Early socialising by Alex E. Proimos

While I'm partial to David Fincher, The Social Network gives off the impression that social media started with Facebook, which isn't the case. In fact, it wasn't even the first "modern" social media platform or social networking site. The simple truth is, like other technological developments, social media is the result of a long line of predecessors that laid the foundations for what it has become today.

For this installation of our Throwback Thursdays column, we're going to trace the origins of social media, looking at the forms it took prior to Facebook. For purposes of brevity (this topic could fill a book), we're going to focus on the milestones that really paved the way for modern social media.

Hope you Like #historylessons.

The Origins Of Social

To really track the origins of social media, we have to travel back to the early days of the internet. There is no consensus on a singular point where it began, as any research on the subject demonstrates. However, we can say with certainty that there were a few developments that mark the dawning of social media. Here are the major ones.

  • Email: Some argue that email was the original social media channel. Allowing one user to send information to another user on a separate machine, email was an early foray into computer-facilitated sociality.
  • BBS (Bulletin Board System): Rudimentary as they were, BBSs were a series of online meeting places that let users communicate and interact via a central system.
  • UseNet: An online bulletin board that allowed users to share copies of early web browsers with others. Trolling - a practice that is still wildly popular on social media today (everywhere on the internet, in fact) - began here.
  • CompuServe: This was the first major commercial online service. It let (paying) members share files, access news, and send messages to friends via email (which at the time wasn't widely available). It also allowed users to join discussion forums and was a precursor to the forums we know today.

    While it's difficult to nail down one of these as the beginning of social media, they can all be regarded as early manifestations. In one way or another, each exhibited a social component, facilitating communication and sharing among users via the internet. Though much different from how we see social media today, these were the grandparents, the first generation that set the wheels in motion.

    The In-betweeners

    More intermediate manifestations - call it the second epoch of social - were more akin to how we see social media today. They truly brought in the "social" aspect of social media into digitally driven communications over the internet. These can be grouped, roughly, into the following two categories.

  • Social Chat Services: Internet Relay Chat (IRC) was the first "chat" service, allowing users to share links, files, and keep in touch. Building on IRC, services like ICQ, AOL and other IM platforms became very popular.
  • Early Social Networks: Depending on who you ask, some would argue that dating sites were really the first social networks. I think it's easier to group these in with early social networking sites like GeoCities and Six Degrees, niche interest sites like AsianAvenue and BlackPlanet, and LiveJournal. These all included components of modern social networks: profiles, group creation, live updates, and so on.

    While they held significant differences, these were the direct predecessors to modern social networks and platforms as we currently understand them. They laid the foundations for later iterations by offering unique, novel features that would be emulated as social media matured in the early 2000s.

    Modern Social Media

    Despite what many may believe, Facebook wasn't the first modern social media networking service. The turn of the millennium was witness to huge developments in social media, with many different platforms (some that still operate today) emerging. Here are the most significant.

  • Friendster: In 2002, this social network was launched, introducing the idea of connecting to real world friends in the online sphere (much like Facebook would after it). It reached 3 million users within three months, and today boasts 90 million registered users. It is popular in Asia, where 90% of its traffic originates.
  • Hi5: Entering the social media milieu in 2003, Hi5 claims to have 60 million active members, mostly in Asia, Latin America and Central Africa. A user's network on this platform includes first, second and third degree contacts (a friend of a friend of a friend).
  • LinkedIn: Yes, LinkedIn was on the scene before Facebook, launching in May 2003. It was the first popular social network devoted to business, and is currently the most prominent.
  • MySpace: This is the one everyone remembers. Launched in 2003, by 2006 MySpace had become the most widely used social network in the world. It allowed a degree of profile customization that was unavailable anywhere else, and of course had a big emphasis on music. It still operates today, but its popularity has been surpassed by Facebook.

    The rest, as they say, is history. Facebook launched in 2004 as a way to connect college students, and today boasts over 1.1 billion users. And just as Facebook wasn't the beginning of social media, it won't be the end. Already, we have seen a number of hugely popular sites emerge, including Twitter and Pinterest. I, for one, am excited to see what direction and forms social media will take in the future.