred on the lives of students: first at Harvard, then at Columbia, Stanford and Yale. On the face of it, the focus was campus dating and a feature whereby users could send each other “pokes”, whose meaning was open to interpretation, thus increasing the fun.

Very quickly, though, something else happened. By the autumn of 2005, 85% of US college students were using the site with 60% of students visiting it daily. As they immersed themselves, Thefacebook tapped into the fierce social competitiveness that the US education system seems to be built on. As David Kirkpatrick’s definitive history The Facebook Effect explains, users of the new site began to fixate on perfecting the details of their profile, not just to date, but to make themselves more attractive as potential friends. This came down to a handful of imperatives: “Find exactly the right profile picture. Change it regularly. Consider carefully how you describe your interests.”