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Facebook At Harvard: Predicting Zuck's Future Where It All Began

With rumblings that young people are disenchanted with the social network, a reporter visits the Harvard University campus where Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook 10 years ago.

Harvard University's Widener Library
Harvard University's Widener Library
Tina Kaiser

CAMBRIDGE — Like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg before him, red-haired Alexander Eldeib, 18, is studying computer science at Harvard University. He describes himself as a computer nerd and says he too would like to create his own Internet company.

The girl sitting across from him in a café near the university campus says: "Oh God, no, he’s not my boyfriend. We’re just studying together."

Who knows if Eldeib will ever become an Internet billionaire like Zuckerberg. But one thing is sure: the smart, tech-savvy next generation like him are helping to cement the future for the famous former Harvard student. "There’s no way of getting around Facebook," Eldeib says.

Hearing such reports is vital for the survival of the California firm after a spate of media reports that young users are staying away from Facebook. The catalyst for this were third-quarter 2013 results that showed for the first time a decrease in the youngest users. The beginning of the end of Facebook was soon after being forecast far and wide.

Some predicted the same fate as MySpace and SecondLife, as teens were supposedly moving on to upstart competitors like Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter. But is that really so? Die Welt wanted to find out, so paid a visit to where it all began: Harvard.

Ten years ago, on Feb. 4, 2004, Zuckerberg, then 19, put his social network online. At first, only Harvard students could register on Facebook. The site was a huge success from day one; half the students at the university had a Facebook account within the first month.

If you ask around the campus today, everybody expresses the same opinion as Eldeib: Facebook is ubiquitous.

"Facebook is by far the most popular network," Eldeib says. He has 800 Facebook friends, which is relatively few. Virtually all his communication takes place via the social network, so that he no longer uses email, SMS, an address book, or photo albums. All of these functions have been taken over by Facebook.

Other options

"The network is also very practical in that it enables you to reach a lot of people in one fell swoop." Last week for example a friend of his who was visiting briefly and needed accommodation put a post on Facebook, and Eldeib was able to help him out: "I wasn’t here, so I told him he could use my room. It’s incredibly practical."

Omar Misina, 22, and Lily Ostrer, 21, also believe there is really no alternative to Facebook. The students, who are majoring in biology and sociology respectively, both have around 1,300 Facebook friends. "There are about a hundred I’ve never met, but I mostly know everybody," says Ostrer.

Of course there are other interesting options online. Many of their friends use Twitter, the Instagram photo app or chat services What's App and SnapChat. "But those are all complements to, not a replacement for, Facebook," Misina says adding that if you want to be invited to parties, read all the latest gossip, find out the best trends or get some great study tips, you have to be on Facebook.

Misina is experiencing now what it feels like not to check in with Facebook regularly. To be able to focus more on studying for his exams, he imposed a temporary Facebook ban on himself. He’s kept it up for a week, but “it’s harder than I thought,” he says.

True, he’s less distracted from studying, but he feels stranded on a desert island right there in the middle of the Harvard campus. "I’m totally out of it," he says.

The unscientific Welt survey on the Harvard campus corresponds nicely to a study recently conducted by Socialbakers Analytics which looked at the interactions of 960 million Facebook users last year.

Both bits of research show that the decrease in young users is apparently just a temporary blip.

During the summer months of 2013, user figures for the younger target group fell off mildly, but since then have been on the rise again. For all of 2013 Facebook interactions in the 13-24-year-old target group rose by 29.12%.

Use by those 18 and over rose notably higher than that by 13 to 17-year-olds. In the 18 to 24 age group, use rose by 39.33% during 2013.

Growing up

Even if objectively there are superior networks to Facebook, the company has reached a critical scale that makes it invulnerable. That came through is recent figures: The network now counts 1.23 billion members — over half of whom visit the site daily. One sixth of the world population has a Facebook profile.

If the network were a country, it would place third after China and India in terms of most-populated nations on Earth. The stock market reacted to the annual results über-euphorically. The day after Facebook released its figures, prices rose by 14.1%.

Facebook isn’t only big, it’s also grown-up. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When it first started out, it might have been described by some as a glorified dating site.

Users could include in their profile whether or not they were currently in a relationship. They could also indicate what they were looking for: committed relationship or no-strings sex, hetero, homo, bi. But these options are now no longer available — and that makes sense now that people are “friends” with bosses or parents.

"Sure, the way you use Facebook today is different from a few years ago," says Jonne Sälevä. The Finn has been studying statistics at Harvard since 2012. He says he would never post compromising party photos on Facebook. "If at all, I send pictures like that via What's App to selected friends."

His Facebook friends total 2,000. Part of the reason the number is so large is that he’s moved around a lot, and has lived in Finland, Germany and the U.S.

"Facebook is quite simply practical to keep up contacts around the world and to keep up on the things your friends are doing." But things that are too private have no place on Facebook, it’s not the right platform.

He says his mom is a good judge of when something is a little too intimate and best left out, says Sälevä, 21. "She’s been my Facebook friend for a while now."

He says it’s a good way to self-censor: "If I was going to be embarrassed by my mother finding out about something, then maybe it’s better I simply don’t post it."

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