The History of Social Networking

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Multiple members of the Digital Trends’ staff contributed this article, which has been updated since its original publication.

Introduction

Long before it became the commercialized mass information and entertainment juggernaut it is today, long before it was accessible to the general public, and certainly many years before Al Gore claimed he “took the initiative in creating” it, the Internet – and its predecessors – were a focal point for social interactivity. Granted, computer networking was initially envisioned in the heyday of The Beatles as a military-centric command and control scheme. But as it expanded beyond just a privileged few hubs and nodes, so too did the idea that connected computers might also make a great forum for discussing mutual topics of interest, and perhaps even meeting or renewing acquaintances with other humans. In the 1970s, that process began in earnest.

Mullets may have reigned supreme in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, but – as many will surely recall – computers were a far rarer commodity. The machines’ language was bewildering, and their potential seemingly limited. What’s more, this whole sitting-in-front-of-a-keyboard thing was so… isolationistic. Put all this together and you have a medium where only the most ardent enthusiasts and techno-babbling hobbyists dared tread. It was, in effect, a breeding ground for pocket-protector-wearing societal rejects, or nerds. And boring, reclusive nerds at that. Yet it also was during this time, and with a parade of purportedly antisocial geeks at the helm, that the very gregarious notion of social networking would take its first steps towards becoming the omnipresent cultural phenomenon we know and love in 2009.

BBS, AOL and CompuServe: The Infant Years

It started with the BBS. Short for Bulletin Board System, these online meeting places were effectively independently-produced hunks of code that allowed users to communicate with a central system where they could download files or games (many times including pirated software) and post messages to other users. Accessed over telephone lines via a modem, BBSes were often run by hobbyists who carefully nurtured the social aspects and interest-specific nature of their projects – which, more often than not in those early days of computers, was technology-related. Moreover, long distance calling rates usually applied for out-of-towners, so many Bulletin Boards were locals-only affairs that in turn spurred local in-person gatherings. And voila, just like that, suddenly the antisocial had become social.

The BBS was no joke. Though the technology of the time restricted the flexibility of these systems, and the end-user’s experience, to text-only exchanges of data that crawled along at glacial speed, BBSes continued to gain popularity throughout the ‘80s and well into the ‘90s, when the Internet truly kicked into gear. Indeed, some services – such as Tom Jennings’ FidoNet – linked numerous BBSes together into worldwide computer networks that managed to survive the Internet revolution.

CompuServe AdBut there were also other avenues for social interaction long before the Internet exploded onto the mainstream consciousness. One such option was CompuServe, a service that began life in the 1970s as a business-oriented mainframe computer communication solution, but expanded into the public domain in the late 1980s.

CompuServe allowed members to share files and access news and events. But it also offered something few had ever experienced – true interaction. Not only could you send a message to your friend via a newfangled technology dubbed “e-mail” (granted, the concept of e-mail wasn’t exactly newfangled at the time, though widespread public access to it was). You could also join any of CompuServe’s thousands of discussion forums to yap with thousands of other members on virtually any important subject of the day. Those forums proved tremendously popular and paved the way for the modern iterations we know today.

But if there is a true precursor to today’s social networking sites, it was likely spawned under the AOL (America Online) umbrella. In many ways, and for many people, AOL was the Internet before the Internet, and its member-created communities (complete with searchable “Member Profiles,” in which users would list pertinent details about themselves), were arguably the service’s most fascinating, forward-thinking feature.

Yet there was no stopping the real Internet, and by the mid-1990s it was moving full bore. Yahoo had just set up shop, Amazon had just begun selling books, and the race to get a PC in every household was on. And, by 1995, the site that may have been the first to fulfill the modern definition of social networking was born.

The Internet Boom: Social Networking’s Adolescence

Though differing from many current social networking sites in that it asks not “Who can I connect with?” but rather, “Who can I connect with that was once a schoolmate of mine?” Classmates.com proved almost immediately that the idea of a virtual reunion was a good one. Early users could not create profiles, but they could locate long-lost grade school chums, menacing school bullies and maybe even that prom date they just couldn’t forget. It was a hit almost immediately, and even today the service boasts some 540 million registered accounts.

SixDegrees Social Network LogoThat same level of success can’t be said for SixDegrees.com. Sporting a name based on the theory somehow associated with actor Kevin Bacon that no person is separated by more than six degrees from another, the site sprung up in 1997 and was one of the very first to allow its users to create profiles, invite friends, organize groups, and surf other user profiles. Its founders worked the six degrees angle hard by encouraging members to bring more people into the fold. Unfortunately, this “encouragement” ultimately became a bit too pushy for many, and the site slowly de-evolved into a loose association of computer users and numerous complaints of spam-filled membership drives. SixDegrees.com folded completely just after the turn of the millennium.

Other sites of the era opted solely for niche, demographic-driven markets. One was AsianAvenue.com, founded in 1997. A product of Community Connect Inc., which itself was founded just one year prior in the New York apartment of former investment banker and future Community Connect CEO Ben Sun, AsianAvenue.com was followed in 1999 by BlackPlanet.com, and in 2000 by the Hispanic-oriented MiGente.com. All three have survived to this very day, with BlackPlanet.com in particular enjoying tremendous success throughout its run. Indeed, according to current parent company Radio One, which acquired Community Connect and its sites in April of 2008, BlackPlanet.com presently attracts in excess of three million unique visitors every month.

Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook: The Biz Grows Up

In 2002, social networking hit really its stride with the launch of Friendster. Friendster used a degree of separation concept similar to that of the now-defunct SixDegrees.com, refined it into a routine dubbed the “Circle of Friends” (wherein the pathways connecting two people are displayed), and promoted the idea that a rich online community can exist only between people who truly have common bonds. And it ensured there were plenty of ways to discover those bonds.

An interface that shared many of the same traits one would find at an online dating site certainly didn’t seem to hurt. (CEO Jonathan Abrams actually refers to his creation as a dating site that isn’t about dating.) And, just a year after its launch, Friendster boasted more than three million registered users and a ton of investment interest. Though the service has since seen more than its fair share of technical difficulties, questionable management decisions, and a resulting drop in its North American fortunes, it remains a force in Asia and, curiously, a near-necessity in the Philippines.

Friendster social network

Introduced just a year later in 2003, LinkedIn took a decidedly more serious, sober approach to the social networking phenomenon. Rather than being a mere playground for former classmates, teenagers, and cyberspace Don Juans, LinkedIn was, and still is, a networking resource for businesspeople who want to connect with other professionals. In fact, LinkedIn contacts are referred to as “connections.” Today, LinkedIn boasts more than 175 million members.

More than tripling that number, according to recent estimates, is MySpace, also launched in 2003. Though it no longer resides upon the social networking throne in many English-speaking countries – that honor now belongs to Facebook just about everywhere – MySpace remains the perennial favorite in the USA. It does so by tempting the key young adult demographic with music, music videos, and a funky, feature-filled environment. It looked and felt hipper than major competitor Friendster right from the start, and it conducted a campaign of sorts in the early days to show alienated Friendster users just what they were missing.

Facebook Social Network LogoIt is, however, the ubiquitous Facebook that now leads the global social networking pack. Founded, like many social networking sites, by university students who initially peddled their product to other university students, Facebook launched in 2004 as a Harvard-only exercise and remained a campus-oriented site for two full years before finally opening to the general public in 2006. Yet even by that time, Facebook was seriously big business, with tens of millions of dollars already invested, and Silicon Valley bigwigs such as billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel firmly behind it.

The secret of Facebook’s success (it is currently just shy of 1 billion users) is a subject of some debate. Some point to its ease of use, others to its multitude of easily-accessed features, and still others to a far simpler factor – its memorable, descriptive name. A highly targeted advertising model certainly hasn’t hurt, nor did financial injections, such as the $60 million from noted Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing in 2007. Regardless, there’s agreement on one thing – Facebook promotes both honesty and openness. It seems people really enjoy being themselves, and throwing that openness out there for all to see.

Pulling Ahead: How Facebook and Twitter won the web

Facebook is king for a reason. It wasn’t just through luck that Zuckerberg’s darling came to regin supreme over the social media kingdom, it was in fact a series of smart moves and innovative features that set FB apart from the rest of the social media pack. First and foremost, the 2007 launch of the Facebook Platform was key to FB’s success. This open API made it possible for third-party developers to create applications that work within Facebook itself. Almost immediately after being released, the platform gained a massive amount of attention. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of apps built on the platform – so much that Facebook has recently launched the Facebook App Store to organize and display them all.

Twitter created its own API and enjoyed similar success as a result.

The other key to success was Facebook’s ubiquitous ‘Like’ button which broke free from the bounds of the site and began appearing all over the internet. Now you can ‘like’ or “tweet’ just about everything even when you’re not on Facebook or Twitter

Realizing the power of social networking, Google decided in 2011 to launch their own social network: Google+. It differed from Facebook and Twitter in that it wasn’t necessarily a full-featured networking site, but rather a social “layer” of the overall Google experience. Initially, Google generated a lot of buzz with G+’s Hangouts feature, which allowed users to enter live video chats with other online friends. At the time of launch, Facebook was scrambling to keep up by integrating a video chat feature of their own.

Within just four weeks, G+ had gathered 25 million unique visitors. As of June 2012, it had a total of 250 million registered users. It definitely didn’t dethrone Zuckerberg’s behemoth, but it’s clearly here to stay, and arguably showed the world that there was still room for innovation and competition in the realm of social networking.

The Future of Social Networks

What does the future of social networking look like? Judging from a few recent developments, the social media of the future might be open source or even community-run. Take a look at App.Net, a site that’s been described a more open, advertising-free and developer-friendly alternative to Twitter. App.net launched an alpha version back in August, and thus far things seem to be going swimmingly for the site.

The company compares its service to how Twitter functioned “before it turned into a media company.” The platform is also open to developers to create apps that’ll help make the App.net more useful. Will it work out? It’s far too early to tell, but the site has already gathered over 10,000 users and has generated quite a buzz from tech pundits and developers.

Diaspora Social Network Logo

App.Net isn’t the only game in town when it comes to disrupting the social media status quo, however. Whereas App.net is a direct contention of Twitter’s model for social networking, Diaspora is an open source, community-run social network that is quite similar to Facebook in appearance and operation. Similar to App.net, Diaspora became a reality after a successful Kickstarter campaign and has been growing steadily ever since. It’s been available to the public for over a year now and just recently turned over the reigns to the public.

No site has even made Facebook or Twitter bat an eye, but with the unstable landscape of the Internet and the ever-changing ways we use and interact with it, this may not remain true in the future. 

Showing 30 comments

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  12. xuwang.rusi 10 months Ago  
    Any article like this that doesn't discuss PLATO http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_syst… is woefully incomplete, as it predates pretty much everything else. And while there was certainly plenty of reinventing the wheel by youngsters who hadn't heard of it, there's also much that was inspired by it (for instance, Lotus Notes drew its inspiration from PLATO Notes

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  14. TsvetomirTodorov 1 year Ago  
    Very informative and neat. Thank you!
    Still, you could have mentioned social media tools.
    For example Viral Lock Demo. It is really handy and
    it is an easy way to share plugin. In its essence it is just a
    simple plugin that “unlocks” additional content when your
    web visitors share your stuff on Facebook, Twitter or Google+.
    Really simple and handy! Next time I advice you to include it.
    Stll, a great article and very descriptive.

    Tsvetomir

    social-media-training-courses.co.uk
  15. cybermaster217 1 year Ago  
    snaster . com - Its Not Just A Social Networking Website,Its The Way 2 Connect Ur ? .......

    Features :-
    ?Live TV 100+ live channels 24/7
    ?App Store 1000+ free apps n games ,ebook etc.
    ?Live Video Chat with stranger peoples,30+ video rooms
    ?Share Idea,make pages,groups
    ?Live chat every time at the home page without login with every member.
    ?Create Groups and more...
  16. cybermaster217 1 year Ago  
    snaster.com - Its Not Just A Social Networking Website,Its The Way 2 Connect Ur ? .......

    Features :-
    ?Live TV 100+ live channels 24/7
    ?App Store 1000+ free apps n games ,ebook etc.
    ?Live Video Chat with stranger peoples,30+ video rooms
    ?Share Idea,make pages,groups
    ?Live chat every time at the home page without login with every member.
    ?Create Groups and more...
  17. txpatriot 2 years Ago  
    Excellent article Drew.

    I know it is impossible to include everything in a brief overview article, but I'd like to remind readers of some other "ancient" technologies that were very popular in their day. My introduction to social media on the Internet was USENET in 1994. USENET has been around since the late 70s and continues to this day as googlegroups (after a detour as Deja News). Spammers, trolls, porn and warez basically killed USENET as a useful medium for topical discussions, but its impact back in the day can't be ignored.

    Similar to group email lists, listserv was a form of closed discussion group via email. Listserv was developed in 1984 and the web-based version of listserv survives to this day. An example of a popular listserv is SCOUTS-L for discussion about the Boy Scouts. A data store of archived listserv messages is one of the attractions of these services.

    IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was developed in 1988. I don't know if it's still around -- I haven't used it since the late 90s but it was a form of real-time discussion, arranged around chat rooms. It got a bad rep due to child predators hanging out in the forums disguised as teens. For me the downside of IRC was that discussions weren't threaded and rarely were they archived for later reference, limiting its usefulness.

    Although not a social medium per se, GeoCities (dating from about 1994) allowed many non-AOL users their first opportunity to establish a personal webpage and web presence. After an initial surge by the curious, users decided that building and maintaining a personal webpage wasn't all that and GeoCities basically died from lack of interest by the mid 2000s, replaced by MySpace and Facebook profiles, which were much easier to use and maintain.

    You mentioned Classmates -- I was an avid and active member of Classmates in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the best feature about Classmates was the associated (free) Delphi discussion forums. One of the first web-based discussion forums that are ubiquitous now, Classmates shot itself in the foot when it killed the free Delphi forums and began charging members to use its far inferior in-house discussion forums. Users left in droves as a result of Classmates' ham-handed move and Classmates hasn't recovered to this day. They might've been as big as Facebook if they hadn't gotten so greedy about squeezing every last nickel out of their users. They still won't let you communicate with other Classmate members unless you pay for a membership.

    Similar to DelphiForums but with added functionality like file and photo storage, Yahoo Groups were launched in the late 90s. Personally, I think the "social" web really took off with the advent of free Yahoo Groups. Yahoo Groups are still around and many are still very active. DelphiForums and Yahoo Groups are but two examples of the multitude of web-based discussion forums that have rendered USENET obsolete. Web-based discussion forums exist for almost any and every topic you can think of. I think they'll survive alongside Facebook rather than being displaced by Facebook, because they provide functionality (like searching a message archive) that is much easier to use than anything FB offers.

    Thanx again for a look back at some of the technologies I haven't thought of in years!
  18. shadowbug 3 years Ago  
    Facebook, myspace, twitter and linkdin and the list goes on. Is this a tool or just sites that allow individuals to make postings that will allow users to be themselves? Or are they sites that may be used against the users if trying for a grant, scholorship or new job interview? While you make postings on how you feel or think can this information be used against you? How may crimianl acts are outlined via social networking sites? Will this sites lead to further regulations? Do the sites promote consumer privacy violations?
    While they are fun to use, can they cause you more harm than good??
  19. arthur cassidy 3 years Ago  
    imagine years ago when we communicated by letters, telegrams, telephones. now we are communicating by computers in a blink of the eye. where will we be in five years?
  20. liL(eiZhiro) 3 years Ago  
    uhm. .it is helpful. .yeah. .

    but i'm a lil disturb. .

    whats d essense of having this sites. .yeah you reconnect with friends etc. .

    but it wll only lead to addiction. .

    riGht?>>
  21. Iarna 3 years Ago  
    Any article like this that doesn't discuss PLATO http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_syst... is woefully incomplete, as it predates pretty much everything else. And while there was certainly plenty of reinventing the wheel by youngsters who hadn't heard of it, there's also much that was inspired by it (for instance, Lotus Notes drew its inspiration from PLATO Notes).
  22. mahasaad2almansour 3 years Ago  
    Hi thanks alot
  23. Jeb 3 years Ago  
    i was little when myspace first came out, i always thought it was the first social sites but thanks for clearing that up...
  24. Bob 3 years Ago  
    I actually beleive in the early 2000's that myspace was it for kids aroung the world
  25. Ankit Baghadia 4 years Ago  
    this is really very best info
    it will help me very much
  26. Liam Bradey 4 years Ago  
    Everyone seems to forget about Faceparty.com . Launched in August 2000. Essentially the same as Facebook. At one time was the most visited page in Britain, ahead of Ebay and Amazon. Of course, then it all went weirdly sexual, and started charging people. But for a couple of glorious years, it was magnificent.
  27. hemant 4 years Ago  
    Many peoples in this world are used social networking site like as twitter, facebook, orkut etc. But what is the uses of these sites?
  28. dontgiva 4 years Ago  
    get off my screen
  29. Tom Caruso 4 years Ago  
    Hmmm, I always thought that CompuServe and TheSource started social networking, but then most people are too young to remember the late 70's.
  30. Fiftydollargiftingworks.com 4 years Ago  
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