The Facebook "f" logo on a blue background

Facebook, the popular social network, boasts billions of users worldwide. Did you ever wonder how the service got its name—and what does “Facebook” mean, anyway? We’ll explain.

It’s a Reference to Printed University Student Guides

At some point in the 20th century, some American universities (and some private high schools) began issuing student directories that included headshot photographs of the students, similar to yearbooks, but often aimed at new or incoming students. People often called this type of directory a “face book,” “facebook,” or “freshman facebook.”

While a student at Harvard in 2003, Mark Zuckerberg grew impatient that Harvard had not created a freshman facebook, so he took matters into his own hands and illicitly pulled together student photos from Harvard’s various resident houses and put them on a site called facemash.com. The Facemash site let visitors compare and rank female student attractiveness, similar to Hot or Not, which was popular at the time. Zuckerberg got in big trouble with Harvard’s Advisory Board, but he quickly shut down the site and did not face disciplinary action.

The cover and excerpt from Guilford College's 2000 facebook directory.
A real printed facebook from the year 2000. Guilford College / Zack Hample

Zuckerberg had previously known about a directory called “The Photo Address Book” at his private high school, Phillips Exeter Academy, which the students informally called “the facebook.”

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In 2004, Zuckerberg regrouped and created TheFacebook.com, which borrowed from Friendster’s social network model where people would voluntarily upload their own pictures and information, which didn’t violate any university rules. It proved immediately popular at Harvard and grew rapidly to other universities, changing its name to just “Facebook” in 2005, and eventually opening to the general public in 2006.

From Facebook to Meta

As it turns out, people really love seeing photos of each other. Facebook exploded in popularity, reaching 100 million users in 2008 and 1 billion users in 2012. As of March 2022, Facebook has around 2 billion active users around the world, and only recently did the network see negative user growth for the first time.

In October 2021, Facebook’s parent company changed its name to Meta in a bid to bring the metaverse to life. So far, it’s been a rough transition, but the Facebook social networking site is still widely in use around the world—and it all started when Harvard students wanted to connect with and see photos of each other.

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is an Associate Editor for How-To Geek. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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