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On any typical weekend afternoon, over 1,000 users across the U.S. are logged on to thefacebook.com. Not bad for a site that is the product of a late-night dorm conversation at Harvard University. Created by then-sophomore and computer major Mark Zuckerberg in February, 2004, what began as a simple idea to establish an online directory for Harvard students has grown into a sponsored Web site that has spread well beyond Harvard and now boasts 190,000 members. Originally financed by its five founding members, thefacebook is now receiving revenue from advertisers eager to tap such a large, narrow, and from an advertiser's point of view, mouth-watering demographic.
How does it work? Not all that much differently from similar sites serving the general population -- outfits like Friendster (see BW Online, 10/28/03, Finding Love Online, Version 2.0). Thefacebook encourages students at some 37 universities to create personal profiles that include a picture, basic information, and extended biographical details such as political views, hobbies, and interests. Once they have signed up, students can request other members at any university to be their friends -- and once those approached have accepted the request, they can view each other's profiles and friends. Other handy features include the ability to send messages, to search for other signed-up students in your classes, and a reminder of friends' upcoming birthdays.
With no membership fee, signing up costs only time, a commodity that college students are more than willing to waste. But as the site's membership continues to grow, the number of people running the site has remained the same from the start. The five college boys who founded thefacebook are taking their success in stride, confident that they can maintain their just-for-fun Web site turned small business without any outside help. Recently, BW Online's Katie DeWitt spoke with Chris Hughes, one of thefacebook's founders. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: What did you originally intend that thefacebook.com to be?
A: We decided to combine social networking capabilities with a site styled to be like a directory, holding extensive information about its users, such as courses, references in campus publications, contact information, and summer plans.
Q: Did you expect it to become as popular and widespread as it did?
A: No, never. When we were having conversations about the site, we thought of it as a resource for Harvard students that, hopefully, a few thousand people at most might take advantage of.
Q: What was your reaction to the site's success?
A: Within days of its launching, we realized that thefacebook.com was going to be much bigger than we thought. We were all a little taken aback by the success of the site at the outset but quickly got adjusted to the fact that thefacebook.com was going to become a central project in our lives.
Q: Why do you think the facebook.com is so appealing to college students?
A: It's hard to tell, but our general idea is that people are using the site both to have fun -- to get to know their peers, to see who is friends with whom and also to find useful information. So it works on two levels.
Q: How do you market your site?
A: Our business manager markets the Web site to companies he thinks might be interested in advertising on the site. We currently do have outside advertising, but we also try to coordinate advertising within college communities. For instance, any group or student at Brown who wanted to publicize an event just at Brown could pay for advertising that would remain school-specific.
Q: What are your goals?
A: This fall, the site will undergo significant change. Not only will we expand to cover over 100 schools, but we are planning on integrating new features and a program to the site.
Q: Have you considered turning the site into a full-time, profit-generating business?
A: The site is already a full-time business, in the sense that it consumes the time of a full-time business and is incorporated as a company. We have received generous offers to be bought out, but at this point, we are not expressly interested in giving up the project. We like the site, enjoy running it, and are having fun with what we're doing.