Facebook, the old-timer social network, is 20 years old

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Founded more than 20 years ago as a casual hangout spot for teenagers, Facebook has since become a battle-hardened behemoth that — despite its notions of being for boomers and parents — continues to grow and grow.

“I'll never forget the day I ran to my high school's Mac lab and signed up for Facebook,” Insider Intelligence analyst Jasmine Enberg told AFP.

“You simultaneously feel like you're part of this small, unique community that doesn't have your parents, grandparents and teachers — but also part of a much bigger one.”

Launched as thefacebook.com on February 4, 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg and three friends, the site was originally restricted to students at Harvard College.

It was made available to students from other US universities before being opened to anyone in 2006.

Facebook has become the go-to platform for connecting with anyone, anywhere, and is reported to have more than 3 billion monthly users by 2023 — three percent growth from last year.

“When Facebook started, it was revolutionary,” Enberg said.

“It's hard to overstate the impact Facebook has had on shaping everything from pop culture to politics to how we behave online.”

She noted that Facebook's popular “feed” draws users' attention to its algorithm by serving up photos, comments or other “posts.”

The more users engage with the social network, the more it serves ads that make money using the vast amount of information people share on Facebook.

This is credited with opening the door for content to “go viral” and fueling the trend of online-only news outlets.

– Ad Behemoth –

Facebook has a reputation for buying or copying potential rivals, now boasting a “family” of apps including Instagram and WhatsApp.

Zuckerberg, who still leads the company, has committed to a strategy of investing heavily in acquiring users before integrating monetization methods that typically include targeted advertising.

Along with Google, Facebook has become an online advertising giant.

In 2022 — a bad year for the Silicon Valley-based company — its profits hit $23 billion.

The platform is “part of the digital landscape,” especially for “millennials” born in the 1980s or 1990s, according to Enberg.

“It's unbeatable for advertisers, thanks to its reach and performance,” the analyst said of Facebook.

Facebook's business model, built on using people's personal data to deliver more attention-grabbing content and targeted ads, has earned it complaints and fines.

It is embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal, with the latest allegations that Russia used the platform to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

In 2021, it came under fire over whistleblower allegations that executives put profit over consumer safety and well-being.

Despite all that, Facebook continues to thrive.

And the tech titan's expansion has allowed it to invest in innovations including artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

Facebook changed its parent company's name to “Meta” in late 2021, citing Zuckerberg's vision of immersive, virtual worlds in what the “Metaverse” refers to as the next major computing platform.

– 'My Mother's Friends' –

“We may be less engaged, but we haven't gone away because there's really no alternative,” Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi says of the aging social network's staying power.

Facebook also struck a chord with the addition of “groups” that allow users to create communities around common interests such as sports, celebrities or agriculture that connect online but also in the real world.

Marketplace features that allow people to buy or sell goods are also popular.

“I went on Facebook because I knew my mom's friends would be interested,” says 18-year-old California babysitter Ruby Hammer about using the social network to make money.

“And Marketplace, because I'm looking for a car.”

Hammer connects with peers by sharing photos on Snapchat and Instagram, rather than on Facebook.

Analyst Enberg called the acquisition of Instagram in 2012 one of Facebook's best business decisions as part of its pivot to the smartphone lifestyle.

The move eliminated a rival, provided a new forum for advertising, and appealed to younger Internet users who were losing interest in Facebook.

“Above all, it gives the company an app to compete with Snapchat and TikTok, which are hugely popular among teenagers,” Enberg said.

Today, more than half of Facebook users are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to an online insights firm Data Report.

But it's hard to gauge how engaged users are with a social network.

“I rarely go to Facebook, but what I post on Instagram automatically appears on Facebook,” said analyst Milanesi.

“So, I'm definitely considered 'active'… statistics may not reflect reality.”

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