Life, Programming

I invented Facebook

Ok, well not really. But I like to think that I *could* have.

The summer after my senior year of high school (that’s 2002), I came up with an idea for a website while delivering pizzas, and I had this exact conversation with my then-girlfriend (now my wife):

Me: “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a website where you could connect with people from high school, and see what they’re up to, since you won’t be seeing them in person much anymore?”
Her: “That sounds kind of dumb.”
Me: “But then later on, when we all have jobs, we would have this ready-made network of people we know who are in all different fields. Think of the potential!” (Obviously, I invented LinkedIn as well.)
Her: “Sure, whatever.”

Well, maybe she didn’t respond exactly like that, but she definitely wasn’t as excited as I was about the concept of creating this social site where you could network with people from your school. I thought it was a neat idea though, so I started working on it.

About four months later, I had finished the first version of the site:

  • It had profiles that you could fill out.
  • You could upload a profile picture.
  • You could comment on other people’s profiles.
  • It automatically showed you people from your class that had signed up already.
  • It even had a feature called the “Rumor Mill,” where you could post information about classmates who hadn’t yet signed up. (In retrospect, this feature was poorly named and probably encouraged libel. Live and learn.)
  • It had search functions: by name, year, city, state, etc.

(Are you seeing the similarities here to a much larger site that would be launched a few years later?)

Now I just needed users. I sent out mass IMs and e-mails to people from my class and the classes a few years ahead of and behind me announcing the site, and then I waited for the inevitable flood of users and praise. However, given my grassroots approach, usage was predictably low. Maybe a hundred people signed up before I abandoned it for more worthwhile pursuits. I had to personally e-mail my parents a second time to prod them to sign up. My idea was obviously just ahead of its time.

Looking back upon this project, I realize that I made two crucial mistakes: the site was specific to my high school, and all of the names of the alumni who could possibly sign up were hard-coded in the database. (I was able to convince the school secretary to send me a spreadsheet of all current and former students.)

If you didn’t catch the implication there, here it is: I limited adoption of my site right off the bat to a single school, and I went through the trouble of manually creating user accounts for every possible user – a waste of time for a project with limited appeal. (Additionally, it prevented any students who attended the school after 2002 from signing up.)

The site is long gone now (except for a poorly styled copy of the front page courtesy of the Internet Archive), and the code that powered it has since been lost. But I learned a valuable lesson from the experience:

Think big.

When you’re starting a project, don’t just plan on your friends using it, plan on EVERY SINGLE PERSON IN THE WORLD wanting to try it out. If I had only planned for wider adoption, I could have created a Facebook-esque site 2 years before Zuckerberg got the idea from ConnectU. (Theoretically, of course. I’m not claiming that I was the first to write a social networking sites for classmates, but obviously, there was space in that niche for another competitor.)

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2 thoughts on “I invented Facebook

  1. I run into this a lot. I had the idea for MVC prior to discovering Rails. One of my first (unpublished) blog posts was about cross site integrations… which turned into a google thing that I forgot the name of. My old non-profit started in 1997 as “social network” for artists predating Deviant Art, myspace, etc. lame.

    It must just be the evolution of the computer world. It is not specific to the computer world either. A bunch of people invented the telephone, the record player, and other things all around the same time. The first person to file the patent (or with the better marketing), seems to prevail. oh well. Heck, Friendster is a lot like myspace and that was around a loooong time. Not to mention Live Journal predating the blog fad, blablabla.

    Just gotta be quicker on the trigger ;)

  2. This happens to my husband and I all the time, to the point where we started to check our house and car for bugs like paranoid nutcases. Oh the things we invented, like rock star action figures… then Todd McFarlane came along and STOLE our idea. I’d like to know how… It must be the “hundredth monkey effect” and shared consciousness.

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