In the time before news feed, the Web was a strange, quiet, and probably very lonely place. I say “probably” because I can barely remember the way things worked back then. After Facebook launched news feed, nothing on the Web would ever be the same again.
Get this: Before news feed, which launched seven years ago this month, you could post a picture or some other personal detail somewhere—your Facebook or MySpace or Friendster page, Flickr, Blogger, LiveJournal—and be reasonably sure that it would remain just there, unseen by pretty much everyone you knew. The only way someone might find it is by checking your page. Sure, some people would do that—but everyone had scores of connections online, so no one was checking each of their friends’ pages. The net effect was solitude. In The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick’s history of Facebook’s early years, Chris Cox, who’s now the company’s vice president of product, recounts the founding idea for news feed: “The Internet could help you answer a million questions, but not the most important one, the one you wake up with every day: How are the people doing that I care about?”
Looking back, it’s clear that news feed is one of the most important, influential innovations in the recent history of the Web. News feed forever altered our relationship to personal data, turning everything we do online into a little message for friends or the world to consume. You might not like this trend—or, at least, you might claim you don’t like this trend. But the stats prove you probably do. News feed is the basis for Facebook’s popularity, the thing that initially set it apart from every other social network, and the reason hundreds of millions of us go back to the site every day.
But news feed is bigger than that. Either directly or indirectly, it’s the inspiration for just about every social-media feature that has come along since. News feed paved the way for Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Flipboard, and Quora—for every site that thrives off of the communities created by lots of people’s individual contributions. News feed changed the media (it’s hard to imagine BuzzFeed without it), advertising, politics, and, to the extent that it altered how we all talk to one another, society itself.
Yes, that sounds over-important. But consider this: Thanks to news feed, I learned today that that this one dude I barely knew in high school just had a baby. I know what his half-clothed wife looked like just after labor. I’ve seen his mother-in-law. I’ve seen his infant daughter. Is such forced, daily, crushing intimacy good or bad for the world? None of us can say for sure yet. Either way, though, it’s hugely consequential—because we now know everything about everyone, the way we relate to one another has changed enormously, and permanently.
News feed was born on Sept. 5, 2006. Facebook announced the feature in a short, straightforward blog post that offered no hints of the magnitude of the change coming to the site. At the time, Facebook was still available only to students and others with select email addresses. It had around 10 million active users, meaning it was dwarfed by other social networks, especially MySpace. (Facebook opened itself up to everyone later that September.)
“News Feed … updates a personalized list of news stories throughout the day, so you'll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again,” Ruchi Sanghvi, then a Facebook product manager, wrote in the announcement. By bringing everyone’s news to you, Facebook’s engineers reasoned, news feed would make Facebook much easier to use. Sanghvi added: “These features are not only different from anything we've had on Facebook before, but they're quite unlike anything you can find on the web.”
She was right. News feed was different—so different that people immediately hated it. News feed sparked the first of many major privacy firestorms for Facebook, the first time people questioned how the information they were posting on the site might be used by others. A few days after it launched, amid a storm of protest, Mark Zuckerberg posted a mea culpa (also the first of many) in which he promised to tweak Facebook’s privacy controls to mitigate some people’s worries. But Facebook didn’t get rid of news feed, because however loudly people protested, the company could see that people loved it.