With Social Media Day fast approaching we thought it would be nice to have a look at the evolution and history of social media. Human beings are social creatures, we thrive on, and in fact need, social interactions to maintain a healthy life and mind. You may think you can cope without others, you may find social occasions annoying, but try and live without social interactions for months or years. It is then no surprise that social media sites and social media apps are so popular today.
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. Ever increasingly with social media marketing tagged on. We can't blame them, it makes complete business sense. 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.
In the following article, we'll 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 Avalaunch. Thanks, Eddy.
What is social media exactly?
Social media is typically defined today as:-
"Web sites 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.
Pre-2000's Abbreviated History of Social Media
Antiquity to WWII
Communication across great distances has been accomplished since antiquity via the written word. Tenuous you might say, but what is social media other than a means of long-distance communication between people? This changed very little until the advent of the telegraph in 1792. These enabled a "faster than horse" method of communication over long distances and was revolutionary at the time.
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. Though over a shorter distance. When the telephone and radio hit the scene in the 1800's 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.
The technological explosion is seen in computing after the 1940's paved the way for the social media world we see today. Obviously, this was not its primary goal. Initially humble in scale, with localized computer networks, CompuServe came into being in the 1960's. The internet, as we know it, was not too far behind. Primitive emails first appeared during this time in 1966. The 1970's saw further refinement and development in sophistication. 1979 saw the advent of UserNet which allowed people to communicate through a virtual newsletter, articles or posts to newsgroups. Usenet systems were the brainchild of Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, good work chaps.
The history of social media stepped up a gear during the 80's. This decade saw the introduction of home computers with social media, that we would recognize today, developing soon after. 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. Believe it or not, it was still used well into the late 1990's. It even had 350,000 users at its peak. It was later made redundant by the WWW.
GENie login screen, circa 1989 [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
Listserv made its debut in 1986, the original not the modern top ten site. This worked effectively like a mailing list to allow users to contact multiple users in one email. Commonplace today but revolutionary at the time. Internet Relay Chats (IRC's) first appeared in 1988 and were still in use well into the 1990's. They were used for file sharing, link sharing and generally keeping in touch.
Chat rooms are born (1994-1999)
1994 saw the introduction of The Palace. This 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. An interesting moment in the history of social media websites.
The Palace interface [Image Source: ccon]
1997 was a keystone moment in the history of social media. 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. Users were able to send messages, post bulletin board items to peeps in the first, second and third degree connections. Sound familiar? Imitation is certainly the sincerest form of flattery.
In 1998, Moveon.org stepped up to the plate. Initially formed as an email group it began life passing around petitions opposed to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. They later went on to promote 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. Anyway moving on, ahem.
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.
"Proper" Social Media is born (2000-2002)
The turn of the Millenium was a real "opening of the floodgates" moment in the history of social media. In 2000, LunarStorm was launched. This was one of the first commercial advertisement-financed social networking websites. 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.
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 anyone can edit articles. It should not surprise you that it is the world's most popular general reference site on the web, It is not for profit 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. Tenuous we know, moving on.
Blogging really kicked this new form of media into overdrive and should be seen as another pivotal moment in the history of social media.
From small seeds grow great trees (2002-2003)
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".
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. 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. That reminds me I need to update my profile!
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. WordPress was also launched this year, opening up blogging to most people, it now powers many websites.
The growth continues (2003-2005)
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.
2004 saw, even more, services launched including the Harvard version of Facebook. Care2, Multiply, Ning, Orkut, Mixi, Piczo and Hyves also launched. Wow, quite a busy year.
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 every since. Other notable launches this year included Yahoo!360, Bebo and the "mighty" Reddit. Now we're starting to cook with gas.
The big two are unleashed (2006-2007)
2006 saw the advent of Facebook and Twitter. They both remain 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 the 6th most visited site on the web.
Twitter, for example, has attained an almost "cult-like" status since inception. Its ability to allow users to interact directly with celebrities was almost unheard of previously. It can be argued that it could play a vital role in the future of politics as well. Tumblr and FriendFeed joined the party in 2007. Tumblr has grown in popularity with its microblogging and social networking features. To date, it has over 350 million blogs alone, wow.
[Image Source: Frydolin/Wikimedia Commons]
Businesses wake up (2008-Today)
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. Icons appeared all over the place.
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.
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". With the great "speciation" of social media since the 2000's a method of unifying them together was fast becoming a necessity. Pheed took advantage of this and launched its service. Pheed allows you share text, photo, audio, voice notes, video and live broadcasts in the same space.
The lust for quick rapid-fire updates 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. Why not?
The future of Social Media
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.
Who can tell what will happen over the next few decades, given the explosion and variation saw thus far? In 100 years will it still exist? Who knows, but in what form we can only dream of. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a reaction against it in favor of actually talking and meeting people in person. Given its addictive properties, we are probably stuck with it for some time to come.
So there you go, we do hope you enjoyed our quick tour of the history of social media. With literally thousands of incarnations of it around, it has not been possible to include everything. Have we missed anything critical? Feel free to let us know in the comments.