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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.


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.