#TBT: When college newspapers doubted Facebook and its ‘lame Harvard kid’ founder

In 2004, long before the mainstream media was paying attention to Mark Zuckerberg’s creation, thefacebook.com was causing a frenzy on college campuses.

The homepage of thefacebook.com, as it looked on February 12, 2004. —web.archive.org

“Wearing a yellow T-shirt, blue jeans, and open-toe Adidas sandals, Zuckerberg sits on a ragged couch in the middle of a messy Kirkland House common room, surrounded by strewn clothes and half-closed boxes. Amidst this squalor, he smiles.’’

That is how Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was described in a June 2004 profile in The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.

Just four months earlier, on February 4, 2004, the Harvard sophomore launched thefacebook.com from his dorm room.

In the days and weeks that followed the launch, Zuckerberg’s creation took off, gaining hundreds, and then thousands, of users, first at Harvard, and then as it expanded in the Ivy League, and ultimately, well, worldwide.

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It wasn’t until September 2004 – more than seven months after it launched – that thefacebook.com was first mentioned in The Boston Globe. By then, the site had 284,000 users at 99 different colleges.

In its infancy, however, thefacebook.com was covered, ad nauseum, in the pages of student newspapers.

The coverage began where the site began: at Harvard.

“Hundreds register for new Facebook website,’’ read a headline in The Crimson on February 9, 2004.

Why the site gained so many users so quickly was a mystery, even to its founder.

“I have no idea why it’s so popular,’’ Zuckerberg told The Crimson on February 18.

But popular it was, and the site soon expanded, launching on Columbia’s campus on February 25.

The reception from Columbia’s student community was less than warm, as evidenced by the coverage in the Columbia Spectator.

When thefacebook.com was introduced on campus, it was seen by many as Harvard encroaching on Columbia’s turf. And after all, the school already had its own social media platform, CUCommunity – once described by the Spectator as “the online social network for students who think Friendster is too inclusive.’’

A battle, of sorts, ensued, with Columbia students attempting to “Google-bomb’’ thefacebook.com. (Google-bombing involves an attempt to negatively bias a site’s Google search result.)

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The Google-bombing effort failed, and The Crimson ran an editorial about the battle:

“Progress always has its detractors. Students at Columbia renounced the spread of thefacebook.com earlier this week, saying they were “pretty annoyed’’ and threatening to “Google Bomb’’ the Harvard website into e-blivion. Tough words, baby blue. In the face of such ignorant pleas to remain socially backward … facebook devotees should press on …

Harvard students have a duty to help those at lesser schools … break free from social life in the social slow lane and bring them up to speed on the superhighway of cool … Such blinding ignorance of the ways of the world is unacceptable, and thus it comes down to the Harvard student—that noble specimen of undergraduate—to spread this superior brand of social interaction … Let all overachievers feel the uncanny rush as they approach triple digits on their friend lists, of getting those three crucial acceptances to edge just past their roommates’ totals, of electronically cataloging their friends from different schools—which is really awesome.’’

An April 5 column in the Spectator railed against thefacebook.com, decrying the site’s launch and calling it nothing less than an act of war:

“Thanks to CUCommunity, our undergraduate body is closer than ever before … But the cowards in Cambridge just couldn’t accept that. They had to create thefacebook.com. They had to challenge us. We find ourselves again at the front lines of a war to defend our honor, our sovereignty, and our unquestionable dominance over all fields of endeavor. Harvard University, a rather undistinguished liberal arts college located in one of New York’s most far-flung suburbs (Boston), has fired the first shot, but … we will undoubtedly fire the last.’’

The column ended with a promise: “By this summer, victory will once again be ours.’’

The Stanford Daily also extensively covered thefacebook.com after it arrived on campus February 26.

“All the cool kids are doing it,’’ read a March 5 article. “Classes are being skipped. Work is being ignored. Students are spending hours in front of their computers in utter fascination. Thefacebook.com craze has swept through campus.’’

Shirin Sharif wrote about the site’s popularity in the March 5, 2004 edition of the Stanford Daily.

On March 10, TheStanford Daily ran two more articles on thefacebook.com, both critical of either the site or its founder.

“The cyber-demon has demolished all existing social conventions and caused more than one panic attack about rejecting a random friend listing or actually admitting you’re looking for ’random play,’’’ one read.

“Yeah, I’m surprised, too, that a [computer science] major from socially vibrant Harvard would try to find a novel way to meet people,’’ read the other. “I think the creators … should have called it something other than “The Facebook.’’ Perhaps acne-ridden dork magazine would have worked better.’’

A March 10 column in The Stanford Daily focused on the ‘darker side’ of thefacebook.com.

As winter turned to spring, thefacebook.com expanded further, and Zuckerberg continued to be insulted in the pages of Ivy League newspapers.

The “poking’’ feature could only have been created by someone with no social skills, guessed a University of Pennsylvania freshman quoted in The Daily Pennsylvanian.

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“I can see how some lame Harvard kid could see how [poking is] some way to overcome social anxiety,’’ the freshman said.

The March 7 launch on the Dartmouth College campus was described in the student newspaper as having spread “like a conjunctivitis epidemic across campus.’’

“What is it with the almost universal obsession with Thefacebook.com?,’’ read an article in The Dartmouth. “Thefacebook.com serves essentially no purpose, yet everyone I know, including myself, is consumed by it.’’

For those who felt as though Facebook’s original promise had been one of exclusivity, there was discomfort as the site soon expanded well beyond elite institutions.

A column in MIT’s student newspaper, The Tech, showed displeasure with the site’s increasing inclusiveness:

“I was under the impression that Facebook was intended only for the elite colleges in the United States when I joined last year. Now anyone can join, be he from Misericordia, Walla Walla, or some place called “NYU.’’ Alas, just like anything good (cars, airplanes, food, education, peace, health care, and voting rights), Facebook has fallen from grace into the hands of the plebeians. The upshot is that as Facebook’s reach has grown, so has our ability to stalk (commonly referred to as “Facebooking’’) random BU, Wellesley, Simmons, and, occasionally, MIT girls.’’

The homepage of thefacebook.com, as it appeared in June 2004. —web.archive.org

Facebook currently has more than 1 billion daily active users, employs over 12,000 people, and the “lame Harvard kid’’ is worth an estimated $50.2 billion.

The writers who covered Facebook’s infancy are now out of college. But the memories of thefacebook.com’s earliest days remain vivid.

“[It] literally took the campus by storm,’’ former Stanford Daily writer Shirin Sharif told Boston.com. “Everyone was talking about it … I remember going to the library between classes to check my friend requests.’’

“It was a phenomenon,’’ former Tech writer Nikhil Shenoy agreed. “It exploded. Everybody was talking about it. It’s hard to remember that back then, the only way to express yourself back then was to have a funny AOL messenger away message.’’

In the 12 years since Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com, the site has exceeded the expectations of everyone, including its founder.

When asked by The Crimson in June 2004 whether he would consider selling thefacebook.com, Zuckerberg responded:

“That’s just like not something we’re really interested in … I mean, yeah, we can make a bunch of money—that’s not the goal…I mean, like, anyone from Harvard can get a job and make a bunch of money. Not everyone at Harvard can have a social network.’’

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that Facebook’s “poking’’ feature is defunct.

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