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Some Of Facebook's Best Features Were Once Hackathon Projects

facebook hackathon

Photo: Facebook

It seems that almost every major feature on Facebook started as a hackathon project.Hackathons are all-night coding sessions where engineers get amped up on caffeine, brainstorm ideas, and build anything they want.

There’s just one rule for a Facebook hackathon: You can’t work on the same thing that you work on during the day. 

Facebook engineering manager Pedram Keyani is often mentioned as the guy who made hackathons a tradition at Facebook. The first official hackathon took place in 2007 after Keyani emailed his fellow colleagues to see if anyone would be interested in hacking with him the following night.

That hackathon, Keyani says, generated a lot of great projects and ideas. So the next day, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg approached him saying how awesome it was. From that point on, Keyani made an effort to ask people every six to eight weeks if they wanted to hack. 

As Ryan Tate documented in “The 20% Doctrine,” a book about hackathons and other forms of in-house innovation, these hackathons developed an idea for “hack days” pioneered at Yahoo by Chad Dickerson, who’s now the CEO of Etsy. But Facebook married the idea to the college all-nighter and came up with a formula that’s now part of startup culture throughout Silicon Valley.

Where Facebook has proved especially strong in its implementation of the idea is turning hackathon work into reality.

Facebook started testing a new 'Mail a Postcard' feature in August 2012 to let users send any of their own photos as physical postcards to friends.

is still in its testing phase, but the company rolled it out to a select number of users in August 2012.

We still have yet to see the Mail a Postcard feature make its way to the masses.

Facebook Chat is probably one of the best hackathon projects turned real

Facebook Chat launched back in 2008 to offer a way for users to communicate with their friends, other than via their Wall (now called Timeline) or Inbox.

Chat has gone through a few iterations since its early days, but it still provides the same service: real-time communication with friends.

Facebook's app for users without smartphones added Instagram-like filters in May 2012 all thanks to one engineer who came up with the idea at a hackathon

Facebook's feature phone app, dubbed Facebook For Every Phone, launched back in 2011.

Facebook announced plans to acquire Instagram just one month before this feature's release, but the deal didn't close. Today, Instagram remains an app for smartphone users--so this photo-filter feature helps bring special effects to the large number of Facebook users who aren't on iPhone or Android.

Facebook's events calendar got a nice makeover from the Social Calendar Dreamers

Before one of Facebook's hackathons in 2012, a few engineers created a Facebook group called 'Social Calendar Dreamers' to brainstorm ways to make the Events experience more visual. What came from it was a new list view and calendar view to easily digest upcoming birthdays, invites, and suggested events.

'It was awesome to watch this project come together so quickly,' Facebook engineer Bob Baldwin wrote on the company blog. 'The great thing about hackathons is that you get to dive straight into building a concept with your friends without having any concrete plans or directives.'

An early version of the Facebook Timeline started as an overnight hack built by four people

Timeline started as a hackathon project in late 2010 with a team of two full-time engineers, an engineering intern, and a designer.

It took the four of them one night to build a working demo. But things really kicked into high gear in 2011 when they added more people to the team. In the end, it only took the team six months to create the Timeline.

'In retrospect, that's pretty crazy,' Facebook engineer Ryan Mack wrote on the company blog. 'We had to move a lot of mountains to go from the initial infrastructure review meeting to successfully turning on the 100% backend load test in just six months. Done another way, this project could have taken twice as long - and that's being generous.'

It turns out that Facebook's iconic Like button got its footing at a hackathon

Liking things on Facebook used to just be about letting a friend know you're into what they're saying or posting. But in 2010, Facebook went a step further and released a Like button for the entire Internet, letting websites embed Like buttons almost anywhere.

Facebook recently revealed some statistics that revealed users create 3.2 billion likes and comments every day.

Believe it or not, Facebook didn't always have the ability to upload video

The idea for it came from two Facebook engineers' shared realisation that they had tons of videos on their phones, but nowhere to put them.

Even though other video-sharing sites existed at that time--2007-- the two saw the value in sharing videos on Facebook because users could easily tag their friends and also communicate through video messaging.

Yes, an intern came up with the novel idea of tagging people in comments

Facebook first added the ability to mention friends in status updates and wall posts in September 2009. But it wasn't until two years later that Facebook started letting users tag friends in comments.

And it was all thanks to a Facebook intern.

'When he presented it at the forum, everyone's reaction was the same--we couldn't believe that someone hadn't built this yet,' Facebook engineering manager Pedram Keyani writes on the Facebook blog. 'It shipped to 100% of users within two weeks.'

Facebook's full-screen photos were somewhat of an accident

Even though this started as a hackathon project, many people saw this feature as a blatant response and copycat of Google+'s full-screen of photos.

But Facebook describes it differently. Apparently one of its engineers was working on builds for new photo views and accidentally made a full-screen version.

'He liked the view so much he spent the next hackathon building a better prototype, which he then presented to the rest of the photos team,' Facebook product designer Blaise DiPersia wrote on the company blog. 'The team was similarly impressed -- they put a couple of finishing touches on the code and then shipped the feature to all users.'

Type-ahead capability in search has become second nature for most of us, but before 2010, that wasn't an option on Facebook.

Type-ahead search makes it possible for you to see search results as you're typing. For example, if you start typing 'MGM' to find the Facebook Page for the band MGMT, you'll see the search result come up before you're even finished typing.

Want to see some other great hackathon projects?

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