The ability to tag photos turned Facebook into an unstoppable force

Emmanuel tagged a photo of you on Facebook.
Emmanuel tagged a photo of you on Facebook.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau/Pool/File Photo
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With its countless functions and endless river of content, the Facebook of today hardly resembles its early iterations. If the era before the News Feed sounds blissful, you should know what ended it: tagging photos, according to early Facebook employees.

An oral history of Facebook’s early days by Adam Fisher of Wired details how Facebook exploded from a college fad to a global phenomenon. The irreverent group of coders who slept on couches in an explicit-graffiti-filled office introduced the ability to upload photos—the most requested feature for the young platform—in October 2005.

“Inside of three months, we were delivering more photos than any other website on the internet,” Jeff Rothschild, an investor-turned-employee, told Wired. The reason, he says, was tagging. “There isn’t anyone who could get an email message that said, ‘Someone has uploaded a photo of you to the internet’ and not go take a look. It’s just human nature.” 

Ezra Callahan, one of Facebook’s earliest employees, attributes Facebook’s massive growth to the tagging function:

The single greatest growth mechanism ever was photo tagging. It shaped all of the rest of the product decisions that got made. It was the first time that there was a real fundamental change to how people used Facebook, the pivotal moment when the mindset of Facebook changes and the idea for News Feed starts to germinate and there is now a reason to see how this expands beyond college.

Today, the tagging function sounds almost innocent. Facebook has a massive repository of data on its users’ faces, which its artificial intelligence uses to match with their names any time someone uploads their photo—to significant pushback from privacy advocates and lawmakers.

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