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As Facebook turns 5, a look back east

The conservative, calculated Ivy League origins of the social network sowed the seeds for its Silicon Valley success. Facebook's initial allure was its simplicity and exclusivity.

As Facebook hits its fifth birthday on Wednesday, it's nearly impossible to find a recent news story that doesn't refer to its growth with terms like "lightning-fast," "exponential," "skyrocketing," or some other expression that would be quite at home in a space-age comic book from the 1950s.

That might be true now. And with an executive lineup sourced from Bay Area elite (including a handful of former Google leaders), high-profile conferences and parties, not to mention developer "hackathons" all over the world, it has all the makings of a landmark Silicon Valley craze. But don't let that fool you: Facebook owes its early growth, and hence the foundations for its wildfire expansion of late, to its roots in a more buttoned-up tradition of the East Coast elite. The site's conservative, calculated debut and blueblood allure were what sowed the seeds for Valley success.

Facebook's origins at Harvard University, created over many dorm room all-nighters on the part of founder Mark Zuckerberg and his friends, are tech press canon by now. They have surfaced in dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, the occasional courtroom spat, and now apparently a book penned by Bringing Down The House author Ben Mezrich. What's not talked about as often is that when Facebook, then called TheFacebook, made its quiet debut early in February 2004, it was just another entrant in a pack.

That was the same academic year that some colleges and universities launched online "facebooks" of their own as supplements to the paper directories that were then a staple in dorm rooms across the country. Plus, entrepreneurially minded students at a number of colleges, including several at Harvard in addition to Zuckerberg, were trying to best their alma maters by doing the same thing.

"When Facebook launched, the first week at Harvard was incredible because the adoption was through the roof," said Sam Lessin, founder of start-up Dropio, who was a classmate of Zuckerberg at the time, "and this was in the context of a lot of stuff other people had been doing online, including quote-unquote social-networking sites. The beauty of the product was that it was super simple and super easy to use."

In keeping with its roots at one of the world's most selective universities, Facebook's initial allure was not that everyone had a profile, but that not everyone could have a profile.

When Zuckerberg and his team first launched the site, it was restricted to their fellow students at Harvard University. Then it began to roll out to the rest of the Ivy League and other prestigious universities: Stanford, Yale, and Columbia were the first three, in March 2004. A valid e-mail address from a participating school was required to sign up.

From a technical standpoint, this was smart because it allowed Facebook to manage its growth, avoiding overloaded servers and skyrocketing bandwidth bills. On the PR side, however, exclusivity fueled Facebook's early buzz. MySpace, at the top of the social-networking heap at the time, was the massive nightclub where you might spot celebrities from afar. Facebook was the quiet cocktail lounge a few blocks away that required a password, but where you could be sure to see all your closest friends.

"There was a cachet to it. Everyone wanted in, and wanted to see what it was and how it worked," Lessin said. When the site launched at a new school, he added, "you'd have this incredible initial bump of people who had heard about it and seen clippings or articles about it, and were excited to jump on board."

With the exception of a short-lived file-sharing side project called Wirehog, Facebook's team kept the site a purely networking-focused tool at the start. Although you've been able to "poke" your friends from day 1, the original Facebook had none of its current media- and information-sharing features; initially, you couldn't even add friends from other participating schools, just your own.

But Facebook grew, both in accessibility and in flashiness. Members could start registering with e-mail addresses from corporations rather than just universities. It launched a photo album application that now hosts more than 10 billion pictures.

The "news feed" feature launched in September 2006, shortly before Facebook announced that it would let anyone join the site, setting off a brief wave of privacy-conscious member panic before becoming one of the site's defining functions.

Then there was the developer platform, which hit the scene in May 2007 with the first of Facebook's now-ubiquitous "hackathons." Even after relocating from Boston to Palo Alto, Calif., and in spite of a billion-dollar buyout offer from Yahoo, Facebook hadn't enjoyed much real "tech cred." The platform changed that.

Creating a Facebook application soared to the top of Web companies' priority lists, and even though Facebook's traffic had started to take off when open registration launched the previous fall, this was when it really escalated.

With Facebook now five years old and reaching more than 150 million members worldwide, it comes into question whether it has abandoned those austere New England roots and that strategy of calculated growth in favor of Silicon Valley's get-big-now attitude.

The Facebook Connect product lets third-party sites use Facebook's log-in credentials for the first time, something that's put it back at the forefront of the developer community. It's also caught on in many countries outside the United States, with a big majority of its new registrants now overseas. That brings both technological implications--server power outside the States can be especially expensive--as well as political ones.

And no regular reader of tech blogs can avoid the constant coverage of Facebook's ongoing search for a solid revenue model, the ultimate Valley narrative of struggle and all-too-frequent failure. But in a post on the company blog late on Tuesday, founder Zuckerberg hailed Facebook's iterative nature and go-forth attitude, something that has become increasingly prominent since its westward journey into the Valley's upper echelon.

"Building and moving quickly for five years hasn't been easy, and we aren't finished," Zuckerberg wrote. "The challenge motivates us to keep innovating and pushing technical boundaries to produce better ways to share information."

What Zuckerberg and his hundreds of employees ought to keep in mind is that even though Facebook's willingness to change and evolve has been key to its success, so has its awareness that change should be steady and pragmatic. When Facebook moved too fast, as with the launches of the News Feed and the Beacon advertising program, members freaked out.

"They've built this incredible, incredible product that's just incredibly successful and valuable and useful, but really, its roots were just super simple and super local," Lessin reflected on Facebook's early days. "Because they were able to do that, and grow in a very controlled way, by the time they really wanted to turn things on, they were able to."

It's like they always say: never forget where you came from.