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What is Facebook?

Facebook is a social networking website that was founded in February 2004 by Harvard University students Chris Hughes, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg.

The idea behind Facebook was to provide an online book of faces for university students to connect and share information. It was initially a social network for Harvard and expanded in the following years to any university. It eventually became a social network for anyone, anywhere in the world.

The concept of a social network was a nascent one in 2004 and not entirely unique. Other social networks that were active at the time Facebook was created were Friendster, which was launched in 2002, and MySpace, which was launched in 2003. Users post information, status updates and pictures of themselves on social networks. These items are shared with friends, family and communities of interest.

Facebook is more than just a social networking platform; it's also a business. Facebook had its initial public offering on May 18, 2012, on the Nasdaq stock exchange trading under the symbol FB. The company rebranded as Meta on Oct. 28, 2021. As of Dec. 1, 2021, Facebook trades under the symbol MVRS.

Facebook is only one of several technologies that Meta operates. In 2012, Facebook acquired social networking site Instagram for $1 billion. Facebook then acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014. Facebook later got into virtual reality (VR) hardware with its acquisition of Oculus VR in 2014 for $2 billion. With Meta, the idea is to create and enable the metaverse. This would meld social networking, VR and augmented reality components to create new types of user interactions and experiences.

Key Facebook features

Facebook started out as a community where users shared information about themselves and different topics. Over time, different features expanded the scope of its capabilities:

  • Timeline. User profiles and updates are shown on what it known as the Timeline. Timeline is the successor to the Facebook wall, which was the original home for user profiles and updates. The user timeline includes posts, status updates, friend listings, photos, videos and user activity information.
  • Friends. A primary feature of Facebook is the ability to search for and connect with friends and family. The search interface helps users quickly find acquaintances and also suggests potential connections.
  • News Feed. News Feed enables users to view news from the connections and groups that they follow. Users can like a given post or comment on it.
  • Pages. Pages are the profile and content pages for businesses on Facebook. Pages provide the ability for businesses to share information and communicate with customers.
  • Games. Facebook provides an integrated capability enabling users to play games on their own or together with friends. Among the early successes of games on Facebook was Zynga's FarmVille.
  • Groups. Communities of interest can organize themselves with the Facebook group feature. This enables the sharing of information, images and active discussions.
  • Events. This feature enables users and groups to organize events that their followers can attend. It enables users to send out invites and help manage an attendee list.
  • Marketplace. This is an online yard sale, where users can buy and sell goods and services with other Facebook members.
  • Messenger. This is an instant messenger that enables friends to communicate in real time via webchat or a mobile app.
  • Video. Facebook Live is a feature that enables individuals and businesses to stream live video to friends, family and followers.

Uses for Facebook

Billions of people around the world use Facebook daily to create and grow communities, personal interactions and revenue. There are many uses for Facebook that individuals, community groups and businesses can benefit from:

  • Connecting with friends. The primary use of Facebook has always been about connecting people. Facebook is a way to find and connect with friends and remain updated on their activities.
  • Creating communities. Facebook is used to create and organize communities of interest on just about any topic. It's a platform that can enabled like-minded individuals to come together, share ideas, discuss and organize.
  • Engaging with customers. For businesses, Facebook can help with brand building and customer engagement. Having a Facebook presence enables businesses to share information about products and services to established and potential customers.
  • Searching for jobs. Facebook is often a way to look at the personal and professional lives of people and organizations to see if there is a cultural fit. Businesses also often list available jobs on the app.
  • Selling goods and services. Businesses can sell goods and services directly in the marketplace. They can also push consumers toward their products via advertisements.

Facebook controversies

Over the course of its existence, Facebook has been the subject of many controversies. Several scandals were severe enough that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified before the U.S. Congress about the company's practices. Here are some controversies of note.

Winklevoss twins

The origins of Facebook itself are mired in controversy with twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who claimed Zuckerberg stole the original idea for the site that became Facebook. The Winklevosses sued Zuckerberg, and a settlement was reached in 2008 that included a mix of cash and shares estimated at the time to be worth $65 million.

Beacon advertising system

One of the earliest controversies involving user privacy occurred in 2007 with Facebook's first attempt to monetize its site with an advertising system originally known as Beacon. The Beacon system shared user activity with advertisers without user permission or the ability to opt out. In December 2007, Facebook withdrew the feature, and Zuckerberg published a public apology, pledging to do a better job protecting user information and privacy.

Facebook two-factor authentication

In September 2018, Facebook admitted that it was providing user phone numbers to advertisers. Users originally provided their numbers to enable two-factor authentication. This authentication was intended to provide integrity to the Facebook login process, and user information was supposed to be kept private.

Cambridge Analytica

The Cambridge Analytica scandal broke on March 19, 2018. Cambridge Analytica was a political data analytics firm with an app used by Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica then accessed user data without user authorization. The collected data was allegedly used to influence the 2016 U.S. elections and U.K. Brexit vote. The scandal triggered an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission. Zuckerberg appeared before the U.S. Congress to address concerns about privacy practices.

Facebook Papers

Facebook has had many whistleblowers come forward over the years alleging wrongdoing at the company. Perhaps the most well known of them is Frances Haugen. In 2021, she leaked details on the social media giant's own research about the negative effect Facebook has on teen girls and others. Haugen testified before Congress on Oct. 5, 2021, about Facebook and its effect on children.

Facial recognition

In November 2021, Facebook announced it was shutting down some of its facial recognition capabilities to allay concerns about user privacy. There are multiple problems with the facial recognition that Facebook was using, including tagging users without permission.

EU privacy law fine

In May 2023, European Union regulators fined Meta $1.3 billion USD for violating EU privacy laws by transferring Facebook users’ personal data to United States servers. The European Data Protection Board announced the fine and said that storing personal data in the U.S. infringed on Europe’s data privacy law – the General Data Protection Regulation.

Facebook dangers

As a community of users that share information and pictures, there is no shortage of potential dangers that can put users at risk.

Facebook has admitted to multiple risks and identified several safety resources to stay safe on the site. Users should think before they post, report things that are suspicious and never share their passwords. Here are some potential dangers for Facebook users:

  • Social engineering. Users can be tricked into doing something that they originally didn't intend to do with a social engineering On Facebook, that could lead to fraud or other potential financial losses.
  • Malicious apps. A Facebook app could gain access to a user's information, including contacts and activity. This could then expose the user to risk via a privacy violation or even malware.
  • Identify theft. Users commonly share personally identifiable information on Facebook, and in the wrong hands, that information can be used to create fraudulent identities.
  • Marketplace scams. There are myriad scams that occur in the marketplace where users sell goods and services. Scams include stolen, fake or counterfeit merchandise, among other forms of fraud.
  • Social media addiction and mental health. An ever-present danger with Facebook is the social effect on mental health. Facebook's own research shows that its platforms, including Instagram, are harmful to teens' mental health. With the large volume of negative and disturbing news that can permeate the platform, there can also be a tendency toward doomscrolling. This is where users aimlessly scroll through reams of negative news, which can have a bleak effect on mental health.
This was last updated in November 2021

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