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Poke By Poke: How Facebook Ate Your Life, One Feature At A Time

Former TechCrunch senior writer Jason Kincaid is just young enough to remember those days and, in the book, he explains feature-by-feature how Facebook went from something most "grown ups" said they'd never use to something nearly 1 billion people can't live without.
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We knew when we launched our startup blog, PandoDaily, that the biggest story of the year would be Facebook's spring IPO. Considering that we counted many of the world's leading experts on Facebook among our staff and contributors, we couldn't think of a better topic for our first ebook. Buy This Book Before You Buy Facebook: A PandoDaily Expert Guide to the Internet's Biggest IPO was published yesterday.

Rather than taking readers back to Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room -- again -- we decided instead to tell the narrative of the company through five different lenses: the people who've built it, the product itself, its $2 billion in private financing, its revenues and the privacy scandals that have long dogged the company.

Yesterday, we posted an exclusive excerpt on The Huffington Post from our first chapter about the people who have powered Facebook. Today, we bring you part of the narrative of the product itself. Almost no one in his or her 30s remembers what Facebook was like in the early days because you had to be in college to use it. Former TechCrunch senior writer Jason Kincaid is just young enough to remember those days and, in the book, he explains feature-by-feature how Facebook went from something most "grown ups" said they'd never use to something nearly 1 billion people can't live without.

Here's an extract from Jason's chapter, which starts not in the Harvard dorm room, but in his own dorm room in UCLA...

I remember the first time I used Facebook, back in April 2004. Relatively speaking, I signed up very early in the company's history -- my user ID is 25000037, which means I was roughly the thirty-seventh student at UCLA to ever sign up for the service. This, based on some napkin math and Facebook's current user base of around 1 billion, puts me among the first .01% of people on Earth to ever use Facebook.

Of course, that's just relatively speaking. There were tens of thousands of people using the site before me -- it'd launched a few months prior, in February 2004 -- so I can't claim too much in the way of prescience. I can, however, remember the site as it was before it became a worldwide phenomenon, back when you needed a college email address to sign up in the first place, and before endless media flurries over snoopy bosses and incriminating photos had students on their guard.

I also vividly recall the first thing I said after signing into Facebook for the first time and discovering that very few of my friends had created accounts. "Well, it seems cool. But it'll only work if people I know actually join it."

Prescient indeed.

Facebook was, of course, named after Harvard's student directory: its face book. The original version of Facebook had more in common with its print namesakes than it does with the service today. Many of the site's core features -- the Wall, News Feed, even the Photos app -- didn't exist. A user's profile consisted of little more than a single photo and a selection of basic information, including the ever-important 'Relationship Status.'

This spartan design had a certain charm to it: it was clean, generally easy to use, filled with real names as opposed to painfully un-clever aliases, and it made MySpace -- at the time, the biggest social network around -- look like a cesspool by comparison. But this simplicity also meant that there wasn't much to do, aside from clicking between friends' profiles and maybe sending the occasional private message. There was, however, one oddball feature that helped set the tone for the site: The Poke.

Irreverent and a little bit strange, the Poke could only have been borne from Facebook's college dorm room roots (can you imagine Google or Microsoft launching a feature called 'Poke' without coming off as either creepy or hopelessly awkward?).

The feature itself is as basic as they come: visit a user's profile, click the button that says "Poke," and the next time that user logs in they'll see an alert informing them that you have Poked them. That's it, more or less.

But pointless as they may seem, Pokes have always had a certain charm to them. For one, they used to be comically huge -- imagine logging into Facebook to find the top of the page dominated by an unnecessarily large hand pointing sideways, a notification large enough that you might leave it on your screen for longer than necessary because you knew the girl sitting next to you in the computer lab could see it ("Wow, someone Poked him, I bet he's cool," she'd think to herself).

My hopeless attempts at wooing coeds aside, the Poke is also a perfect example of what makes Facebook powerful, and in many ways, unique among the tech giants. Because, while it may seem juvenile and silly, Poking is fundamentally a form of communication between two people. In fact, in some cases it's actually the perfect form of communication -- a way to show someone you care, without the baggage of having to think up an appropriate message. I often wonder how many flames have been kindled by a simple Poke, or how many times they've been used as a signal of peace between feuding friends who haven't spoken in years (I'm a sucker for that sort of thing).

Alas, you can only Poke someone so many times before it gets weird. Thankfully, it didn't take Facebook's creators long to start building features that would make the site more 'sticky' -- that is, things that would keep users coming back time and time again, often many times a day. The Wall was our first fix.

As with many of Facebook's key features, the Wall was functionality and technologically simple, powered more by social dynamics than algorithms. In short, it let you visit a friend's profile and leave a comment there, which in turn could also be seen by all of their friends (Facebook has gradually given users far more control over who can see what, but the basic premise remains the same).

Users quickly embraced the feature, using it to leave coy references to antics of the previous evening, drawings of Homer Simpson's head crafted out of punctuation marks, and, in what has become one of the service's longest-standing traditions, to leave each other insincere birthday wishes.

But the Wall was only a prelude to Facebook's next big launch, which came in October 2005 -- over a year and a half after the social network first went live. The feature that would, more so than any other, help turn Facebook into a juggernaut: its all-important Photos application.

The success of Facebook Photos today is easily demonstrated by looking at its daily statistics. Every day, users upload 250 million photos -- and it houses more images than all other photo sites combined, several times over. Facebook has become the de facto way for people to share their photos, to the point that many people actually get annoyed if you fail to upload your images in a timely manner, and its dominance becomes more pronounced with each passing day. Try as I might, it is hard to overstate how important Photos have been to Facebook's ongoing success.

But when it first launched in October 2005, the success of Facebook Photos seemed far from assured -- in fact, compared to the myriad free photo sharing services available even then, Facebook Photos was downright anemic, with little in the way of album management and no editing tools to speak of.

Yet the product still managed to steamroll over the competition, thanks to a feature that Facebook alone could offer: Tagging.

The concept is deceptively simple. Upload a photo and Facebook will prompt you to 'tag' each of your friends by clicking on their faces and typing in their names. Facebook then notifies the tag-ee that there's a new photo of them online, which inevitably sparks a moment of trepidation as they fire up their browser to see if they've been captured sporting a double chin. (Chins aside, most people actually quite enjoy seeing new photos of themselves and their friends online).

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