The year was 2007, and Myspace was king. With more than 300 million registered users, it was the world’s largest social-networking platform by a mile and, since overtaking Google the previous year, the most visited website in the United States. Friendster had been thoroughly eclipsed. Google’s first attempt at a social network, Orkut, was a domestic flop. Twitter, founded in 2006, still hosted only a fraction of a percent of Myspace’s user base. Snapchat and Instagram weren’t even a twinkle in Silicon Valley’s eye.
Facebook, though, was on the upswing. For nearly three years, it had slowly spread through schools and businesses. In September 2006, it opened fully to the public for the first time. By October 2007, it had 50 million active users around the world. By July 2008, it would have 90 million. In 2009, it would overtake Myspace for good.
Facebook first appeared in the pages of The Atlantic during the early stages of this precipitous rise. Michael Hirschorn’s 2007 article, titled simply “About Facebook,” acts as a time capsule for all the uncertain potential of that moment in the social network’s history. It was also a prescient assessment of what came next.
Hirschorn believed that Myspace’s popularity was tenuous and not built to last. He asserted that the site relied “too much on the packaging and marketing of tools that exist elsewhere on the web.” Without a “compelling retention mechanism,” he argued, the platform was vulnerable to losing its users when greener pastures presented themselves, just as Friendster had lost its own to Myspace years earlier. But Facebook, Hirschorn thought, was different. It was “the site that, in my experience, comes closest to fulfilling the promise of social media,” he wrote.
He likened Myspace to “Times Square circa 1977”: open, disjointed, blaring, crowded; a mishmash of personalities and widgets and ads. In contrast, he wrote, Facebook reflected the community and order of suburban life. The cohesive aesthetic and intuitive interface lent the site a simple elegance of use, while the restrictions on who could access which aspects of which profiles seemed to prevent spam or marketing ploys from making disruptive inroads into the platform. In this way, he argued, Facebook was like Google’s search engine, iTunes, or the recently released Nintendo Wii. They all dominated not by providing boundless options but by offering a limited and orderly set of them.
The appeal of Facebook, Hirschorn explained, was that it offered its users control—or, at least, the appearance of control. They could restrict access to their profiles, select their friends, erect privacy walls, and interact with people or apps only in the limited ways they opted to. “It is a connection engine,” he wrote, “that successfully mirrors how most of us want to live our lives.”
Many of the particular features that Hirschorn highlighted to illustrate the site’s charms have since fallen by the wayside. Among them: messages prompting users “to explain how they know each other,” “a cool little app called Friend Wheel” that visualized friendship networks, and an app for “the popular music-sharing social network iLike.”
But his broader observations and predictions have held water. He saw, for instance, Facebook’s potential to become a sort of global homepage through which users interact with the web. He also suggested that Facebook “could use its base to start offering more-advanced e-mail and IM applications, universal search, photo and video sharing”—all of which it went on to do, with varying degrees of success. And he noted that “Facebook has detailed and deep information about [its users’] interests and preferences” that it could eventually monetize, though it had “shown an almost tantric restraint about exploiting its ever-growing audience” to that point.
Twelve years later, the version of Facebook that Hirschorn described feels quaint and foreign: an online space, centered around real communities, where user control was paramount and outside interests felt remote. But the article also serves as a reminder that even in that quaint iteration, the seeds existed for much of the fruit, both connective and invasive, that the site has borne since.