Facebook's follies: A brief history

It's been a long, strange trip for the social network, especially since many of its mistakes have been played out--and continue to do so--in the public eye.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
9 min read

In the tech industry, a company like Facebook likes to say that it "iterates." Old products are killed. New ones are rolled out one at a time, rather than bundled together in a huge annual relaunch. Experimental features emerge and disappear. This is one of the main reasons why Facebook's been so successful: it's kept up with the times.

And an iterative product, rather than one that plods out in occasional, finely-honed editions like a textbook, will invariably see many of its mistakes and foibles played out in the public eye. In Facebook's history some of its product decisions have been driven by lawmakers' threats, user indifference, or plain old negativity--and now we're waiting to see what will happen in response to the backlash against its most recent modifications.

On one hand, over time Facebook has shown a lot of flexibility in the face of legitimate user and lawmaker outrage. On the other hand, it also shows that as it's grown in power, Facebook has looked less and less likely to really backtrack again. Less than a decade ago, CEO Mark Zuckerberg could be silenced by university administrators. Now it's unclear whether U.S. senators who have taken issue with Facebook's latest privacy policy modifications will be able to chip away at Facebook's armor.

Let's take a look at some of Facebook's notorious and not-so-notorious misfires over the years, and its subsequent attempts to patch them up. It all starts, really, even before Facebook itself did.

Squishing Facemash

When this happened: October 2003
What happened: Call it insidious, childish, or just plain silly: Before he founded Facebook, Harvard undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg had a crazy late-night idea. He broke into online campus directories and used their contents to build Facemash.com, an app that let students vote on which of two of their classmates they thought was more attractive. Facemash created an authentic viral sensation before the marketing world had even caught wind of the term "viral"--and not everybody liked it.
How Facebook messed up: Well, at the time, "Facebook" didn't even exist. But Zuckerberg's actions--hacking into campus directories, pulling the identities of his classmates into a semi-public project without their permission--echo eerily today.
What Facebook did about it: Following protests from several women's groups on campus, Harvard shut down Facemash, and the university's Administrative Board charged Zuckerberg with breaching security, violating copyrights, and violating individual privacy. The charges were ultimately dropped, but Facemash was dead in the water. It's obvious now, though, that the early seeds of Facebook had been sown.

Disconnecting ConnectU

When this happened: Original complaint 2004; settled 2008
What happened: Even Facebook's earliest days were messy. Zuckerberg's Facemash project put him on many Harvard students' radar--including the three seniors who were in the process of assembling a social-networking project called The Harvard Connection (later changed to ConnectU). They enlisted him as a programmer; he eventually bailed to found Facebook. The ConnectU founders have claimed ever since that he stole their code and intellectual property in the process, and took their case first to Harvard and then to court.
How Facebook messed up: Well, if Zuckerberg indeed stole ConnectU's intellectual property, that's a big problem.
What Facebook did about it: Facebook didn't make any product modifications in response to the legal action (at least we don't think so). But in 2008, the spat with ConnectU had been dragging on and Facebook undoubtedly wanted to put what it saw as a dorm-room dispute behind it as it sought bigger audiences and bigger investors. The suit was settled, and the ConnectU founders are said to have received $65 million from it as Facebook effectively acquired the erstwhile social network's assets. This debacle, however, will get plenty more exposure when "The Social Network," a film based on the origins of Facebook and helmed by "Fight Club" director David Fincher, hits theaters this fall.

Butchering the Wirehog

When this happened: Fall 2004
What happened: Early users of Facebook may remember that its creators built a side project, called Wirehog, which "plugged in" to Facebook and let users give their friends access to the contents of their music and photo libraries. There were, surprisingly, very few privacy complaints because Facebook at the time was still restricted to a number of U.S. universities, and Wirehog was made accessible to even fewer.
How Facebook messed up: File sharing had drummed up plenty of fervor among antipiracy advocates long before Wirehog made its quiet debut, and so it's safe to assume that having a file-sharing service in the portfolio could be a strike against Facebook as it courted early investors. But the real problem with Wirehog, a source close to Facebook's early days said, is that its small original team didn't think Wirehog was taking off fast enough and considered it a distraction from Facebook proper.
What Facebook did about it: Wirehog was shut down. But more importantly, Facebook began to significantly downplay Wirehog in its company narrative. This, according to the source, simply wasn't an accurate portrayal: Zuckerberg and his early Facebook team, particularly co-founder Andrew McCollum, had a lot of enthusiasm for Wirehog and even thought it could potentially be as big as Facebook itself.

Still, the philosophy behind Wirehog--using Facebook identity and social connections as the instant foundation for another application--remains tightly woven into Facebook's fabric ever since it first launched its developer platform in 2007.

Force-feeding the News Feed

When this happened: September 2006
What happened: It all seems incredibly silly and innocuous now, but in the fall of 2006, Facebook users were up in arms over an unfamiliar feature that popped up on the site--the news feed. With the updates of their life now aggregated on friends' home pages rather than squirreled away on their own profiles, members originally derided it as creepy and stalker-ish.
How Facebook messed up: In retrospect, ticking off members with the News Feed launch was a risk the company had to take in order to make such a big step in social networking. But Facebook could've offered more of a hand-holding process rather than simply springing this one on members.
What Facebook did about it: Zuckerberg authored a post on the Facebook company blog that started off with, "We really messed this one up." In turn, the company added some privacy controls so that members could opt to not share certain details of their Facebook habits, like changes in relationship status, on their friends' home pages.

Sinking the Beacon

When this happened: November 2007
What happened: Facebook launched its Beacon advertising program as part of a big Facebook Ads announcement in New York. A Facebook user interacting with a Beacon partner site would have data shared back on Facebook in turn--purchases on commerce sites, reviews on Yelp, rentals on Blockbuster. Privacy advocates panicked. Activist group MoveOn.org was the most vocal critic of Beacon, damning it as a serious violation of user privacy.
How Facebook messed up: Taking your third-party site activity and sharing it with your friends on Facebook without much warning? Yes, that's a misfire.
What Facebook did about it: Beacon died a slow and brutal death. First, Facebook announced modifications to the program that let members opt out of it altogether, but after several lawsuits, Facebook finally killed it altogether nearly two years after its original debut. Ironically, sharing third-party activity on Facebook reemerged as Facebook Connect and is now as integral to the social network as the News Feed--and not surprisingly, Mark Zuckerberg's mea culpa in the wake of the Beacon controversy never apologized for the product itself, just the way the launch was handled.

Conceding to Craig

When this happened: 2008
What happened: In 2007, Facebook launched a classifieds service. But it was playing a serious game of catch-up to Craigslist, and it never really caught on.
How Facebook messed up: This was yet another peripheral feature that didn't really fit into Facebook itself, but which would make a great third-party application.
What Facebook did about it: Facebook Marketplace, as it was called, was quietly snuffed much as Wirehog had been. Instead, it anointed the third-party app built by classifieds service Oodle as the "official" home for Facebook-based bartering. It still probably doesn't keep Craigslist founder Craig Newmark awake at night.

Flying after Twitter

When this happened: March 2009
What happened: In 2009, the breakneck ascent of Twitter infected the Web with an addiction to real-time, streaming information. As a result, Facebook revamped its News Feed to make it up-to-the-minute.
How Facebook messed up: Zuckerberg giveth, Zuckerberg taketh away. In this case, too much was taken away. What had been a relatively neat home page featuring new friend connections turned into a confusing stream of "live" updates that was tough to parse. Plus, it was reactionary and hasty: Facebook made this change after it unsuccessfully tried to acquire Twitter itself.
What Facebook did about it: It redesigned again. Facebook's news feed returned to something that looked quite a bit like its old self, but members could toggle back and forth between that and the "live feed."

Losing your location

When this happened: June 2009
What happened: First, you could register for Facebook as the student or alumnus of a college or university, provided you had the e-mail address to prove it. Then, high school students could join. Then you could join company networks, too. Finally, you could register for Facebook by joining a "regional network" that grouped you in with other people who live where you do. Facebook decided that this didn't really make sense.
How Facebook messed up: Hindsight is 20/20, so when Facebook let its users box themselves into regional networks, it seemed like a good idea at first. But it doesn't make sense for a global company. Do you join a network for your city, state, or country? What about if you want to connect to both your hometown and your current residence?
What Facebook did about it: You still fill out your location and hometown in your profile, and Facebook can target ads specifically to these attributes. But there's no separate "network" anymore for, say, people living in Miami. Facebook is unapologetic about doing away with products or branding concepts that it sees as obsolete--the Facebook Connect name disappeared a year later with the launch of Social Plugins--and this is one of the reasons that the company has been so successful.

Rewiring the controls

When this happened: July 2009
What happened: In preparation, perhaps, for bigger changes to the site as it encouraged members to make more content public, Facebook made some high-profile modifications to its privacy controls. One executive explained at the time that they "can add up and pile up and not be as clean as one would like."
How Facebook messed up: They might have made a few things simpler, but they didn't please lawmakers. Privacy officials in Canada, among others, didn't like the new version.
What Facebook did about it: A month after the changes first went live, Facebook released further modifications in response to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner's critique that third parties had a troubling level access to Facebook user data.

It must be F8

When this happened: April 2010
What happened: The volume of new product announcements in Mark Zuckerberg's keynote address at its F8 developer conference was staggering. It was also, to some, a bit terrifying. As part of new changes that emphasize Facebook's ability to connect just about anything on the Internet to anything else, users were given the choice of either making their profile interests public or deleting them altogether. New "social plug-ins" take Facebook Connect to the next level, and a test program called "Instant Personalization" will Facebook-ify any partner site.
How Facebook messed up: Most of this, angry Facebook members really should have seen coming. What's thrown them off guard for good reason is making profile interests public by default, something that has made some users concerned that Facebook can't be trusted to adhere to reasonable standards of privacy protection.
What Facebook did about it: You're not going to reach 400 million people on the Facebook company blog. So Facebook turned to the press instead: public policy chief Elliot Schrage answered a lengthy Q&A with The New York Times. Will it quell users and privacy advocates? Probably not. Facebook isn't through with the damage control for this one yet.