Blast from the Past: Facemash

Blast from the Past: Facemash

Before creating and growing Facebook into a social networking behemoth it is today, with more than 13 000 employees and over 1 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg invented Facemash.

Harvard's Am I Hot or Not?

Facemash, described by The Crimson as Harvard version of the Am I Hot or Not?, allowed users to rate the looks of students by placing two pictures side-by-side and letting them choose which one is "hot". Alex Nevsky replicated Facemash based on available descriptions, and if you wish you can give it a run.


Rise and Fall

While the mechanics were not new, Facemash generated a lot of controversy and backlash, primarily because of the way pictures of students were sourced. Zuckerberg hacked into Harvard’s computer network, specifically House online facebooks, and copied ID photos. 

But how did it become so popular so fast? According to The Crimson:

After creating the website, Zuckerberg forwarded the link to a few friends for advice.

But the link then was sent out on several campus group list-serves, and traffic skyrocketed.

In the course of one day, the number of visitors quadrupled—by 10 p.m., the site had been visited by 450 people, who voted at least 22,000 times.

In How The Social Network Got It Wrong: Facemash and the Dangerous Propagation of the Myth of Network Scarcity, David Larochelle describes the differences between Facemash story as portrayed in The Social Network and how it really happened. The biggest difference he emphasizes is that Facemash's spike in popularity did not in fact bring down the Harvard's network.

Further reading

If you wish to dig deeper into the meteoric rise and fall of the Facemash, I'd recommend reading following The Crimson articles:


Key lessons

What are some of the key lessons Zuckerberg has learnt from this short journey? For example, we could say that this is a story of a fast fail with significant learning outcomes about service/market fit and technological solutions:

  • hotness rating service has received vitriolic response, mainly because of the way pictures were sourced;
  • at the same time meteoric rise indicated that there is something interesting in the service, and that it is worth identifying that critical element;
  • an unexpected high number of users put a lot of stress on Zuckerberg's computer, but ultimately allowed him to assess the quality of his code and scalability potential.

With all being said, we can conclude that Zuckerberg did learn a lot from his fail and used that knowledge to build Facebook into a successful service and company it is today.


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