When Mark Zuckerberg was at Harvard University as an undergraduate student, he developed Facebook — but the initial idea was far from what Facebook has evolved into across the past decade.
Instead of a tool for connecting people, it was originally conceived of as a tool called "Facesmash" — a way for Harvard students to look at two photos of fellow students and choose which one was more attractive. Along the way, it evolved into what would become Facebook.
When Zuckerberg spoke at Georgetown University recently, he offered a different accounting of Facebook's origins:
"When I was in college, our country had just gone to war in Iraq. The mood on campus was disbelief. It felt like we were acting without hearing a lot of important perspectives. The toll on soldiers, families and our national psyche was severe, and most of us felt powerless to stop it. I remember feeling that if more people had a voice to share their experiences, maybe things would have gone differently. Those early years shaped my belief that giving everyone a voice empowers the powerless and pushes society to be better over time.
Back then, I was building an early version of Facebook for my community, and I got to see my beliefs play out at smaller scale. When students got to express who they were and what mattered to them, they organized more social events, started more businesses, and even challenged some established ways of doing things on campus. It taught me that while the world's attention focuses on major events and institutions, the bigger story is that most progress in our lives comes from regular people having more of a voice."
This rosier version of Facebook's origins omits the less flattering moments — like when Zuckerberg referred to early users as "dumb f—s" for trusting him with their personal information, for instance (Zuckerberg has since admitted he wrote the messages and said he regrets them). While it's understandable that Zuckerberg wouldn't bend over backwards to publicize that misstep when talking to the Georgetown audience, it also skips past the true origins of Facebook: As a small social network for Harvard's students to connect.
Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos pushed back on Zuckerberg's characterization of Facebook's origins in a recent interview with Columbia Journalism Review.
"I do not have any experience with the Harvard-era Facebook," he said, "but the idea that it was originally created to give people voice on political topics seems pretty obviously incorrect."
As Stamos points out, Facebook's goal evolved as it scaled up. "Some of the core issues at the company around both data protection and speech come from decisions made in the 2009-2012 era of Facebook, when the company was struggling for revenue in the run-up to the IPO. Those decisions might have been appropriate when a core use of the product was as a life-support system for 'Farmville,' but they needed to be revisited by the time Facebook had become the most important medium for political speech in much of the world."
Stamos has been openly critical of Facebook since leaving back in August 2018, and reportedly clashed with company executives before his exit. He currently works as the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, a program at Stanford University focused on social media abuse.