Let's take a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of social media. You can also check out this helpful infographic history of social media timeline on this very subject by Zenesys.
Why is social media so popular?
Human beings are social creatures, we thrive on, and in fact need, social interactions to maintain a healthy life and mind.
Social media taps into these primal needs of human beings and it should come as no surprise that social media sites and social media apps are so popular today.
But there is more to them than that. Social media sites/apps offer users some valuable opportunities.
- They provide a platform to meet new people and make friends often cross international borders
- They allow users to join groups of others who share their passions and interests
- They are free (but as we all know "if there is no product to buy you are the product")
- Specialized forums or platforms provide a large network to potentially find a new job
- Other networks like Twitter have become a valuable way to get fast and real-time news on a situation. Often this information can be seen 'raw' without any traditional media bias or opinion mixed in.
With the rise in popularity of early social media sites, it was only a matter of time before business took notice of the growing trend.
Savvy entrepreneurs quickly jumped on the wagon to promote themselves and products eventually evolving into the mass social media marketing industry we are all familiar with today.
Businesses and private individuals have seen the importance and reach social media has. Some have even managed to use it to make a pretty decent living.
What is social media exactly?
Social media is typically defined today as:-
"Websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking" - OxfordDictionaries
But is this an accurate definition? It can be argued that social media is nothing new, in fact, it is as old as long distance communication itself.
Yes, it has moved online and become far more rapid and sophisticated over the last few decades, but what is the difference really? Facebook et al are simply natural progressions on an age-old media.
So without further ado, let get stuck in the history of social media.
1. Antiquity to World War 2
Year or period: Circa 500 BC to 1945
Communication across great distances has been accomplished since antiquity through media like the written word. This changed very little until the advent of the telegraph in 1792.
This technology finally offered a "faster than horse" method of communication over long distances and was revolutionary at the time. There were, of course, other methods like smoke signaling or pyres but their utility was limited to line of sight.
1865 saw the development of pneumatic post, which you might still see in banks and supermarkets. This allowed for an even greater speed of communication - but over a shorter distance. When the telephone and radio hit the scene in the 1800s everything changed.
With their ability to provide, more or less, instant communication, the world would never go back. They both remain very important methods of social media to this very day.
2. The post-war years and Compuserve
Year or period: 1945 to 1980s
The technological explosion as seen in computing after the 1940's paved the way for the social media world we see today. Initially humble in scale, with localized computer networks, CompuServe came into being in the 1960s.
The internet, as we know it, was not too far behind. Primitive emails first appeared during this time in 1966.
The 1970s saw further refinement and development in sophistication with 1979 seeing the advent of UserNet which allowed people to communicate through a virtual newsletter, articles or posts to newsgroups.
This decade saw the introduction of home computers with social media, that we would recognize today, developing soon after.
Usenet systems were the brainchild of Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. 'True' social media became one step closer during the 1980s.
3. The Well and GENie are born
Year or period: 1985
1985 saw the introduction of The Well and GENie. GENie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) was an online service created for GE.
This was a critical moment in the history of social media in business and in general and, believe it or not, it was still used well into the late 1990s. It even had 350,000 users at its peak. It was later made redundant by the World Wide Web.
4. Listverse makes its debut
Year or period: 1986
Listserv (the original not the modern top ten site) made its debut in 1986. This was, in effect, a mailing list to allow users to contact multiple users in one email which is commonplace today but revolutionary at the time.
Internet Relay Chats (IRC's) first appeared in 1988 and were still in use well into the 1990s. They were used for file sharing, link sharing and generally keeping in touch.
5. The chatroom rises with The Palace
Year or period: 1994
1994 saw the introduction of The Palace. It allowed users to interact with one another on a graphical chat room server, which they termed palaces.
Each user would have their own graphical avatar overlaid on a graphical backdrop. It is still in operation in one form or another if you want to try it out.
6. Sixdegrees.com was the first true social media site
Year or period: 1997
The first recognizable social media site, SixDegrees.com, was born. This enabled users to upload profile pictures and connect with others.
Six degrees also let users make friends with each other and expand their social groups. Incredibly, in 2000 it was purchased for $125 million and later shut down in 2001 and brought back a few years later.
Users were able to send messages, post bulletin board items to others in first, second and third degree connections - hence the name.
7. Moveon.org was one of the first activist social media sites
Year or period: 1998
In 1998, Moveon.org opened for business. It was initially formed as an email group it began life passing around petitions opposed to the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
It later went on to promote general internet activism inclusive of opposing US military actions and supporting democratic candidates in the U.S. as well as fundraising.
Whatever your political views and criticisms of the site's motives, it was a forerunner of the plethora of similar social media campaigns all across the political spectrum seen today.
8. Blogging sites begin to appear just before Y2K
Year or period: 1999
Just before the turn of the Millenium, the first blogging sites started to become popular, a media still very popular today.
LiveJournal, for example, was founded in 1999. This is a social network built around constantly updating blog posts.
It encouraged users to follow each other and create groups that also interact with one another.
9. LunarStorm was one of the first ads-featured social media sites
Year or period: 2000
In 2000, LunarStorm was launched. This was one of the first commercial advertisement-financed social networking websites.
This would prove to be a strategy that would become increasingly important as the decade progressed. It was aimed at teenagers and developed in Sweden.
In 2007 it had grown to an impressive 1.2 million members, 70% of which were between the ages of 12 and 17.
The site was shut down in 2010.
10. Wikipedia is born
Year or period: 2001
The mighty Wikipedia, whether you love it or loathe it, was launched in 2001. Its impact on the internet cannot be underestimated - even if the validity of its content can be questionable.
Its founding aim was to provide an online encyclopedia that allowed anyone to edit articles. It should not surprise you that it is the world's most popular general reference site on the web.
It is a not for profit entity and, despite its critics, is generally well loved.
Wikipedia does not consider themselves social media per se, but it can be described as an online community of like-minded people and affiliated with social media.
11. Friendster was an early giant of social media
Year or period: 2002
Friendster emerged in 2002. This Malaysian-built platform, now defunct, was initially used as a social networking service website. It was used for all the usual things but also as a dating site and event, band and hobby discovery service.
It introduced social gaming in 2011. Friendster closed its doors in 2015 after a lack of engagement from its members and "the evolving landscape in our challenging industry".
12. LastFM was one of the first online music sites
Year or period: 2002
LastFM made its debut in 2002. It was one of the first online music databases and online radio streaming that have become the norm today.
13. LinkedIn appears on the scene
Year or period: 2003
2003 saw the emergence of LinkedIn. Its unique selling point is obvious to anyone who uses it.
Its devotion to social media for business has enabled its steady growth into one of the most popular social media sites in the world.
14. The rise and fall of MySpace
Year or period: 2003
2003 also saw the launch of MySpace and it quickly became "the" social media site at the time. You could completely customize your profile but also you could embed music and videos.
An important moment in the history of social media and pretty revolutionary at the time.
15. WordPress fires up its engines
Year or period: 2003
WordPress was also launched this year, opening up blogging to most people, it now powers many websites.
16. Photosharing, MMO's and online storage become popular
Year or period: 2003
Photo sharing became mainstream when the likes of Photobucket and Flickr, amongst others appeared in 2003.
SecondLife also launched in 2003. This is one of the forerunners to today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Del.icio.us, the online social storage, sharing and discovery of web bookmarks was also born in 2003.
17. Proto-Facebook and others are born
Year or period: 2004
2004 saw many more services launched including the Harvard version of Facebook. Care2, Multiply, Ning, Orkut, Mixi, Piczo and Hyves also launched.
18. YouTube launches in 2005
Year or period: 2005
YouTube first appeared in 2005 which opened an entirely new method of communication. The ability to create and share media over very long distances was such a game changer that it has become something of a behemoth ever since.
Other notable launches this year included Yahoo!360, Bebo and the "mighty" Reddit. Social media was started to find its legs.
19. Proper Facebook launches and begins to monopolize the market
Year or period: 2006
2006 saw the advent of 'proper' Facebook. It remains one of the most popular social media networks on the internet, and by extension, the world.
Facebook has had staggering growth since 2006 and it is now one of the most visited site on the web.
20. Twitter rises in 2006
Year or period: 2006
Twitter also, launched in 2006 and has attained an almost "cult-like" status since inception. Its ability to allow users to interact directly with celebrities was almost unheard of previously.
21. Tumbler and Friendfeed join the fray
Year or period: 2007
To date, it has over 350 million blogs alone, wow.
22. Businesses 'cotton on' to the power of social media
Year or period: 2008
Around this time businesses really started to take notice of social media. Especially its power for advertising. Businesses started to open accounts and have links to them on their websites and other media.
23. The market starts to get crowded
Year or period: 2009
Spotify, Ping, Groupon, and Kontain appeared in 2008 continuing the exploitation of niches within the growing market. Location-based social media began to take hold in 2009 with the launch of Foursquare.
It was one of the first to introduce "check-in" locations around the world. 2010 saw the birth of Instagram, Pinterest, and Google Buzz.
The former two have grown in popularity and are giants in their own right today.
24. The ill-fated Google+ is born
Year or period: 2011
Google decided to launch Google+ in 2011 as a fully fledged social networking tool. Users were able to form group contacts into "circles" and chat via video "hangouts".
It has recently been announced that the platform is discontinued.
25. Multipurpose social media becomes a thing
Year or period: 2011
With the great 'speciation' of social media since the 2000s, a method of unifying their unique features together was fast becoming a necessity. Pheed took advantage of this and launched its service.
Pheed allowed you share text, photo, audio, voice notes, video and live broadcasts in the same space. A strategy since copied by many of its forerunners.
Social media was also beginning to drive a lust for quick rapid-fire updates and information. This led to the launch of Twitter's Vine in 2012.
Vine, as you are probably aware, lets you share 6-second videos for no other reason than you just can.
26. Social media is a virtual ecosystem today
Year or period: 2011-2018
Today, there is an eye-boggling variety of social media network sites, many of which allow for sharing between each other. As you are all aware, this has enabled this media to allow maximum exposure for users without sacrificing interpersonal communication.
It's actually pretty amazing. Businesses and individuals could not imagine a world without it, such has been its infiltration in our lives.
It has changed our world, for better or good, and is set to make traditional media, like printed newspapers, extinct.
27. The future is uncertain
Year or period: 2018 - Onwards
Who can tell what will happen over the next few decades for social media? Will it even exist in ten, twenty or more years?
We can never know for sure but given societies rapid uptake of the medium so far it clearly meets a need we all have. We are social creatures after all and any form of media that makes meeting and talking with others with ease is likely to still exist in some form or other in the future.
Despite this apparent benefit, we have all seen the 'dark side' of social media over the last few years. Especially its potential for being hijacked for political (from all positions) and other nefarious means of control.