It‘s hard to imagine life without social media today. But not long ago, staying connected with friends and family meant landline phones, letters in the mail, and get-togethers in person.
The past few decades have seen social technologies advance at blinding speed to fundamentally change how we communicate and share.
Let‘s explore the major milestones in social media‘s relatively brief but incredibly impactful history. Understanding its origins provides insight into how we got here, where we‘re headed, and the innovations still to come.
- Bulletin Boards and Newsgroups: The Early Social Web
- Geocities, Classmates.com and Social Networking‘s Modest Beginnings
- Blogging and LiveJournal Give Rise to Diaries and Journals Online
- MySpace Becomes the Place for Indie Bands and Teens
- Facebook Permanently Alters the Social Media Landscape
- Microblogging and Real-Time Social Streams with Twitter
- Instagram and Snapchat Make Photo and Video Sharing Visual
- Social Media Matures into Its Own Industry and Economy
- The Outlook: More Evolution Faster Than Ever
Bulletin Boards and Newsgroups: The Early Social Web
Before today‘s slick social apps and websites, early Internet users gathered on bulletin board systems (BBS). Accessible through telephone modems, these let users post public messages and download files.
The 1982 landmark Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) BBS boasted famous authors, academics and hackers chatting about the latest tech topics. It gave a glimpse of the potential for online communities.
In 1979, Usenet brought something closer to modern social media. Users could read and post public messages to categorized groups covering hobbies, computing, current events and more. From sci-fi fans to Linux users, niche communities congregated.
According to tech historian Brad Templeton, early Usenet pioneers helped define the ethics and etiquette of online public forums we still follow today. Their "netiquette" guidelines covered helpful suggestions like avoiding ALL CAPS.
Geocities, Classmates.com and Social Networking‘s Modest Beginnings
The 90s saw the launch of sites allowing users to create personal profiles and connect with each other online for the first time.
In 1994 a site called Geocities let users create their own homepages and group them together in themed online "neighborhoods" for easy browsing by interest. Geocities gave individuals a public presence on the early commercial web.
Sites like classmates.com (1995) and SixDegrees.com (1997) made it easy to connect specifically with other people you knew in real life. SixDegrees let you list and browse friends-of-friends, bringing the "small world" phenomenon online.
While sites like AOL Instant Messenger and ICQ offered chat, these new sites focused specifically on profile pages, friends lists, and visible social connections.
Blogging and LiveJournal Give Rise to Diaries and Journals Online
Another form of proto-social media rose in the form of online diaries, pioneered by sites like LiveJournal and Xanga.
LiveJournal launched in 1999 as a way for individuals to share daily life updates through short blog-style posts. Friends could follow each other‘s LiveJournals and comment on posts, making it one of the first truly social blogging platforms.
LiveJournal was especially popular among teens and young adults who used it as a public diary and open journal community. It was a remarkably candid look into early digital youth culture.
MySpace Becomes the Place for Indie Bands and Teens
The online social world changed forever in 2003 when a new site called MySpace launched. Co-founded by Chris DeWolfe, MySpace pioneered many features we take for granted today.
Users could completely customize pages with HTML and additions like music players. By freely mixing media, MySpace allowed creativity and self-expression online.
Teens flocked to personalize their own spaces and meet/friend each other. Unsigned bands created pages to directly reach fans with songs and concert dates.
MySpace was a chaotic, vibrant social ecosystem that felt groundbreaking and exciting. It surpassed 1 million users by 2004 and defeated Google as the most visited U.S. site by 2006. For better or worse, MySpace influenced Internet culture for generations raised on it.
Facebook Permanently Alters the Social Media Landscape
While MySpace captured youth trends, across town a Harvard sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg worked on an idea of his own. He wanted an online directory focused totally on college students.
Zuckerberg‘s "TheFacebook" site launched from his Harvard dorm in February 2004. It let students create profiles, list courses, join groups, and connect with classmates. Originally only for Harvard, it expanded to other colleges before going global.
Facebook was cleaner and simpler than predecessors. Features like the News Feed let you scroll an ongoing stream of your friends‘ updates. The iconic blue design and "Like" button made participation frictionless.
Younger audiences gravitated to MySpace for music and customization; Facebook attracted users seeking simpler social connecting centered around real identities.
By 2009 it overtook MySpace in visitors. Today with over 2.8 billion users, Facebook is the world‘s undisputed social media giant.
Microblogging and Real-Time Social Streams with Twitter
College dropouts Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey and Biz Stone were about to change social networking again with Twitter. It let users post 140-character "tweets" to followers in 2006.
Hashtags (#) introduced a smart way to categorize and find tweets on trends. @ mentions made conversations public. Trending topics allowed real-time tracking of breaking news or meme crazes.
Unlike Facebook‘s closed connections, Twitter was an open, public stream. Celebrities, politicians and brands could address followers directly. Twitter became the pulse of culture and current events unfolding live.
According to a Harvard study, by 2013 up to 27% of Americans were getting news on Twitter. Its impact as a communication and news hub continues today with over 330 million active monthly users.
Instagram and Snapchat Make Photo and Video Sharing Visual
Always-connected smartphones with built-in cameras inspired new kinds of visual social networks. Instagram launched in 2010, allowing anyone to snap, filter, enhance and share photos instantly.
By 2012 Instagram reached over 100 million users and was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. Its artsy filters and simplicity around mobile photos attracted celebrities and influencers who could earn income through product sponsorships.
Snapchat approached visual communication differently with ephemeral messaging. Snaps sent between friends disappeared after viewing, making it more private and intimate. AR lenses and filters added interactive fun not possible on static Instagram posts.
Both redefined social expectations and norms around photos. Instagram still ranks among the top social platforms today with over 1 billion active monthly users. Snapchat also remains hugely popular with over 265 million daily active users.
Social Media Matures into Its Own Industry and Economy
Over the past decade, social media has continued evolving while cementing itself as a fundamental part of work, politics, news, shopping and everyday life.
Platforms like YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, Clubhouse and others attract millions by serving unique social niches. Acquisitions within the space are common as platforms align themselves through metaverses like Facebook Horizon.
Advertising, influencers, crowdfunding, shopping and more generate billions within social media. Small businesses rely on social profiles and engagement as a low-cost way to market themselves.
New technologies even show social potential for the future with VR spaces like Meta Horizon Worlds where users interact as personalized avatars.
The Outlook: More Evolution Faster Than Ever
It‘s anyone‘s guess where social media goes next or which platforms may rise and fall. But looking at its relatively brief history so far provides perspective on how quickly change happens, often in unexpected ways.
New channels, devices, algorithms, uses and needs will continue reshaping social experiences at dizzying speed. But the innate human desire to create, share and connect will endure as the heart that pumps life into each new iteration.
Social media is still in its infancy compared to the span of human history. But in just decades it has irrevocably changed us. Love it or hate it, none can deny how deeply social technology now permeates our lives.
The past provides clues to the future. But we have only begun to glimpse social media‘s full disruptive potential. The story continues unfolding each day, post by post.