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Trends & Insights | Blog

A social success: Facebook at 20

February 5, 2024


As Facebook celebrates its 20th birthday, we're taking a moment to reflect on how Zuckerberg's revolutionary platform has changed social media forever.

Drew Benvie

CEO & Founder

Want to hear something that will make you feel old? Facebook turned 20 years old last week. As someone who has been working in this industry since before Mark Zuckerberg even finished high school, I thought it would be interesting to reflect on how one idea changed the world forever.

The original influencer

As the Facebook empire has expanded over the past two decades, so too has its influence on all aspects of how we communicate, consume media and spend our time. Facebook has innovated, emulated, and acquired its way to the top. It is Zuckerberg’s adaptability, I think, that has enabled Facebook and its stable of apps and brands to weather the perfect storm.

Zuck’s Facebook profile from 2004

Facebook’s launch was viral, monumental, and may never be equalled. Much has been written about the very early days of ‘The Facebook’ (and I can’t recommend the movie The Social Network enough if you haven’t seen it) but I think Facebook’s formative years were more interesting when it turned six, as this was when it began taking over the world.

Innovation and acquisition

In 2010 Facebook bought Friendster, and turned its ‘friend feed’ into what we all now know simply as ‘the feed’. Before that, we all just had walls and poked each other. Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and then WhatsApp in 2014 were more fundamental to the evolution of social media to how we use it today, as they integrated photo and video sharing, messaging and social networking in a way no other services had done. Facebook then created Meta as the parent company for its various brands in 2021, and now over 3 billion people use a Meta product every day, which still astounds me.

Back in 2004, when Mark Zuckerberg was still a Harvard undergraduate, I was working as a tech PR manager in an agency. I was helping brands launch tech products by day, and I was a tech blogger by night. It became apparent that this fledgling technology was going to be big, and I was finding ways to incorporate new ways of using it in my day job.

Brands and social networks

I was not the most natural PR person. Back then, a typical PR would be busy writing, networking or schmoozing, and I was neither gifted or interested in any of the above. I was always an introverted person, so when social networks appeared, I found a way to apply my technical interests at work. While I’m not a techie, I know tech well enough to use it quickly and see how it can be applied. 

I started learning to code in the 1980s when I wasn’t on my bike or my roller boots. I started blogging and using messaging rooms for PR in the late 90s when I wasn’t playing rugby, and I saw Facebook’s launch in 2004 herald a new era of social media that could bring the world closer together. Most importantly, I saw how it could bring the brands I was working with closer to their customers, influencers, and mainstream media. 

Web 2.0, as it was called back in 2004, was already beginning to change the face of the internet. Sites such as Friendster and MySpace were already popular, blogging was the big thing, LinkedIn was really just a CV library, and social media was yet to be common parlance.

Enter social media

It wasn’t until 2006 that social media became a more commonly used phrase. At that time, I was running a blog that I called The Social Media Report, and when I noticed that nobody had yet written a page about the emerging industry on Wikipedia, I jumped at the chance. I wrote the first four versions of the social media Wikipedia page until it started to take off.

With great power comes responsibility

Fast forward to now and social media is arguably the most important form of global communication. As if we needed more evidence, last week Meta announced soaring revenues of 25 percent – and for the first time in its 20-year history paid a dividend ($1.25bn) to investors, which could be a watershed moment for big tech stocks. On a user level, Facebook has hit a high of 3.07 billion users each month – roughly 35% of the entire world’s population.

But it's not all good news. Recently, we have seen the power of Meta, Facebook, Instagram and Zuckerberg come under scrutiny, most recently in Senate hearings about child safety. While AI has in recent years helped Meta’s apps remove more harmful content, the influence of the algorithm is still front and centre. Not just for Meta either, as screen time, social media addiction and interference affect all social networks and all social media users. 

What will we see then in the next 20 years? History tells us we should expect more of the same: innovation, imitation and acquisition. Zuckerberg, I think, will not need to keep as tight a hold of the reins as he has done to date, perhaps focusing more on his philanthropy.

But one thing’s for certain: Facebook changed everything, and there’s no going back.