A Brief History Of Social Media

by Brett Borders on June 2, 2009
Social media isn’t really “new.” While it has only recently become part of mainstream culture and the business world, people have been using digital media for networking, socializing and information gathering – almost exactly like now – for over 30 years:

The Phone Phreaking Era (1950’s – Early 90’s)

external image 3581908640_deab9c8d22.jpg?v=0Early phreaks on “phone trip” to tinker with payphones – image: Mark Bernay (@phonetrips)

Social media didn’t start with computers, it was born on “line” – on the phone. Phone phreaking, or the rogue exploration of the telephone network, started to gain momentum in the 1950’s. Phone phreaks weren’t motivated by fraud, but rather, they were technophiles and information addicts trapped in a telecom monopoly long before Skype or “free nights and weekends” existed. (Calling a friend in another state could rack up a $40/hr charge.)
These early social media explorers built “boxes“… homemade electronic devices that could generate tones allowing them to make free calls and get access to the experimental back end of the telephone system. Phreaks sniffed out telephone company test lines and conference circuits in order to host virtual seminars and discussions.
external image 3582380304_ee3a7b330d.jpg?v=0Apple Co-founders Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right) phreaking with homemade blueboxes – image: woz.org

The first real “blogs” / “podcasts” took place on hacked corporate voice mail systems called “codelines,” where phone phreaks would hack into unused mailboxes and set up shop until they were discovered and kicked out. You’d call a corporate 1-800 number, enter an extension and hear recorded audio broadcasts packed with social greetings and useful phone phreaking content: hacked calling card codes to make free calls, “bridges” (audio conference call lines), and plugs for other codelines. You could leave your comments and information as a voice mail, and the phreak would likely respond to you in his next update.
external image 3586647237_1984ace42d.jpg?v=0image: sahaja meditation @ flickr

The first “tweetup” type social media events were 2600 meetings. I fondly remember my first one in 1993… in the back of a Ft. Lauderdale bowling alley… with lots of fast food, stolen Bellsouth telephone equipment and industrial music-influenced fashion.
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Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) – (1979 – 1995)

external image 3583855648_f546e379d7.jpg?v=0image: Robert Watson

The first BBS or electronic “Bulletin Board System” was developed and was opened to the public in 1979 by Ward Christensen. The first BBSes were small servers powered by personal computers attached to a telephone modem, where one person at a time could dial in and get access. BBSes had social discussions on message boards, community-contributed file downloads, and online games.
The early BBSes had no colors or graphics, but with the advent of MS-DOS 3.0, a predecessor of HTML called ANSI was used to make colors and underground online artwork.
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In the 1980’s, the social media scene had a very edgy, underground flavor. There were some legitimate BBSes that offered “shareware” only, but a fair percentage of them had secret “adult” or pirate software rooms in the back. Many were strictly underground – dedicated exclusively to niches like warez (pirated software), H/P (explicit hacking and phreaking information discussion), Anarchy (articles on fraud, bomb making, drug chemistry), and Virus code for download. “Handles” or online pseudonyms were the norm. Real names were closely guarded and generally only revealed to real-life friends (or in the newspaper story when someone got arrested).

Commercial Online Services (1979 – 2001)

external image 3582380482_682b564eaf.jpg?v=0Prodigy offered a clean-shaven, moderated social networking environment in the early 90s


Online services, like Prodigy and Compuserve, were the first large scale corporate attempts to bring an interactive, “social” online experience to the masses. Online services rose to popularity concurrently along with BBSes and catered to a more corporate and mainstream-home-user kind of set. They offered a safe, moderated environment for social networking and discussions.
CompuServe was infamous for the high cost ($6 per hour, plus long-distance telephone adding up to almost $30/hr.) – but it offered the first online chat system called CB simulator in 1980. The first real-life wedding from a couple who met via real-time internet chat happened shortly thereafter and was featured on the Phil Donahue show. Prodigy launched nationwide in 1990, growing quickly in popularity for its color interface and lower cost.
external image 3581692967_05708a6129.jpg?v=0AOL brought the social features on the web into the mainstream.

Later, America Online (AOL) gained critical mass with aggressive CD promotions and direct mail campaigns. AOL also did one of the most epic product placements of all time in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail!” starring Tom Hanks – bringing “social” online culture and romance into the Hollywood mainstream.

The Dawn of the Word Wide Web – 1991

The internet existed since the late 1960s, as a network, but the world wide web became publicly available on August 6th, 1991.
external image 3587425160_f70a83382e.jpg?v=0The Well was a Bay Area BBS that evolved into an ISP and web community.

At the beginning of the 90s, internet access was available only to those with legitimate with university / government / military connections (and to hackers). But around 1994 or 1995, private internet service providers (ISPs) began to pop up in most major metro areas in the United States. This gave millions of home users the chance to enjoy unfiltered, unlimited online experiences. Usenet was the first center for most of the high-end discussion – but early internet users were extremely outspoken and opinionated by today’s standards. The first online social media etiquette standards were proposed, and called netiquette, as a reactionary to stop the rampant flaming and keep things somewhat civilized.
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By the late 90’s internet forums grew in popularity and began replacing Usenet and BBSes as the primary nexus for topical discussions.

IRC, ICQ and Instant Messenger

external image 3581754587_a08ddbb19a.jpg?v=0IRC was a popular way to chat and share links in the 90s

People have been addicted to “tweeting” their real-time status updates (using hash tags (#) and at-signs (@)) for over 20 years. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, was created in August 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen. It was notably used to break news on the Soviet coup attempt during the media blackout and keep tabs on the first Gulf War. Many people stayed logged into IRC constantly… using it to share links, files and keep in touch with their global network – they same way Twitter is used today.
external image 3583133718_050e6a8465.jpg?v=0ICQ technology raised many important questions, such as: “What R U wearing?”

IRC clients were primarily UNIX-based… but in 1996 four Israeli technologists invented the instant messenger (IM) system for desktop computers called ICQ . This was quickly purchased by AOL and it became a mainstream hit. IM technology helped developed the emotional lexicon of social media, with avatars (expressive images to represent yourself), abbreviations (A/S/L? = age, sex, location?) and emotion icons (or emoticons).

P2P – BitTorrent – and “Social” Media Sharing

external image 3581833453_63580d604e.jpg?v=0The “Summer of Music” in 1999 after Napster’s debut was an exciting time for music consumers.


Napster… a peer-to-peer filesharing application that went live in June 1999, marked an radical shift of distribution power from record companies to the consumer. I’ll never forget the (unprecedented) technological thrill of downloading an album in .MP3, burning it to CD on an external $500 drive, and playing it in my car. Music started to freely flow across the internet at an astonishing pace, stripped of hype and payola… on the merit of real people’s tastes and personal collections. The online music party raged through 1999 and 2000 (just like the tech stocks), until it was declared “illegal” and Napster was forced to filter out all the copyrighted content.
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Competing peer-to-peer applications like Limewire took Napster’s place – until BitTorrent technology arrived and provided a robust, centralized way to share files without being blocked. The Swedish website The Pirate Bay became a cult online destination for “social” media distribution.

Social Networking & Social News Websites

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The first social networking website was SixDegrees which let people make profiles and connect with friends in 1997. This kind of interactive, social web application style became popularly known as “Web 2.0” and it really gained momentum with Friendster around 2002-3.. followed by MySpace (2004 – 2006) and then Facebook (2007 -> ).
external image 3582785100_a15f35aa1a.jpg?v=0Digg gives people a constant, community-filtered stream of potent & engaging content.

Slashdot got famous for generating tons of traffic and buzz around its editor-picked stories, but the modern social news revolution took off when Digg gained critical mass in late 2006 and sites like StumbleUpon and Reddit followed. Delicious became popular as a way to share bookmarks of static pages.

The Real-Time Statusphere & Location-based Social Web (2008 – ???)

external image 3589616276_272b032105.jpg?v=0Twitter is a form of communication that people needed, even though they didn’t ask for it.

The big trend on the web is moving away from static “pages” and into real-time stream of status updates on what is hot and happening right now.
external image 3583104922_1f7903705a.jpg?v=0Location-based software will unlock the mobile experience to its full potential.

The iPhone was the tipping point for hardware, a functional mobile web browser after a decade of delayed hopes and false promises from other manufacturers. Location-based social networking sites like BrightKite allow people to use their mobile devices to “check in” at public locations and be seen by other network members who are physically close by, and let people to transcend the awkward social taboos against interacting with strangers in public places.
external image 3582295271_7c9b5855e6.jpg?v=0Google is trying to build an indispensable, real-time social web app with Wave.

What’s around the corner? No one can say for sure, but Google’s Wave looks like a promising new tool to bring productivity to real-time social media… allowing people to actively co-create and collaborate on projects, documents and events… not just announce them.