HOME
          
LATEST STORY
A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 4, 2009, 11:33 a.m.

Five years of Facebook: How it redefined what we consider “news”

Facebook celebrates its fifth birthday today, having led a revolution in social media and shaken up journalism in the process. As a student at Harvard when Facebook launched here in February 2004, I claimed the 185th profile on the site, known then around campus as thefacebook.com — one word, as in, “You won’t believe who poked me on thefacebook.com!” I’m hoping that someday my low profile number will carry the cachet of an old “member since” date on an Amex card. But until then, I’ll just share a quick story about the early days of Facebook that bears on the intersection of journalism and social media.

Mark Zuckerberg has added a wealth of features to Facebook in five years, but he has also taken a few away. There was an ill-fated foray into file-sharing and a course catalog that didn’t survive the site’s expansion. In the first few months, Facebook profiles also listed every mention of a user’s name in the archives of Harvard’s student newspaper The Crimson. It was a useful widget for keeping track of news in your friends’ lives, but Zuckerberg killed it not long after bringing Facebook to a few other universities.

There was no explanation for dropping the feature, and it could have been a problem with scalability, but this is what I think happened: Zuckerberg, who had initially played down the scope of his site, realized that Facebook wasn’t a tool for keeping track of news made somewhere else. It was a tool for making news right there, on Facebook.

In the first chapter of this month’s Lab Book Club selection, economist James Hamilton defines information as “any description that can be stored in a binary (i.e., 0,1) format” and news as “the subset of information offered as news in the marketplace.” Zuckerberg had created a marketplace, though he did not charge an entrance fee, for data in high demand on a very local level: relationships, memberships, likes, dislikes, birthdays. His site transformed that information into news. It was the perfect model, perhaps, of a community or campus news organization that deals in the treasured minutiae of localized networks. And this was at least two years before Facebook’s news feed would give the concept its proper shape.

Such was the state of news on an American college campus in 2004. The student newspaper did its thing — very well, I’d argue — performing a valuable service for its community, one member of which coded a website in “literally…a week” that eclipsed the newspaper’s audience in less than a month. And soon enough, the website didn’t need the newspaper. It was a news organization unto itself.

Related: Facebook has posted some of its early site designs, and here’s a timeline of the site’s expansion, which doesn’t mention the time Zuckerberg compared his unattractive classmates to “farm animals” or tried to organize a nationwide Beirut tournament. On Twitter yesterday afternoon, I asked how Facebook had changed reporting and got two responses. Feel free to add your own thoughts on the five-year-old site’s relationship to journalism in the comments.

POSTED     Feb. 4, 2009, 11:33 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
“I hear the argument, Oh, these poor little magazines with their tiny readerships, if only people appreciated them more. It’s partly true. But the bigger side of that is, well, if only you knew how to read a budget. If only you actually knew anything about publishing.”
The New Inquiry: Not another New York literary magazine
For New Inquiry publisher Rachel Rosenfelt, building cultural significance was easy — building a sustainable business is the hard part.
iOS 8: How 5 news orgs have updated their apps for Apple’s new operating system
ABC, the AP, Breaking News, The Guardian, and The New York Times have all updated apps (or introduced new ones) to take advantage of new features on iOS 8.
What to read next
727
tweets
When it comes to chasing clicks, journalists say one thing but feel pressure to do another
Newsroom ethnographer Angèle Christin studied digital publications in France and the U.S. in order to compare how performance metrics influence culture.
714Wearables could make the “glance” a new subatomic unit of news
“The audience wants to go faster. This can’t be solved with responsive design; it demands an original approach, certainly at the start.”
592Ken Doctor: Guardian Space & Guardian Membership, playing the physical/digital continuum
The Guardian is making its biggest bet on memberships and events by renovating a 30,000 square foot space to host live activities in the heart of London.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
NBCNews.com
GateHouse Media
The Huffington Post
Bayosphere
ReadWrite
Apple
Foursquare
Zonie Report
The Blaze
La Nación
Mother Jones
SF Appeal