It’s 10pm. Do you know where your friends are?
Actually, probably so. Thanks to dozens of social networking apps in the palms of our hands every waking hour, the world is more connected than ever. Nearly three quarters of online adults in America use social media; that number leaps to almost 90 percent for the 18-29 age bracket.
But how did we get from a generation who lived without television to one glued to Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Tumblr, and Snapchat? The history of social media is a storied one: It dates back much further than you might believe, and it includes systems, technologies, and platforms you may have long forgotten about.
Facebook boasts 1.13 billion daily active users, but it’s far from the only game in town. Follow along as we explore 36 other social network technologies, past and present, that have made the social media landscape what it is today.
In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegraph from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. Certainly, telegraphs bear little to no resemblance to the elaborate and intricate networks we’ve joined today, but there’s some important context to that first DM nonetheless: The message—a prescient Bible verse from the book of Numbers, “What hath God wrought?”—was reportedly suggested by young Annie Ellsworth, perhaps foreshadowing the influence younger generations would have on social media for centuries to come.
CompuServe’s 40-year history from 1969 to 2009 spans a vast array of connectivity efforts, from its early use as a support network for an insurance company to its latter days in email and forums.
It took 10 years for the company to expand its efforts from business-centric dial-up internet support to a consumer product called MicroNET that hit the market in 1979, but it’s the real-time chat service called CB Simulator that has clearly left a mark for decades to follow. Additional products, including filesharing, “near-real-time stock quotes, weather reports (with downloadable weather maps), lively forums, even airplane-ticket booking,” according to Wired, attracted thousands of users to CompuServe in its ’80s and ’90s boom.
However, charging by the hour for internet access proved untenable in the face of monthly giants like AOL, and a complicated acquisition deal between AOL, WorldCom, and CompuServe was struck in September 1997. Some branches of the company continued on under the new umbrella until CompuServe’s life as an ISP came to a quiet end on June 30, 2009.
They say the military’s technology is consistently years ahead of consumer-grade counterparts, and social networking is no exception. ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, was a Department of Defense project contracted through BBN Technologies that sought to connect universities on a proto-internet. The first message sent across the platform was “LO,” transmitted from UCLA to the Stanford Research Institute in 1969. (The intended message was “LOGIN,” but the system crashed halfway through.)
Map of the Internet in 1969 pic.twitter.com/XbaOaJ1zrN
— History In Pictures (@HistoryInPics) January 21, 2014
It may not seem like much, but as the first network to use the TCP/IP protocol in 1982, ARPANET holds a significant place in the history of our online world. The National Science Foundation (NSF)’s NSFNET ultimately subsumed ARPANET in its quest to connect academic users at research institutions around the world, and ARPANET was decommissioned in 1990.
Now we’re getting somewhere. In February 1978, the first public bulletin board system went live. Though predecessors like the Bay Area’s coin-operated Community Memory board were available as early as 1973, Ward Christiansen and Randy Suess (who reportedly were inspired by getting snowed in in Chicago during a massive blizzard) get credit for making their version open to the public.
It wasn’t cheap, as users were subject to long-distance phone charges while they used their dial-up to access the boards. That meant most users had to be serious computer hobbyists or commercial clients, but the BBS was nevertheless an important step toward consumer or residential internet and messaging platforms like Twitter.
A short 1992 documentary about BBS was uploaded to YouTube by dakroland in 2007.
The Usenet community got its start in 1979, thanks to creators Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. Much like BBSs, users could read and write posts in threaded conversations, but the system no longer required one central server to host the exchanges. And unlike predecessors like ARPANET, Usenet still lives on today.
Thanks to the system’s organization into various newsgroups like sci.math and talk.atheism, Usenet somewhat resembles an early-days Reddit, where users can follow along with long conversation threads on topics they’ve subscribed to. Usenet was also responsible for popularizing many now-familiar terms of online life, like “spam” and “FAQ.”
Much of Usenet’s legacy now lives on in Google’s archives of some 700 million Usenet posts (Google acquired the database from the appropriately named Deja.com in February 2001). But not all users are happy about that completist collection, as the New York Times noted that spring:
In Usenet’s original incarnation, messages posted to newsgroups disappeared within weeks, replaced by other comments on the same topic in what was perceived as an ongoing electronic conversation. When Deja.com, then called Deja News, began archiving messages in 1995 and making them searchable, there were protests by those who felt the bulletin boards were never intended to be permanent.
Could Usenet users’ battles with privacy concerns be an indication of what’s to come for a generation that shares videos, photos, locations, and more with an ever-widening network of sites and services? Time will tell. Until then, we can remain fascinated by some of the more bizarre and unsettling stories from deep within Usenet’s archives.
LISTSERVs, popularized in the mid-1980s, took the administration of BBSs and the threads of Usenet and combined them to form electronic mailing lists. BITNIC LISTSERV, created by Ira Fuchs, Daniel Oberst, and Ricky Hernandez in 1984, relied on manual subscriptions and a human administrator to coordinate. Éric Thomas’s Revised LISTSERV (1986) automated some of that administration and became the dominant platform by 1987.
Today, LISTSERV technology lives on in its original form, along with Google Groups and other similar services.
Chat and blogging
Internet Relay Chat is the protocol that’s the backbone of many chat clients today. Created by Jarkko Oikarinen in 1988 as a way to update a BBS at the University of Oulu, IRC is a text-based messaging technology subdivided by channels and 1-1 communications. There are various clients by which IRC is available. Here’s a guide for how to install an IRC client called Xchat on Ubuntu:
“The metropolis of Geocities … in its 15 years of existence, housed some 38 million online residents,” wrote Joe Kloc for the Daily Dot in 2013. Though a more independent outpost than some of the aforementioned communities, Geocities amassed a huge collection of users and fans after its launch in 1994.
Yahoo, which acquired Geocities in 1999, ultimately decided to shutter the remaining sites in 2009, but that unrelenting fanbase has sought ever since to keep the twirling GIFs and brash colors of Geocities’ prime alive through archives, mirrors, and this gargantuan torrent file.
AOL Instant Messenger
Upon its release in May 1997, AOL’s Instant Messenger, or AIM as it is better known, brought real-time private chat to the fore. With pioneering features like the buddy list (engineered by IBM alum Barry Appelman), user profiles, voice chat, file transfer, the program was immensely popular with users—up to 18 million simultaneously, in fact.
But it was less of a golden child in AOL’s eyes, where executives resented how the free product might undermine the pay-to-play structure of the ISP giant.
Though the system’s chatrooms were terminated in 2010 and much of the lure of 1-1 communication now belongs to integrated chat platforms like Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts, the AIM product still exists in a slightly different package.
For more on AIM’s fascinating history over the years, check out Mashable’s definitive timeline of the product.
SixDegrees.com (not to be confused with Kevin Bacon’s charity organization at SixDegrees.org) was a social network that capitalized on the “six degrees of separation” concept. It existed from 1997 to 2001, hosting 3.5 million registered users at its peak.
Though the site’s first dated post is from Nov. 23, 1997, LiveJournal as a domain and site came into existence in 1999. The journaling site hit its stride a few years later, hitting 1 million users in 2003, 2 million in January 2004, and 5 million within the year. For several years, it dominated the market for blogging, in particular for fandom hubs; the site won a Webby Award in 2004 in the community category.
However, things became less stable beginning in 2007. A perceived lack of communication surrounding updates and changes frustrated longtime users, and hundreds of LiveJournal sites were banned in a purge that came to be known as Strikethrough. After founder Brad Fitzpatrick left for Google in 2007, and product development is now housed under the parent umbrella of Russia’s SUP Media.
Like LiveJournal, Xanga began in 1999, but its original purpose was as a repository for film and book reviews. The blogging platform amassed more than 27 million users by 2006, but its market share shrank as Facebook expanded its reach with teens. Though it introduced many useful features like customizable page skins and layouts, it couldn’t convince enough users to spring for a paid premium account. By the summer of 2013, the service was struggling to raise $60,000 from its users in a crowdfunded rescue attempt.
As of 2016, Xanga’s homepage detailed its progress on a four-step rollout of Xanga 2.0, and the developers had archived some 2 million blogs (which had been logged into at least once in the past five years and had more than a couple followers) from its previous incarnation.
The early Aughts
While several of the previously mentioned platforms had developed file-sharing capabilities for their users, their primary purpose was largely intended for text-based communication, blogging, and conversation. Napster, created by Shawn and John Fanning and Sean Parker, married a user-friendly interface with mp3-specific peer-to-peer sharing to instantly become an enormous electronic music distribution platform. According to a 2013 report by Forbes, Napster is “still enshrined in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-growing business ever.”
“It’s difficult to describe to people… how much material was suddenly available,” John Perry Barlow said in Alex Winter’s Downloaded documentary about the platform.
Napster’s history is tied inextricably to copyright controversy. As music fans exchanged rare bootleg performances and leaked album exclusives, many artists grew frustrated by a loss of control. Others, like Public Enemy’s Chuck D, praised the technology: “I thought what [Shawn Fanning] had done with Napster was one of the most revolutionary things ever done in music, period.”
After a district court (and subsequently the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) found Napster directly violated the plaintiffs’ copyright in A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., Napster was forced to restrict access to copyrighted material on its servers. It filed for bankruptcy in 2002. But though the site itself may be gone, its legacy in the music industry—and the precedent it set with the RIAA—lives on.
Friendster is the Facebook that might have been. Launched by Canadian programmer Jonathan Abrams in 2002, and with a little bit of luck, he might have beaten Zuckerberg to the punch with features like Friendster College, a newsfeed, and more.
But the site was plagued by technical difficulties, shooting itself in the foot for gaining any footing in the market. “People could barely log into the website for two years,” Abrams told Mashable in 2014. “By the time Facebook and MySpace was doing those things, Friendster had lost a lot of market share in the U.S. for stability issues.”
Though it had largely faded from relevance in the U.S., Friendster was acquired by a Malaysian company in 2009, and it rebranded itself as a social gaming site in 2011. Realizing “the online gaming community did not engage as much as we had hoped for,” according to a farewell notice on the site, its leaders shuttered the site effective June 14, 2015.
Inspired by Friendster’s potential, Chris DeWolfe, Brad Greenspan, Tom Anderson, and Josh Berman founded Myspace (formerly stylized MySpace) in August 2003. The site launched officially five months later in January 2004. Within a month, 1 million people had signed up for the site, where they could connect with friends and enjoy the company of default friend Tom Anderson. The site was the United States’ most-visited site as of July 2006 and was valued at tens of billions of dollars at its peak in 2007.
However, an identity crisis at Myspace left the network to the same fate as many of its predecessors. “Mismanagement, a flawed merger, and countless strategic blunders have accelerated Myspace’s fall from being one of the most popular websites on earth—one that promised to redefine music, politics, dating, and pop culture—to an afterthought,” as Bloomberg’s Felix Gillette wrote in June 2011. After a very public, Justin Timberlake-backed relaunch in 2013 (when the site ditched its intercap), the site struggled to regain relevance against Facebook’s stronghold. In 2016, a massive password leak sent Myspace users back to their long-forgotten pages, but it’s still a healthy repository of NSFW Tom Hardy photos and sex worker ads.
LinkedIn carved a niche for itself in the social networking field by focusing on connecting members for business, rather than social, reasons. By late 2003, users were syncing their address books to the service, bringing exponentially more user to the platform. It became publicly traded in 2011 and had over 225 million members by its 10th anniversary. Thanks to several key acquisitions of other companies and technologies, LinkedIn managed to strengthen the connections on the platform at every interaction, from first contact onward.
Former Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale changed the game of social networking by building a space for users to interact with one another’s avatars in a virtual world. The early version of Linden World was more akin to today’s first-person shooters, developed for testing haptic research, as seen in this archival clip:
But after a relaunch as Second Life in 2003, things started getting real—literally. Second Life would grow to include an in-game economy, a complicated building interface, and messaging between users. By 2006, the virtual world had garnered 1 million users and a not-insubstantial amount of mainstream media attention.
The virtual world developed many of the same features of its IRL counterpart, including sex and relationships, religion, and art exhibits. In 2007, Linden Lab even banned gambling in Second Life.
Second Life had approximately 900,000 monthly active users in 2015, and its creators are now looking forward to a way “to make a proper successor to the Second Life platform and take advantage of the bold new world of immersive VR.”
While not a social network in the same sense of the phrase as many other sites on this list, Flickr is more than just a photo-uploading platform. Registered users can connect with one another, follow friends’ activities and upload, form groups, and communicate in private groups and messages.
Flickr launched on Feb. 10, 2004, and it was acquired by Yahoo a little over a year later. The site has seen several redesigns and additional features in the intervening decade, including content filtering, a failed attempt to sell Creative Commons wall art, and the Justified layout option in 2012.
These days, when someone says “social network,” Facebook is the first and biggest thing that jumps to mind. Thanks to its 1.7 billion monthly active users and mainstream attention from things like David Fincher’s 2010 blockbuster, The Social Network, the history and features of the world’s biggest social network are well-known, but we’ve included the basics here for completeness’ sake.
Facebook (then thefacebook.com) launched on Feb. 4, 2004, as a site specifically for Harvard University students. Founder Mark Zuckerberg had effectively created for the school’s faculty and staff to connect and share profiles with one another. (Whether that idea was his or that of Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narenda is a sore subject of some dispute.)
It quickly spread to other Ivy League institutions, then to colleges across the U.S., then to high school students in September 2005. One year later, in September 2006, the site opened itself to any user with a registered email address. The same month, Facebook unveiled the News Feed, which is the backbone of the site’s recognizable interface that exists to this day.
Since then, Facebook’s developers have also added and improved features like photo and video uploads, Likes (and subsequently additional reactions), social gaming apps, events, private messaging (now in a standalone app called Messenger), and more. Features that didn’t make the cut include the wall, Facebook Deals, and FBML, an in-house attempt at site-specific HTML.
Facebook’s history has not been without controversy. Its biggest is, of course, the dispute between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins over the legal ownership of the Facebook intellectual property, and the site’s history is peppered with privacy and security complaints. It’s also constantly tweaking the algorithm that supports its News Feed, with the latest update in 2016 intended to squelch clickbait articles.
From 2012 to present, Digg has existed as a news aggregation site, but upon its launch in fall 2004, the community aspect was more pronounced. Users could submit links to sites for other users to vote that content up or down the homepage boards. At its best, the site was a well-curated guide to up-and-coming content online, but by a revised release in 2010, it was flooded by manipulative power users and plagued by sitewide bugs.
Betaworks bought and relaunched Digg in 2012.
The video platform found a home at its current domain back in on Valentine’s Day 2005, but its first upload came a few months later, on April 23: “Me at the zoo” was co-founder Jawed Karim’s San Diego Zoo clip. The website grew rapidly, with almost 20 million monthly visitors by the summer of 2006. Users could quickly and easily upload and share video content with friends, and it was an especially popular outlet for teenagers. Google purchased the website that same fall.
Over the years, YouTube has added features and functionality to its website, including a rating system for viewers, comments and video replies, and support for ever-improving quality and capability like 360-degree video.
But what’s grown and shifted more in the past 11 years is YouTube’s community and content. As of 2016, the platforms hosts over a billion users in 88 different countries across the globe, so the demographics of its userbase were bound to expand beyond its millennial roots. So too has its content diversified to include everything from beauty vloggers and gamers to scientists, BookTubers, and bakers.
With so many users uploading so much content, however, controversy was inevitable. The site has faced issues of copyright, like on Napster for music. (In the site’s latest iteration of DMCA compliance relies on a delicate balance of algorithmic enforcement and user-submitted complaints.) From 2012 to 2014, allegations surfaced against prominent male creators who were preying on their young (mostly female) fans.
Amid these scandals and controversies, however, YouTube has come into its own as a stronghold among other mainstream media. A 2014 survey said millennials prefer YouTube stars to their Hollywood counterparts, and several prominent YouTube celebrities famously interviewed President Obama in 2015.
Based on the “digging” and “burying” user voting system of Digg and inspired by a desire to sift the signal from the noise on the popular page of Del.icio.us, Reddit, a.k.a. the front page of the internet, introduced its version of user-curated news in 2005. Its founders, Steve Hoffman and Alexis Ohanian, met at the University of Virginia and fostered their fledgling idea at the Y Combinator startup incubator in Boston. It wasn’t an instant hit—Hoffman downvoted Ohanian’s first post, and the duo relied on bots to popular the site with links at first—but that quickly changed.
By the end of 2005, the creators had added commenting to the mix, and by Halloween 2006, the company had been acquired by Condé Nast for “an estimated $20 million.” During 2006 and 2007, the NSFW, politics, science, and programming subreddits claimed the most popular title of the site, but the site quickly diversified to include user-generated subreddits and communities. Its community of users even rallied to raise funds for the site through membership in Reddit Gold after a hiring freeze stunted its growth and several of the original founders departed for other ventures.
Eight years later, submissions to the site, which have ranged from heartwarming to hostile, were still rising regularly, if changing form. Between 2010 and 2012, the proportion of text-based to image-based posts on the site also changed dramatically, with 77 out of the top 100 posts being images in 2012. Other Reddit products have also taken the spotlight lately, including Alien Blue as the site’s first mobile app in 2014 and comment-free sister site cum podcast Upvoted in 2016, which occasionally delves more deeply into some of the biggest headlines of the day.
At its best, Reddit has sent an untold number of pizzas to a young cancer patient, collectively named a whale Mr. Splashy Pants, hosted an AMA (or “Ask Me Anything”) session with President Obama, and participated in an internet-wide protest of the Stop Online Privacy Act. At its strangest, it has celebrated toasters’ rights and identified the distinct allure of pressing buttons. But this site, like many of its predecessors, has not been immune to controversy and failure over the past decade.
Sure, it faced the usual user backlash over changes to popular features and algorithms, but Reddit also famously played host to r/TheFappening, a subreddit devoted to the celebrity nudes leaked during Celebgate; banned subreddits en masse to “protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment” after such woes plagued some communities; and led a witch-hunt in Boston after site users misidentified a suspect in the marathon bombing of 2013. In 2015, the company also saw the very public exits of longtime employee Victoria Taylor and CEO Ellen Pao.
Though it was preceded by tumblelogs like German Chris Neukirchen’s anarchaia and Marcel Molina’s Projectionist, Tumblr gets widespread credit as the first mainstream tumblelog, or platform explicitly designed for shortform content.
“I tried all of the great tools that were around at the time—WordPress, Blogger—and obviously all the specialized tools—Flickr for photos and YouTube for videos—and I kept falling down,” Tumblr creator David Karp recounted at South by Southwest 2013. “I was perfectly happy with all these tools but at the same time, constantly frustrated by the limitations imposed by all of them.”
Tumblr, which launched in February 2007, allows users to post photos, video, quotes, text, and other short story types, and users’ followed blogs populate a dashboard with recent content. Yahoo acquired the service in 2013, much to users’ chagrin, but it has continued to grow as a collection of “aesthetics, fandoms, social justice, memes, and porn.” As of August 2016, Tumblr hosts over 138 billion posts.
In many ways, Klout is a meta social network. It relies on your presence on other platforms (like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, YouTube, and others) to assign each user a score and corresponding rank according to their social influence. The service launched in 2008 and added Klout Perks, or rewards for users with growing influence, two years later.
Its ever-adjusting algorithms have been criticized over the years for being inaccurate, pointless, and in some cases, even illegal, but its userbase remains. Though Klout Perks were discontinued in 2015, some 620 million users have received scores since its launch.
This now-defunct network, launched Feb. 9, 2010, sought to combine Twitter-esque posts and Facebook’s status updates into a Google-integrated product; Business Insider described it as “[p]art email, part Facebook, part Twitter, part Friendfeed, part Foursquare.”
Early security and privacy concerns coupled with “the lack of competitive advantage over Twitter lead to low user adoption, forcing Google to shut down Buzz” in the fall of 2011, after just 22 months.
On July 17, 2013, Google migrated the last of Buzz’s archival data to users’ Google Drives.
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched this popular image-sharing app in October 2010, but the first photos went live a few months prior in July.