As Facebook celebrates its 16th birthday, it's clear that the world's biggest social network has a lot in common with human 16-year-olds. Once sweet, innocent and all about hanging out with a few close friends, it's now morphed into a temperamental monster, spreading lies and rumours, and not taking any responsibility for the mess it's made.
Along with Instagram and WhatsApp, which it owns, Facebook dominates the social media world in 2020. It's weird to remember a time before Facebook, when young people were using all kinds of – often very local – social networks all over the world. To celebrate Facebook’s sweet 16th, I asked five people from different parts of the globe about their favourite platforms from the pre-Zuckerberg days. Most have been abandoned entirely, but some are still active today.
Origin: Global. Most popular in Brazil and India
Users: 66 million at its peak in 2011.
Named after founder and former Google employee Orkut Büyükkökten, Orkut was originally a social media platform without a newsfeed or a private chat. Instead, all messages were public on a user’s profile, like on earlier versions of Facebook. It might sound like hell, but Daniel, 25, from Sao Paulo, said it was the best part. “When you have a newsfeed like on Facebook [today], the algorithm pretty much decides what you're gonna see," he said. “Back then, you had 100 percent control over what and who you wanted to interact with.”
“You didn't have the expectation to be able to do everything on the platform," Daniel continued. “You didn’t get your news or follow influencers on Orkut.” From 2006, Facebook began condensing all these features on one site. Orkut tried to adapt, but most Brazilians abandoned it in 2011. “What I miss most is not having my interactions recorded 24/7," he said.
VKontakte (In Contact)
Origin: Russia, popular in Russian-speaking countries
Users: 500 million
VK is still the largest social media website in Russia. Despite similarities to Facebook, the platform also allows users to illegally upload music and movies and stream them without leaving the site. Ani, 25, from Moscow, thinks that’s why VK exploded when she was a teenager. "Back then, we didn't have Spotify or Netflix and nobody really cared about copyright," she said.
Since 2013, the company is been owned by the search engine Mail.ru, which is famously loyal to the Russian government. Ani and many others stopped using it because they worried the government could be able to spy on them through the platform. In recent years, people have been arrested and jailed because of their posts, likes and even reposts citing counterterrorism laws.
“It's become more ‘woke’ to be on Facebook because most Russian liberal intellectuals use it," Ani said. “It's kind of like Twitter for us, it's where you follow people when you want to see what they think.” Today, she only uses VK to talk to a friend who lives far away. “It’s helped me maintain that relationship."
Votamicuerpo (Vote My Body)
Users: Three million (according to their own website).
Votamicuerpo was a social network where users could upload a full-body picture of themselves, for others to anonymously rate their bodies on a scale of one to ten. Your personal score was the average of the points you received, and it was public. “I had an 8.3 or 8.4,” said Carlos, 28, from Toledo. “I cared about it, but the comments mattered more to me. It was nice to get a heart or someone saying you’re handsome.”
Even though the platform sounds like a breeding ground for bullying and low self-esteem, Carlos and his friend Joel insisted that it was all done in good nature. "Everyone knew it was meant as a joke,” Joel said. “I think if Votamicuerpo existed today it would be much more harmful because people take social media way more seriously.”
Lifespan: Unknown – present. Peaked around 2004-2005.
Endless Fantasy helped people connect with others from their region only, by inputting a distance preference in the same way you would on Tinder. “I never figured out where the name came from," said Pia, 28, from Cologne. “I guess it was originally meant to be a dating site." Because you only interacted with people near you, Pia felt Endless Fantasy offered a more tight-knit community that global networks like Facebook can’t recreate.
People would upload pictures of themselves and their friends, and albums reflecting their personality and interests. “For example, I would look online for the coolest picture of my favourite artists, like Kurt Cobain or Die Ärzte, download them and re-upload them in my 'Music' album,” she explained. “I had a crush on this guy who was in a band and I would upload pictures of cool bands so that he’d be impressed if he saw my profile.”
Renren (Everyone's Network)
Users: 56 million at its peak in 2012, 21 million in 2017.
Renren was the most popular network among Chinese university students. Yije*, 30, from Beijing, used it to become friends with his future classmates before his first semester and found it even more useful once he started uni. “Sometimes you had a whole virtual relationship with someone you'd only met once on campus," he said.
Yije graduated around the time WeChat became popular and everyone left Renren. Since Facebook is blocked in mainland China, WeChat is still the most popular social network today. The “super app” combines traditional messaging and video chatting with all kinds of functions, such as ordering food or making appointments with the government. “It's become very difficult to avoid it," Yije said.
In the future, Yije believes more global platforms will be Chinese. "China has 1.4 billion people who don’t really care about our loose regulations on data and privacy, so tech companies have more access." He thinks Tiktok's growth shows Western people are now willing to accept Chinese apps for entertainment. “To be honest, most people probably don’t know TikTok is now Chinese,” he said, “which might be exactly the strategy of Chinese big tech."
* Name has been changed