The long and short chronological history of social media
- Social media has become an integral part of our lives, connecting us with friends and family and enabling us to share information, ideas, and experiences with people worldwide.
- However, social media is not a new phenomenon.
- Arguably, it is ancient indeed.
Here, we'll talk about the history of social media, from the first bulletin board systems to the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites. We'll examine the technological advancements and cultural trends that paved the way for social media, as well as the challenges and controversies that have arisen.
So, whether you're a social media enthusiast or simply curious about the evolution of digital communication, read on to discover the fascinating history of social media. So without further ado, let's take a whistle-stop tour of the development of social media platforms.
You can also check out this helpful infographic on the history of social media platforms' by Zenesys.
Why are social media platforms so popular?
Humans are social creatures; we thrive on and need social interactions to maintain a healthy life and mind.
- Social media taps into these primal needs, so it should be no surprise that social media sites and apps are so popular today.
- But there is more to them than that. Social media apps offer users some valuable features.
- They provide a platform to meet new people and make friends across international borders.
- They allow users to join groups of others who share their passions and interests.
- They are free to use (but as we all know, "if there is no product to buy, you are the product").
- Specialized forums or platforms provide an extensive network to find a new job potentially.
- Networks like Twitter have become a valuable way to get real-time (occasionally true) news. 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 platforms, it was only a matter of time before businesses took notice of the growing trend.
Savvy entrepreneurs quickly jumped on the wagon to promote themselves and their (or others) 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 of social media. Some have even managed to use it to make a pretty decent living.
1. Antiquity to World War 2
Year or period: Circa 500 BC to 1945
Since antiquity, communication across great distances has been accomplished through everything from smoke signals to the written word. This changed very little until the advent of the telegraph in 1792.
This revolutionary technology finally offered a "faster than horse" method of communication over long distances. There were, of course, other methods of communication aside from letter-writing, but their utility was limited to line of sight.
1865 saw the development of the pneumatic post, which you might still see in banks and supermarkets. This allowed for an even greater communication speed over a much shorter distance. Then, everything changed when the telephone and radio hit the scene in the 1800s.
With their ability to provide, more or less, instant communication, the world would never go back. They both remain fundamental methods of media to this very day.
2. The post-war years and CompuServe
Year or period: 1945 to 1980s
The technological explosion in computing after the 1940s 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 in 1966.
The 1970s saw further development, with 1979 seeing the advent of the Usenet, which allowed people to communicate through virtual newsletters, articles, or posts to newsgroups.
This decade also saw the introduction of home computers with the type of social media we would recognize today developing soon after. Usenet systems were the brainchild of Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. True social media came one step closer during the 1980s.
3. Early social media apps are born: The Well and GENie
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, GENie was still used well into the late 1990s. It had 350,000 users at its peak and was only made redundant by the development of the World Wide Web.
4. Listverse makes its debut
Year or period: 1986
Listserv (the original, not the modern top ten site) debuted in 1986. This was, in effect, a mailing list that allowed individuals to contact multiple users in one email. This is commonplace today but was revolutionary at the time.
Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) first appeared in 1988 and were still used well into the 1990s. They were used for file sharing, link sharing, and 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 avatar overlaid on a graphical backdrop. If you want to try it out, it is still in operation in one form or another.
6. Sixdegrees.com was the first genuine 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 shut down in 2001, but brought back a few years later.
Users could send messages and 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 and began life passing around petitions opposing the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
It later went on to promote general internet activism, such as opposing US military actions abroad 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, and this form of social media is still prevalent 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 interacting with one another.
9. LunarStorm was one of the first ad-financed 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 strategy would become increasingly important as the decade progressed.
The site was aimed at teenagers and was developed in Sweden. By 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 often 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.
Despite its critics, it is a not-for-profit entity and is generally well-loved.
Wikipedia does not consider the site to be social media per se. Still, it can be described as an online community of like-minded people and thus is 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 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
Another critical step in the history of social media platforms and social media sites was the emergence of LastFM.
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 world's most popular social media sites.
14. The rise and fall of MySpace
Year or period: 2003
2003 also saw the launch of MySpace, which quickly became "the" social media platform at the time. It allowed users to customize their profile entirely but also to could embed music and videos.
An essential 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 in 2003, opening up blogging to almost anyone. It now powers many websites.
16. Photosharing, MMOs, and online storage have become popular
Year or period: 2003
Photo sharing became mainstream when Photobucket and Flickr, among others, appeared in 2003.
SecondLife also launched in 2003. This is one of the forerunners of today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Del.icio.us, an online social site offering 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 Facebook's initial Harvard dorm-based version. Care2, Multiply, Ning, Orkut, Mixi, Piczo, and Hyves were also launched.
18. YouTube launched in 2005
Year or period: 2005
YouTube first appeared in 2005 and launched an entirely new method of communication. The ability to create and share media over very long distances was such a game-changer that it had become something of a behemoth ever since.
Other notable launches this year included Yahoo!360, Bebo, and the "mighty" Reddit. Social media platforms started to find their legs.
19. Facebook launches and begins to monopolize the market
Year or period: 2006
2006 saw the advent of Facebook. It remains one of the internet's most popular social media platforms and, by extension, the world.
Facebook has seen staggering growth since 2006, and it is now one of the most visited sites on the web.
20. Twitter rose in 2006
Year or period: 2006
Twitter, also launched in 2006, has attained an almost "cult-like" status since its inception. Its ability to allow users to interact directly with celebrities was virtually unheard of previously.
21. Tumblr and Friendfeed join the fray
Year or period: 2007
To date, it has more than 350 million blogs alone; wow.
22. Businesses cotton on to the power of social media
Year or period: 2008
Around this time, businesses started to take notice of social media, especially its power for advertising. Companies rushed to open accounts and link to them and other popular sites.
23. The market starts to get crowded
Year or period: 2009
Spotify, Ping, Groupon, and Kontain appeared in 2008, continuing the development of niches within the growing social market. Location-based social media also began to take hold in 2009 with the launch of Foursquare.
This was one of the first sites to introduce a "check-in" feature. 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 emergence of Instagram would shake up the social media scene
Year or period: 2010
Yet another essential step in the evolution of social media platforms was the launch of Instagram in 2010. A US-based photo and video-sharing platform, Instagram is today one of the biggest social media sites in the world.
It was created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger and is available on all smart device platforms. One of its standout features in the early days was the ability for users to edit uploaded content within the app and organize material using tags and other location information.
After its release, it quickly became popular, acquiring somewhere in the region of 2 million users within its first few months alone. Seeing the potential for the social media platform, Facebook acquired the company in 2012.
Today, it is widely used by private users and businesses to promote themselves and acts mainly as an advertising platform.
25. WeChat is another viral social media platform today
Year or period: 2011
WeChat first appeared on the scene in 2011. A Chinese entry into the social media industry, today, it is one of the world's most popular social media apps.
Today it is owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent. It offers users the basics of social media and the ability to carry out financial transactions and purchases, like booking flights and hotels through the app.
However, due to its popularity, WeChat is also subject to mass surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party and is prone to censorship of any politically sensitive content in China.
26. 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 could form group contacts into "circles" and chat via video "hangouts."
It has recently been discontinued.
27. 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 quickly became necessary. Pheed took advantage of this with its service.
Pheed allows you to share text, photos, audio, voice notes, video, and live broadcasts in the same space—a strategy since copied by many other platforms.
Social media platforms, and social media in general, were also beginning to drive a lust for rapid-fire updates and information. This led to the launch of Vine in 2012.
As you probably know, Vine lets you share 6-second videos for no reason other than that you can. It was acquired by Twitter in 2012 and shut down in 2019.
28. Minds might be the social media platform of the future
Year or period: 2016
With growing fears over many major social media sites actively editing content on their sites and suppressing certain demographics, alternative social media sites began to appear towards the second half of the 2010s. One of the most notable social media platforms to emerge was Minds.com.
This free and open-source social media platform has seen significant user growth since its launch in 2016. One of its unique selling points is its strict neutrality regarding free speech and its blockchain integration to reward its community with ERC20 tokens.
Users can use these tokens to promote their content or help crowdfund other users through monthly subscriptions to access exclusive content and other services. Self-described as a "Crypt Social Network," Minds.com's privacy, decentralization, optional anonymity, and steadfast commitment to transparency and protecting freedom of speech appeal to many regular users.
29. Gab is another new contender in the battle for social media platform wars
Year or period: 2016
Yet another new contender in the social media ecosystem is Gab. Also standing for protecting freedom of speech and individual liberty, Gab vies for market dominance.
Gab has recently become a controversial social media platform, attracting both applause and criticism in seemingly equal measures. In 2019, Gab launched the Dissenter browser extension that lets logged-in users comment on content hosted on other websites.
The idea is that users can bypass any moderation practices these sites may have in place to launch full-throttled abuse. It is particularly popular with far-right extremists, white-power terrorists, and sex pests who other platforms have banned. It has been described as "an “online cesspool of antisemitism, hate speech, and racism.
30. The birth of TikTok was another important step for social media platforms
Year or period: 2016
In 2016, the now viral social media platform, TikTok, was first launched by Douyin for the Chinese market; it was later found on iOS and Android outside of China.
Primarily focusing on uploading and sharing videos, this social networking app has exploded in popularity over the last few years. Most users use it to record short dance, lip-syn, comedy, or other talent videos, and it seems to be finding its stride.
While many videos loaded onto the site may be utterly cringe-worthy, there is no doubt that it is a highly addictive social media platform for millions of users worldwide.
31. Parler could challenge Twitter for dominance in the not-too-distant future
Year or period: 2018
Parler is among the newest kids on the block regarding social media platforms and apps. Launched in 2018, Parler describes itself as a neutral, free-speech social media platform that protects its users' rights above all other concerns.
After the French "to speak," Parler was created by CEO John Matze in 2018. The social media platform gained a surge in users when some prominent public figures signed up and promoted the site between late-2018 and early-2019.
Like many other newer social media platforms, Parler has ambitions to topple some of the older, more established social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Whether it will achieve this grand vision is yet to be seen.
32. Social media is a virtual ecosystem today
Year or period: NA
Today, there is an eye-boggling variety of social media platforms, apps, and other social media sites, many of which allow for sharing. As you know, this media has allowed users maximum exposure without sacrificing interpersonal communication.
It's pretty incredible. Businesses and individuals could not imagine a world without it. Such has been its infiltration into our lives.
It has changed our world, for better or sound, and is set to make traditional media, like printed newspapers, extinct.
33. The future is uncertain
Year or period: 2018 - Onwards
Who can tell what will happen to social media over the next few decades? Will it even exist in ten, twenty, or more years?
We can never know, but given society's rapid uptake of the medium, it meets our needs. We are social creatures, after all, and any form of media that makes meeting and talking with others without actually needing to interact with them in the real world is likely to continue in some form or other well in the future.
Despite this apparent benefit, we have all seen social media's 'dark side' grow over the last few years, especially it's potential for being hijacked for political gain and manipulation. Whether people will tire of the constant stream of bile and abuse, as well as the continual advertising, or feel this is just the price we have to pay for social media, remains to be seen.
And that is your lot for today.
The history of social media is a testament to the power of technology to connect people and shape how we communicate. From the early days of bulletin board systems to the current era of social networking sites, social media has evolved rapidly, transforming how we interact.
As we look to the future, it's clear that social media will continue to play a significant role in our lives, offering new opportunities for connection, collaboration, and engagement. However, it's also important to remember the challenges and controversies that come with social media and to work towards creating a safer, more inclusive and more responsible digital space for all.