The History and Evolution of Social Media

Social media has become an integral part of modern society.

There are general social networks with user bases larger than the population of most countries.

There are niche sites for virtually every special interest out there.

There are sites to share photos, videos, status updates, sites for meeting new people and sites to connect with old friends.

It seems there are social solutions to just about every need.

In this article, we’ll review the history and evolution of social media from its humble beginnings to the present day.


Precursors to Social Media


Usenet systems were first conceived of in 1979 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. Usenets let users post articles or posts (referred to as “news”) to newsgroups.

Usenets have no centralized server or dedicated administrator, setting them apart from most BBSs and forums. Usenets are mostly responsible for the development of newsreader clients, which are the precursor to RSS feed readers so commonly used to follow blogs and news sites today.

Group sites such as Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups use many of the conventions established by the original usenet systems.

BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems)

The first BBSs came online in the late 70s. Originally these were primarily hosted on personal computers and users had to dial in through the host computer’s modem. Only one person at a time could gain access to the BBS.

While there were legitimate BBSs, most were at least somewhat involved in illicit, illegal, or other shady practices. Adult material, virus code, information and instructions for hacking and phreaking (phone hacking), and materials like The Anarchist’s Cookbook were commonly hosted on BBSs.

But BBSs were the first type of sites that allowed users to log on and interact with one another, albeit in a much slower fashion than we currently do.

Online Services

After BBSs came “online services” like CompuServe and Prodigy. These were the first real “corporate” attempts at accessing the Internet.

CompuServe was the first company to incorporate a chat program into their service. Prodigy was responsible for making online service more affordable (CompuServe had been prohibitively expensive for many, with charges of $6/hour plug long-distance fees that often made the service run $30/hour or more).

Genie was an early online service created by a General Electric subsidiary (GEIS) in 1985. It ran through 1999 and was one of the earliest services available. It was a text-based service, and considered the first viable commercial competition to CompuServe. The service was created to make use of idle time-sharing mainframes after normal U.S. business hours. GEnie offered games, shopping, mail, and forums (called RoundTables). There was even a print magazine associated with the service at one time.

AOL started as an online service too and made great strides at making the Internet more universally accessible in the U.S.

IRC, ICQ, and Instant Messaging

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was developed in 1988 and used for file sharing, link sharing and otherwise keeping in touch.

It was really the father of instant messaging as we know it today. IRC was mostly UNIX-based though, limiting access to most people.

ICQ was developed in the mid-90s and was the first instant messaging program for PCs. It was at least partly responsible for the adoption of avatars, abbreviations (LOL, BRB) and emoticons. Other IM clients soon followed.


Early Social Networks

Dating Sites

Dating sites are sometimes considered the first social networks. The first dating sites started cropping up almost as soon as people started going online. They allowed users to create profiles (usually with photos) and to contact other users.


Online forums also played a large part in the evolution of the social web. These were really descendents of the BBSs popular in the 70s and 80s, but usually came with a more user-friendly interface, making them easier for non-technical visitors to use. Various forum platforms, including vBulletin and phpBB, were developed, many of which are still used for forums. Forums remain a popular part of online culture, and many have made strides to add more social networking-type features (like profiles).

While many people consider dating sites or sites like to be the first social networks, they don’t really fit the definition.

Dating sites rarely allowed you to keep a friends list, neither did Classmates in its early years (and profiles were severely limited). The following sites were the first true social networks.

Six Degrees

Six Degrees was launched in 1997 and was the first modern social network. It allowed users to create a profile and to become friends with other users.

While the site is no longer functional, at one time it was actually quite popular and had around a million members at its peak.

In 2000 it was purchased for $125 million and in 2001 it was shut down.

AsianAvenue, MiGente, BlackPlanet

These sites cropped up in the years following SixDegrees’ launch, between 1997 and 2001.

They allowed users to create profiles and add friends (generally without needing approval to add people). Users could create professional, personal and dating profiles on these sites.

While they were some of the earliest social networks, there were few innovations among them.


LiveJournal started in 1999 and took a different approach to social networking.

While Six Degrees allowed users to create a basically-static profile, LiveJournal was a social network built around constantly-updated blogs.

LiveJournal encouraged its users to follow one another and to create groups and otherwise interact. It was really the precursor to the live updates we see in social networks currently.

World of Warcraft / MMORPGS

MMORPGS (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games) have become social networks in their own right. The most famous of these is World of Warcraft, where players interact both in the game world and on related forums and community sites.

Social interaction within the games ranges from teams set up specifically for tactical reasons within the game to friendships to romances. MMORPGS became popular in the early 2000s, though there were other online role-playing and other games prior to that.


Major Advances in Social Networking

The early 2000s brought some huge developments in social networking and social media.


Friendster was really the first modern, general social network. Founded in 2002, Friendster is still a very active social network, with over 90 million registered users and 60+ million unique visitors each month. Most of Friendster’s traffic comes from Asia (90% of it).

Friendster operated by allowing people to discover their friends and then friends-of-friends, and so on to expand their networks.

Its goal was to be a safer place to meet new people than in real-life, as well as being faster. Friendster was, in part, a new kind of dating site.

Instead of matching complete strangers based on shared interests, it operated on the assumption that people with shared friends and acquaintances would have a better chance than those who had no shared connection.

Friendster was most popular with three different groups: gay men, attendess of Burning Man and bloggers.


Hi5 is another major social network, established in 2003 and currently boasting more than 60 million active members according to their own claims.

Profile privacy works a bit differently on Hi5, where a user’s network consists of not only their own contacts, but also second (friends of friends) and third (friends of friends of friends) degree contacts.

Users can set their profiles to be seen only by their network members or by Hi5 users in general. While Hi5 is not particalarly popular in the U.S., it has a large user base in parts of Asia, Latin America and Central Africa.


LinkedIn was founded in 2003 and was one of the first mainstream social networks devoted to business.

Originally, LinkedIn allowed users to post a profile (basically a resume) and to interact through private messaging. They also work on the assumption that you should personally know the people you connect with on the site.

Gradually, other features have been added, including groups, question and answer forums, and advanced profile features, including real-time updates.


MySpace was founded in 2003 and by 2006 had grown to be the most popular social network in the world.

MySpace differentiated itself from competitors by allowing users to completely customize the look of their profiles. Users could also post music from artists on MySpace and embed videos from other sites on their profiles.

Originally MySpace allowed communication through private messages, public comments posted to a user’s profile, and bulletins sent out to all of your friends. Blogs are also a big part of MySpace profiles, with each member automatically getting a blog.

In 2006 MySpace introduced MySpace IM, an instant messaging client that lets users chat with their friends.

Other recent additions to MySpace’s functionality include the addition of real-time status updates and a news feed showing friend activity.


While Facebook started out as a Harvard-only social network back in 2004, it quickly expanded to other schools, then to high schools, businesses and eventually everyone (by 2006).

In 2008 Facebook became the most popular social networking site, surpassing MySpace, and continues to grow.

Facebook doesn’t allow the same kind of customization that MySpace does. Facebook does, however, allow users to post photos, videos and otherwise customize their profile content, if not the design.

Facebook has added a number of features over the past few years, including instant messaging/chat and apps (and their developer platform).

Users have a few different methods of communicating with one another. Private messaging is available as well as writing on another user’s wall. Wall posts are visible to that user’s friends, but usually not to the general public. Users can easily change their privacy settings to allow different users to see different parts of their profile, based on any existing relationships (the basic privacy settings are “only friends”, “friends of friends”, and “everyone”).

Users can post notes that are visible to all of their friends. Users can also comment on or, more recently, “like” the posts of their friends, and conversations often occur within the comment sections among multiple people.


Other Major Social Networks

Multiply, a “family-friendly” social network and media sharing site was established in 2004 and puts much more emphasis on security and privacy than many other networks. Multiply users have the option to set security levels on each item they post, making things public, network-only, or invite-only.

Orkut, launched in January 2004, is Google’s social network, and while it’s not particularly popular in the U.S., it’s very popular in Brazil and India, with more than 65 million users. Orkut lets users share media, status updates, and communicate through IM.

Kontain, which launched in 2008, works a bit differently than many social networks, putting the focus on usability and allowing users to follow each other through photos, videos, and music, rather than just simple status updates. They also actively recruit businesses to sign up, promotin their service as a way to connect with customers.


Niche Social Networks

As social networking grew, niche sites began cropping up for specific interest groups. There are now social networks for virtually every hobby, passion, interest, industry and group that you could imagine.


Ning is a platform for creating niche social networks. Networks are hosted by Ning but can take on their own personality and can even pay to have their own branding instead of the Ning brand.

New users can either create social networks for any niche they choose or join any of more than 1.5 million existing networks.

Ning was the first widely-used social networking platform. It’s biggest advantage in the market was that it made it incredibly simple for even non-technical users to set up their own social network.

While most other social networking platforms required coding and programming knowledge, Ning required neither of those.

Company-Sponsored Social Networks

A number of niche social networking sites have been developed by corporations in all sorts of industries.

Authonomy is one example; it’s a writers’ network hosted by the UK division of Harper Collins that has attracted thousands of hopeful writers from all over the globe, but plenty of other companies have created their own networks.

While some of these have active groups, many do not, and end up being shut down due to a lack of activity.

Media Sharing

Social media isn’t just limited to social networking sites. Sharing photos, videos, and other multimedia content is also a popular social media activity.


Photobucket was the first major photo sharing site, launched in 2003.

Photobucket allows users to share photos publically or in password-protected albums. They allow users 500MB of storage (lowered from 1GB in August of 2009).

Pro accounts get 10GB of storage (lowered from 100GB to 25GB in July of ’08 and then to 10GB in August of ’09). Photobucket also hosts video content.

In 2007, Photobucket was purchased by Fox Interactive Media (a News Corporation subsidiary). It was rumored to have sold for as much as $250 million, though terms of the sale were never disclosed.


Flickr has become a social network in its own right in recent years. They claim to host more than 3.6 billion images as of June 2009.

Flickr also has groups, photo pools, and allows users to create profiles, add friends, and organize images and video into photo sets/albums.

One of Flickr’s major advantages is that they allow users to license their photos through Creative Commons, as well as retaining all copyrights.

Flickr has also recently launched a collection called “The Commons”, which features archived photos and images from a variety of museums and other institutions under a “no known restrictions” license (basically meaning the photos are believed to be in the public domain).


YouTube was the first major video hosting and sharing site, launched in 2005.

Users can upload videos up to 10 minutes long and share them through YouTube or by embedding them on other websites (social networks, blogs, forums, etc.).

YouTube now allows users to upload HD videos and recently launched a service to provide TV shows and movies under license from their copyright holders.

YouTube’s major social features include ratings, comments, and the option to subscribe to the channels of a user’s favorite video creators.


Revver took a slightly different approach to video hosting and sharing.

While YouTube, Metacafe, and most other video sharing sites let you post videos for free and didn’t pay content creators for any advertising revenues their videos generated, Revver has been sharing revenue from the start.

Revver splits the revenue generated by a video 50/50 with that video’s creator. Some other video sharing and hosting sites are moving in the direction of revenue sharing, but Revver still remains the primary one that does it with all content on the site.


Social News and Bookmarking

Sharing photos and videos wasn’t isn’t the only kind of information sharing happening with social media.

The advent of social news and bookmarking sites in the mid-2000’s brought about a whole new way of see what’s going on in the world and discovering interesting content.

News became more widely available thanks to sites like Delicious, Digg, and Reddit, who allowed users to share any news or other content they found interesting with a much wider audience than they might have otherwise had.


Delicious (aka, is a social bookmarking site founded in 2003. It allows its users to bookmark any content they find online, tag that content, and then share it with other users.

Users can search for bookmarks or browse for them via tags. Delicious also allows users to view the most popular content among other users, as well as up-and-coming content, not unlike most social news sites.


Digg was founded in 2004 by Kevin Rose, Ron Gorodetzky, Jay Adelson, and Owen Byrne.

Digg users can share links to anything online and other users can vote that content up (“dig”) or down (“bury”). Users can also comment on content posted by others and keep a friends list.

Digg has undergone a lot of controversy in its day, including criticism about the power the top 100 Digg users have over what becomes popular on the site.

The “Digg Effect”—when content makes it to the front page, thereby sending a huge influx of traffic to that site, often overloading its servers—is also well-known and often frustrating to those unprepared for the sudden popularity.


Reddit is another social news site founded in 2005. Reddit operates in a similar fashion to Digg, allowing users to vote content up or down.

Users can view popular items, new items, and “controversial” items (presumably those items that have received a lot of both up and down votes). Reddit, like Digg, also allows users to comment on posted items.


Real Time Updates

Real-time updates have become the new norm in social media. With the advent of Twitter in 2006, status updates have become the new norm in social networking. Virtually all major social networks now allow real-time updates.


Twitter was founded in 2006 and gained a lot of popularity during the 2007 SxSW (South by Southwest) conference.

Tweets trippled during the conference, from 20k per day to 60k. Twitter has developed a cult-like following and has a number of famous users (Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Soleil Moon Frye, MC Hammer, Oprah, Martha Stewart, and many, many more).

Twitter has also spawned a number of third-party sites and apps, turning it into more of a platform than a single service. There are Twitter clients for updating and managing followers; services that track Twitter trends; and services for posting photos and videos directly to Twitter.


Posterous is the newest major microblogging application, started by Y Combinator in May 2009.

Users post content via email. Emails can include attached photos, MP3s and other file types that are also posted. No initial signup is needed, setting it apart from most other social media services.


Tumblr is sort of a cross between a lifestreaming application and a microblogging platform. Tumblr was founded in 2007 and had around 75,000 tumblebloggers switch to the service immediately.

The site lets users post photos, video, text, audio, links, conversations, and other content on blog-like sites. There are mobile applications available for posting to Tumblr, making it ideal for lifestreaming.

Tumblr is also very easy to use, making it well-suited to less technical users. It’s similar to Twitter and other microblogging platforms in the way that it lets you follow other Tumblr users and see their updates in a specialized dashboard feed. Users can also “heart” (favorite) other Tumblr users’ content and reblog posts from other users, keeping the original credit intact.

Other Services Adopt Real-Time Updates

As mentioned before, virtually every social networking site now allows for status updates. Facebook has incorporated status updates into their interface for years. MySpace adopted the practice more than a year ago. And most recently, LinkedIn has started to allow users to update their status.

Real-time updates allow users to stay connected to their friends and family on a constant basis and often improve relationships between people.

When you constantly know what’s going on with friends and family, it’s easier to discover shared interests, activities, and other information that might never have come out in real-life conversations. This can lead to stronger relationships offline.

The iPhone’s Role in Real-Time Updates

The iPhone can be largely credited for the rise in popularity of real-time updates. Prior to the iPhone’s launch, mobile browsers were clunky at best, and virtually unusable at worst.

But the iPhone made it easy and even fun to browse the web from a mobile device. Add apps for virtually every social network to the mix and it became possible for users to update anytime, from anywhere.

Other phones have followed suit and there are now mutliple devices available that let users easily update their status on the go (including posting photos and video updates).

The iPhone has taken such a huge role in social media that there are now social networks only available on the iPhone. iRovr is a social networking app specifically for the iPhone/iPod Touch.

It allows users to post photos, updates, links (including to YouTube videos), create polls, subscribe to RSS feeds and more. It was launched in 2007 and is still going strong two years later.


Lifestreaming and Lifecasting

Real-time updates have led to an increase in the number of people who are now lifecasting or lifestreaming virtually everything they do. While some opt to lifestream by aggregating their online activities in a single place (such as with FriendFeed).

Ustream was founded in the summer of 2006 and has become the streaming video host of choice for celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Soleil Moon Frye.

While most Ustream users only go live occasionally, there are channels that are live around the clock (mostly security cameras, animal cameras, traffic cameras, and other stationary feeds).

Ustream allows viewers to post comments and ask questions directly to the feed host during live broadcasts, and this interactivity often engages users to a greater extent than other video sites where videos are posted after they’ve been filmed instead of being streamed live. is a streaming video host founded in October 2006 that lets lifecasters and live show creators to broadcast to hundreds or thousands of Internet users.

iJustine is probably’s most public user, lifecasting practically her entire life on the site at one time (she appears to be lifecasting a bit less recently, though she’s still very active on the site).

There are more than 400,000 channels on, and they get more than 41 million unique visitors each month.


FriendFeed, which launched in 2007 and was recently purchased by Facebook, allows you to integrate most of your online activities in one place (Twitter, RSS feeds, and Flickr, among others).

It’s also a social network in its own right, with the ability to create friends lists, post updates, and otherwise communicate.


Other Lifestreaming Sites

There are a number of other lifestreaming sites out there that people are using. Most can be integrated into your blog or website to show your visitors all of your activities around the web.

There are even some dedicated blog plugins for lifestreaming. WP Lifestream is one such plugin, specifically for WordPress. It lets you integrate your profiles from Facebook, Flickr, and Wordie right out of the box, and you can add additional modules for integrating more feeds. is another lifestreaming application that lets you integrate feeds from 190 different websites, including Blippr, Delicious, Digg, deviantART, Dopplr, Facebook, Flickr,, LiveJournal, MySpace, Pandora, Revver, StumbleUpon, Twitter, Tumblr, and more. Sweetcron is a similar app, though it’s opensource and you host it on your own servers.

Social Everything

It seems that nowadays there are social and user-generated sites for just about every activity you can imagine. There are social shopping sites. Social financial planning sites. Sites for getting book, movie, app, and other reviews. Sites to share your goals and meet like-minded people. Sites to plan your travels and share them with others. And sites to help you make decisions on just about anything.

Social media has become a huge part of the lives of millions of people worldwide. Whether it’s something as simple as looking up reviews of movies from real, live people (instead of professional movie reviewers) or getting advice on major life decisions, there are social sites out there to provide you with the information you seek.

Even on general-purpose social networks and social media sites like Twitter there are thousands of ways to get input on just about anything.

Instead of using Google the next time you have a question about something, try asking on Twitter. A lot of the time you get better information from the crowd there in less time than pouring over pages of search results.


Social Media Concerns and Criticism

As social media has grown in popularity and become mainstream, it has been faced with growing controversy and criticism.

The main criticisms seem to fall along a few lines: Social media can be used by stalkers; Social media can be used by child predators; and, Social media sites open up privacy and security concerns.

While there is only so much social media sites can do about the first two, there is a growing trend among many sites to bolster the privacy policies and make users feel more secure.

Social Media Used by Stalkers

Facebook and other social media sites have come under attack for making it easier for stalkers to track their victims or even to find new ones. This kind of accusation is not entirely unfounded.

Many social media users don’t take advantage of privacy settings and leave their entire profiles public. While this is often a good idea for professional profiles where you want to make connections with people you don’t necessarily know, personal profiles can benefit from hiding some information from public display.

Social networks make these privacy settings available to users to help prevent stalkers and predators from being able to see their updates.

But they can’t force users to use them, so in the end much of the responsibility falls to the individual users, not the networks themselves.

Social Media Used by Child Predators

MySpace is the most publically attacked social networks accused of being a haven for child molesters and pornographers, but the site, and other social networks, have made great strides in protecting the identities and information of minors using their sites.

Again, this is one of those situations where much of the problem came from users not making their profiles private.

MySpace took a major step to prevent predators from friending underage teens by requiring friend requesters to know the email address or another personal identifier in order to send a friend request to a minor.

They also require the profiles of teens under the age of 16 to be private, not allowing non-friend users to view them. Other sites have taken similar steps.

Privacy Concerns

Facebook recently came under attack for changes to its privacy policy that were worded ambiguously enough to effectively grant rights to Facebook to use any of your content, private or public, for their own purposes (such as advertising) even after you’d delected your profile.

While the company maintains that was never their intent and it was simply unfortunate wording, the backlash was severe enough that Facebook changed their privacy policy back to its previous version and then solicited user input for revisions. It was a harsh lesson in how concerned many users are about the information they provide online.

When you consider that many people post information about all aspects of their lives online, mostly on social media sites, it’s no wonder many are concerned about what companies can do with that information.

Social networks and other sites have to rapidly respond to user concerns over privacy and security. With the information in an average social media profile, it would not be inconceivable for a hacker to illegally gain enough information about a person to steal their identity or otherwise cause problems.

Security concerns have also cropped up as average people have found their profiles hacked and embarrassing information posted about them.

While this type of thing was once relatively confined to celebrities and well-known people (or people who had a personal vendetta against them), it has become more widespread and it’s not unheard of for regular people to be targeted (such as this woman on Facebook recently).


The Role of Social Media in Pop Culture

Social media has, in the past year or two, become a mainstream online activity. In 2007, social media activities overtook pornography as the most popular online activity in the U.S. (the two industries continue to battle it out, alternately gaining or losing ground on a monthly basis).

Celebrities now use Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks on a regular basis. And it’s not just their publicists—stars are updating their status themselves and interacting with fans on a daily basis.

It’s not uncommon to see Twitter-inspired t-shirts, and there has been at least one “fail-whale” tattoo (I’m sure there are more out there).

When Twitter and Facebook both suffered a DDOS attack in early August ’09, there was a real sense of loss among many users until the sites were back up.

Social media has become an integral part of how people communicate, stay in touch, keep on top of new developments, and otherwise connect with the world around them.

The Evolution of Social Media

Social media has come a long way since the days of BBSs and IRC chats. And social media continues to evolve on a daily basis.

With major social networks and social media sites making changes and improvements on an almost daily basis, it’s sure to keep evolving in coming years.

The one thing we can be pretty sure of at this point is that social media is not just a phase, and likely won’t go away any time soon…at least until something better comes along.


Further Resources:

Written exclusively for WDD by Cameron Chapman.

Where do you think social media is heading and how do you use it? How much influence does social media have in your life?

  • daGrevis

    Amazing article, lot of interesting info… :) Thanks to author! :)

  • Jin

    You left out one of the most profitable, most successful social media networks: World of Warcraft. :)

    p.s. long live BBS.

    • JC

      no he didn’t – WoW is there just below live Journal.

  • Franklin Tello

    Hey Cameron, thanks for sharing this article! So great to see the evolution that this industry has taken compressed in this post. I’ve put together a similar (although smaller) slide show to explain it to some of my clients and friends, and I’m really thrilled to see a much more complete list here! Great job!

    Looking forward to seeing the “revolution” post that might follow ;)

    Thanks again,


  • Gerardo Jaramillo

    Courius that Hi5 is no featured in this article…

    • Yes

      Yes it is

  • Angela

    Very informative! Thanks for the hard work put into this Cameron.

  • WPswitch (Matt and Jacob)

    Wow! Amazing article. Every time I visit I am more impressed. There are a few networks here I never heard of but will definitely check out.

  • clippingimages

    Excellent post. Nice explained about social media. Thanks for sharing this informative article.

  • Success

    Just picked up this feed on Twitter. Phenomenal work here dude. I have been teaching some social media courses at the local college and I wish I had your article before I wrote all the content.

    Great summary of the history as well. It will be really interesting to read this article 1 year from now and see how different the social media landscape looks at that point!


  • Andrew Reasoa

    Interesting article. I just did research on Social Software. And found this graph about trends that are in development. Check it out:

  • Narno

    Great, but where is Posterous? ;-)

  • Liviu

    The iPhone is in no way revolutionary, it’s just the corporate machine pushing marketing to users and deals for those apps. The iPhone has one merit: it’s easy to use. Which does not excite me as a technically inclined man. I actually dislike that as it brings even more noise to the web from people that, for instance, tweet about how their cat is licking his paw…

  • Rod

    No mention of I think they’ve contributed a lot, and its(FI’s) progression and growth alone is quite interesting

    • Chris

      Yes, they mentioned

      Every single thing people think has been forgotten is likely in there. Read the article!

  • Cameron Baney

    What an amazing roundup! I had no idea about early ones on this list. Earliest I recognize is ICQ.

  • Ryan Erickson

    Cameron, this is a superb piece- thank you for taking the time to do the research and sharing with us what many of us had forgotten… or rather overlooked. Cheers!

  • David Trang

    Terrific write up. Even though some networks seem so old (Friendster), to think of 2002 as “old” is strange too.

    I’ll also point out Posterous which wasn’t on your list…terribly simple, I believe it’s going to get big.

  • harsha

    Guys, You have missed ORKUT the NO.1 in Brasil and India. Needless to say its user base. I feel its worth mentioning

    • Chris

      Orkut is mentioned.

  • Jorge Barba

    WOW what a well put together list of events!

    I think ‘social media’ will become part of the DNA of companies, there’s no doubt about that. The interconnectedness it brings will enable companies to involve consumers in the creation of new products and services at a level we’ve never seen before.

    The game will shift to a ‘how connected to your customers are you’ and how much influence do they have on your business.

    Twitter is a living breathing example of this. It’s really been created by the consumer.

  • Chris Grayson – Art Director

    I was an early adopter of SixDegrees, and I knew instantly, THIS is what the future of the web is going to look like. Shortly after this I read The Cluetrain Manifesto, still relevant today.

  • Luci

    Thanks for such a genuinely interesting piece! I think Social Media is becoming quite corporate, especially things like Twitter. Personally I’ve sort of… grown out of social media sites, including social networking sites. I pretty much only use Facebook to see how my friends are doing, and play a couple of games that keep my attention for five minutes.

  • Richard Kastelein

    I also think that forums such as phpbb and vbulletin played a large part in the early ‘social media’ scene. They were early, they were both widely used around the web, and forums were early ‘communities’ was where the social media phenomenon emerged from.

  • Semblance

    Like everyone else have said already, but I just need to too – very impressive post. I can see a lot of work and research went into writing it. Thank you for the info! Tweeted and bookmarked!

  • Matches

    Where is orkut?

  • Blither

    Very much agree with #17 and great article.

    However I would take issue with the personal Vs professional part of the privacy debate. IMHO there is now no divide. Social media has seen to that. To think you can separate your personal and private life online in your ecosystem of networks is denial.

    Moreover there is a growing amount of hypocrisy coming out of the social networks as they fight to own our digital identities. It is not fair to task the user with the responsibility for privacy when the networks constantly call us to “give your real name”, “add your location”, “add your website”,”add your contact details” etc. at every turn. The networks must take responsibility, preserve the right to anonymity, and protect the most vulnerable users.

    • Cameron Chapman

      Keeping personal and professional information separate is still possible, but not to the extent it once was. It’s largely dependent on how much difference there is in the information you’re putting out there to different groups, though. The more extreme the differences, the more likely there is to be a leak from one to the other. I know I’m a bit more relaxed on Facebook than I am on Twitter. But no one is going to compare my Facebook profile and my Twitter feed and think that I’m putting on an act in either one. I just censor myself a bit more on Twitter and in other completely public venues where I have no clue who might be reading what I’m writing.

      I think a mixture of personal responsibility and network/site responsibility is the way to go. Having clear, easy-to-understand privacy policies, clear-cut privacy settings, and default security and privacy levels on the more restrictive end are the way to go. But it’s up to each individual to make sure they know how their information can and is being used and who can see what they’re posting.

  • Most Interesting Ideas

    Thanks for lesson and new social webs for me :)

  • Mark Kaigwa

    Thanks for taking us through time. It’s easy not to appreciate the lengths social media has taken to get where it is now.

    I agree with @Narno that Posterous and Tumblr need to be with Friendfeed.

    All in all an excellent piece of writing.

  • Diesel Laws

    Amazing read. Thank you for the brilliant information. It just goes to show how fast the world is growing! Looking forward to the future, especially for designers!

  • facundo

    Excellent article. Very very compelling. Will share for sure.

  • Laurel Papworth

    I’m pretty sure Compuserv predates BBSs – it started in 1969…

    • Cameron Chapman

      The company predates BBSs, but their online service doesn’t. The online service didn’t start until 1979 (before that it dealt almost entirely with insurance industry networks) while the first BBS started in early 1978. (According to Wikipedia anyway.)

  • Ray Wenderlich

    Thanks for the article! Definitely brought back a lot of memories from the past.

  • Diogo Duarte

    Really nice article!
    Keep up the good work…

  • See-ming Lee

    This is a truly fantastic anthology of social media history! Kudos to your writers and researchers!!!

  • David B. Whittle

    That’s a good summary, but historically, you don’t give nearly enough credit to the foundational early years. Even before the Web came on the scene in 1992 or so, social media was thriving, as I document in my book, “Cyberspace: The Human Dimension” (W.H. Freeman, 1997).

    IBM had an extensive social networking and social media underground comprised of over a hundred thousand users during the ’80s. CompuServe had millions of members involved in networking, forums, file sharing, and much of the same activities that this post seems to think were invented by later sites that merely took well-established ideas to a higher level as enabled by web technologies. From the late ’70s through the advent of the Web, Genie, The Source, Prodigy, AOL, The Well, and other commercial bulletin board systems thrived on little more than the sharing of words and files – the essence of social media. I did them all. To me, the web is more like the culmination than the beginning of social media, so any history that fails to consider the roots of the very ideas that are now bearing fruit, is simply myopic.

    And the assertion that most BBSs were involved in illicit activity is just plain wrong. My job with IBM from 1991 to 1996 was to “represent IBM on the Bulletin Boards,” and I monitored thousands of bulletins boards during that period. Most were more legitimate than not. Yes, there were quite a few “underground boards” involved in hacking and such, but they were far outnumbered by legitimate boards who would delete any illegal material found on their boards.

    And in that role, in 1992 through 1995, I triggered an early example of the power of social networking – a virtual group of tens of thousands named Team OS/2 (see Wikipedia), which was one of the first examples of harnessing bulletin boards, FidoNet, IBM’s VNet, and the Internet to pull together and empower like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world.

    Many Team OS/2 members, after IBM abandoned OS/2, took what they had learned from Team OS/2 and used it to evangelize Linux and Open Source. At least that’s what Eric Raymond has told me.

    So someday when I have more time, I’ll correct the record with my own history of social media. But in the meantime, please don’t think that 30-somethings invented social media or social networking, as implied by the above history. They may have invented the words, but there is no question that social media and social networking were invented by baby boomers, back in the early days of networks themselves. The concepts were well-developed during the ’80s, refined during the ’90s, and perfected after 2000.

  • Dominique Rabeuf

    Very nice summary – The Story will continue

  • Zaskoda

    You missed Usenet entirely.

    You also missed “finger” and “plan” files. That era is not well documented, but it was then what twitter is now.

    Most of the online services you mentioned early on came well after the Internet started to bloom.

  • Roberta Rosenberg

    Wonderful list, but I do have to mention GEnie, an online service launched in 1986 by General Electric as a way of monetizing the off-hours of their mainframes. (I was a freelance copywriter working with the ad agency who was tasked with promoting the service.) Chat and IM (we did it with a /sen) was very much a part of the framework. I social networked my Las Vegas divorce AND met my current hubby on GEnie in 1988 and still am close with many of my former “GEnie pals.”

    Good times. :)

  • Zaskoda

    Aye… you’re also missing a huge swatch of communities that formed (and still do) around forum software such as vBulletin and phpBB.

    Here’s a list I put together back in March:

  • 4grrl

    Hey – you left out cuseeme (early 90’s – 2002) , first the cornell university, and later the whitepine version ? I ran reflectors for 6 years; and there was a strong community of ref surfers – both public and private services, who interacted in real-time multipoint audiovisual and data conferences. It was possible to record and stream VOD, use a video camera & mic; emoticons, private chat or geek other users, or plug in a TV or video recorder to stream a fake vid. People without cameras were lurkers – and a whole new world of online sex was born…

  • Brett Borders

    They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Glad you liked my article:

    • Satya Colombo

      Although this is a well-researched post, and fairly documented through the further resources link (in which your history of social media article is cited, Brett) the lack of engagement and response in the comments from the writer(s) and/or the site admin is notable – especially for an article on social media…

    • Cameron Chapman

      Your article was a valuable resource in researching this post, which is why it was included in the “Further Resources” section at the end. Thanks for writing it!

  • Juan C Rois

    Great Article, I have to admit that I was not at all interested in using these social media sites, but in the end I realized that these sites are a very powerful tool that can be used to one’s advantage. Specially because I know how important it is for business purposes to expose yourself to as many audiences as possible.

    However, I hate how Twitter has not done much to keep fake follower from sending all kinds of tweets that contain spam or even worse links to porn sites.

    Hope they fix that soon.

  • Web Design Singapore

    Haha this is your version of “A Brief History of Time” (think stephen hawking).

    well researched!

  • Rian

    Great article, it’s amazing to see the journey from bulletin boards to lifestreaming.

    I think any discussion about the concerns should also include sociological aspects though — the debate over how the use of social media is making us more connected, or in fact isolating us more from others.

  • Mars

    where is multiply?

  • Harrison

    Social Media as we call it today is mainly based on the net.Previously there was no such thing as social media and there were ‘mailing clubs’ where you used to mail your friends all over the world and received their replies all by the normal mail !
    Social Media is very developed today and at times becomes a very good source of getting people together for some noble social cause.
    Social Media is now here to stay and nothing can stop its spread and existence.

  • Mani

    Excellent article and a good overview from historical perspective. Going forward I believe that we are headed to more niche social networks

  • Hirece

    A great post about social media

  • Tobbi

    Thanks for summary.

  • Walter

    Thanks for the suggestions, we’ve added a few extra services to complete this compilation.

  • Zaskoda

    While we’re at it, you should really have Everquest and Ultima Online listed under MMOs. While WoW my have bigger reach, EQ and UO had a much bigger impact on the evolution of social gaming.

    You should also mention MUDs (multi-user dungeons).

    Finally, you might should do an editing pass while considering the difference between a social networking site and a community. The term “social networking” refers specifically to sites that have friends lists exposed. The intention is that you can browse other people’s exposed networks to discover other people you either know or want to know.

    • Cameron Chapman

      Regarding the “social networking” definition, I was going by the Wikipedia definition of social networking: “A social network service focuses on building online communities of people who share interests and/or activities, or who are interested in exploring the interests and activities of others.” (source: And then “social media” as a whole covers pretty much any other community-based site.

  • Satya Colombo

    A good overview, and thoroughly engaging ( i’ve found is a really gorgeous solution to the problem of coordinating blogging and out-posting.)

    The future of the web is something entirely different, though… after all the research you’ve done, i’d be interested to see an aggregate post that pulls the threads and trends of the present to analyze the possibilities for the future.

  • Harald Korneliussen

    “Only one person at a time could gain access to the BBS.”

    Didn’t many BBSes have more than one line?

  • Sardar Mohkim Khan

    A very useful article! Really appreciate you sharing it :).

    To be honest, i didn’t even know many of the networks you mentioned there !

  • Mark Carter

    Fascinating history lesson, with much there I didn’t know.

    Really nice to see Ning get an honourable mention. I’m on a number of networks on Ning which have brought much benefit to those involved.

  • Zaskoda

    @Harald – You are correct, most of the major BBSes had many lines and you could chat live with other users and play multiplayer games together.

    My favorites were Legend of the Red Dragon and Tradewars.

  • Blaine Millet

    Thanks for the great trek down memory lane – very nice. It reminded me when I worked at IBM and we would always show the “history of computing” and everyone loves to see how things evolve.

    While there are a number of areas that could be “inserted” to make it richer and more complete, as many of the comments have suggested, I would recommend using “social media” to accomplish this feat. Why not put this into a visual with a long timeline reaching back to the 70’s and chronicling where each event occurred, then people could add to it with their own insights and knowledge – would be fun to host and build don’t you think?

    This would make it more complete and also quiet all those that have something to add – let them participate or shut up. Just a thought…Nicely done.


    • 4grrl

      Fantastic collaboration idea – I’d definately participate

  • Jay August

    Very nice article. I love Posterous :)

  • AntonRSA

    Lengthy informative post!!! I usually write my long blog posts between 300-1000 characters but this one definitely beats them all.

  • Dave Sparks

    Interesting article, surprised to see no mention of the once popular Friends reunited though.

  • Kris Corzine

    Nice overview Cameron! This article validates some client heuristics I wrote up a couple years back. And thank you David Whittle for filling in some blanks.

    Adding two cents- I recall using MySpace to contact bands when I was a music editor. I believe it started out as a place for bands to network, meet managers and promoters.

  • Massimo Burgio

    Good article – I would have explored a little bit further the role of social media in the pop culture also through the cases of music bands that got huber famous though MySpace….

  • Mirror

    Impressive article! Love it! But didn’t see Plurk? (or I missed it from the post?) The timeline concept based social media.

    Something interesting… I use Plurk with Asian friend, and Twitter with western friend. But Facebook can be taken in both. BBS is still alive and hot in my high school and university social network. It is long life network media. Haha.

  • Kelsey

    Great article! I love the screen shots of some of the sites as well. I tried to join Orkut a few weeks ago and easily lost interest.9

  • Timo Luege

    I remember logging on to BBSs with my Commodore 64 and a 300 Baud modem :-). First time I saw a 2400 Baud Modem I thought: “What a waste. This is faster than I can read the text on screen!” And the first time I saw a VT100 emulation (Wow! Colour!) it blew me away.

  • The Mad Hatter

    I would suggest changing the following, as it is not correct, and it is probably actionable:

    “While there were legitimate BBSs, most were at least somewhat involved in illicit, illegal, or other shady practices. Adult material, virus code, information and instructions for hacking and phreaking (phone hacking), and materials like The Anarchist’s Cookbook were commonly hosted on BBSs.”

    Specifically you need to change the word “most” to “some”. I can assure you that the majority of the WWIVNet nodes were legitimate, as that was a requirement to join. Showing a WWIV logon screen, and following it with the wording that you did, could be construed as stating that WWIVNet was a pirate network, which it was not.

  • Tamas

    It is a very extensive list of the social media that is available. Thanks for sharing, great content.

  • Azul7

    This was excellent! Thanks for posting this. As this list continues to evolve, perhaps you could add FourSquare?

  • Jye Smith

    This is incredible, Thanks so much!!

  • Ari Herzog

    Damn, Cam, can you include anything else? I have fond memories using Six Degrees, let alone Prodigy.

    No mention of mudding, eh, other than a sentence in the WoW extract? And nothing about transactional networks like eBay and Amazon, or review sites like Yelp and IMDb?

  • Brian

    Thought you might add GNN (early ISP like Prodigy etc.) IDS (first company to have arpanet access for member services, and then there were Gophers (Gopher Sites) just before web browsing began….

  • Rich Becker

    Sometimes you need to past to get a perspective of the future. You nailed that here.


  • Jason Finch

    Great feature. It brought back a lot of memories from my early days on Monochrome BBS/Talker back in the early 90s.

    The future will see far more real-world localization brought into online social networks, better enabling meeting up offline – what I call “blended networking”, seamlessly blending the online and offline worlds through mobile devices and smart localization. We’re already seeing that with networks like OUTeverywhere, launched in 1995 it’s already doing a great job of integrating the online and offline worlds in terms of the usual online social networking stuff mixed with thousands of real world member events.

    More and more networks will become open (introducing you to new people) like Twitter rather than mainly closed (limited to your existing friends) like Facebook and localization will truly enable the online and offline to blend.

  • Toby Parkins

    I was just about to wade in about MUDs, but obviously following @Zaskoda and @Ari Herzog. I remember spending far more time on MUDs each week than I spend on Social Media today – mind you I was a student, and now I’m 120% employed!

    It really was amazing though at the time and despite only being text, the community and friendships that occurred were fantastic. Seem to remember 2 people getting married after meeting on a MUD in 1995, one from USA the other from UK.

    Great article though and really comprehensive otherwise.

  • Toby Parkins

    Oh, and what about Wiki’s? I’m sure Wiki’s could potential feature.

    Still a great article though.

  • malachi

    This is a great effort – and I hope that it is revised over time to make it more complete and accurate. Someone needs to do it.

    Where this piece is pretty weak is on the early (and pre) history. I think it would be worthwhile to contact some of the “old timers” and get their experience, thoughts and stories.

    One major correction…

    “(online services) were the first real “corporate” attempts at accessing the Internet.”

    This is actually profoundly incorrect. Online Services (when launched) did not provide any access to the internet. They were entirely self-contained and were, in fact, antithetical to the internet. In fact, the Online Services FOUGHT their migration towards being “access points” to the internet quite aggressively.

    You’re also missing one of the most influential precursors to modern social networking services. You should look into the history of MUDs and their various offspring. Many of the people involved in the very early development of various social sites and services were heavily influenced by what was learned from MUDs and MOOs etc.

    The question of “what was the first social networking site” is a complicated one and depends on how you define “social networking site.” But regardless of how you define it, 6 Degrees was not the first. You should check out the history of some of the other early sites like

    Finally, you missed the single most influential early service for folks who were the creators of Social Networking (and in many ways of many of the most important early web sites). The Well.

  • web tasarım

    Nice overview Cameron! This article validates some client heuristics I wrote up a couple years back. And thank you David Whittle for filling in some blanks.

  • bags

    nice vid and amazing stats. social media is the future….it works great

  • Catherine Ventura

    Great list! But don’t forget early communities like ebay and craigslist that relied on community feedback…

  • Web Design Kent

    I’m not a fan and never have been, we give away far too much personal information

    • Siku

      maybe so…but, PRIVACY SETTINGS!!!

  • Jason

    Well, it’s a trend. When show-your-life becomes a indispensable part of some people, social media websites will be developing more and more quickly.

  • Siku

    Wow. Great post. Enjoyed reading it and very informative. Cheers!

  • Andreas

    good one. Helps me a lot for my bachelor thesis.
    Do you have a Link, where you got those Information about the social media evolution.
    I might quote you and therefore I need it.
    It’s not possible to quote a blog in the thesis.

  • Anika Ros

    Thanks for a good info. I am like Andreas writing my bachelor thesis and I am looking for good info. If you have and can give me the info where you got your imformation that would be great to get.

  • Kaplang

    really well researched article, thanks

  • Emlak

    Amazing read. Thank you for the brilliant information. It just goes to show how fast the world is growing! Looking forward to the future, especially for designers

  • cheapgoodsok

    thank you,I learn from you more.there are good artical.

  • indir

    Usenets have no centralized server or dedicated administrator, setting them apart from most BBSs and forums. Usenets are mostly responsible for the development of newsreader clients, which are the precursor to RSS feed readers so commonly used to follow blogs and news sites today.

    Group sites such as Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups use many of the conventions established by the original usenet systems.

  • shoes A

    it is beautiful,I like it.thank you for your sharing.

  • Gabi

    University of Minnesota SJMC

    I have to write a summary of the past present and future of social media and everyone on this page has helped. Even in class, it seems endless the number of sites we can mention (as we tired to make a web showing what started where and how they evolved).

    I have checked out many of the links in the above comments and all have been interesting and helpful. Can we get a 2.0 version of this article… it seems everyone could help in authoring it … Google doc it and simultaneousness work on it :P

    oh social media .. how you connect us

    Thanks again!

  • Brian Dear

    Your social media history is a bit lacking in the early stuff. You need to read up on the PLATO system.

    Come to the “PLATO @ 50” conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA on June 2-3, 2010 to find out the real story on the early history of social media. This conference celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the PLATO system.

    Typical user experience on PLATO circa 1973-74: you would sit down to a terminal with a flat-panel gas-plasma graphics display, complete with a touch-sensitive screen. Online you would find multiuser chat rooms, instant messaging, email, message forums, the world’s first online newspaper (with content contributed and edited by the community!), incredible multiplayer games including the first dungeon games/MUDs, space battle games, air combat games, sports games, card games, all sorts of stuff. PLATO was an incredible, and addictive to many, online experience that profoundly influenced all who had access to it.

    It is truly the birthplace of social media.

  • Iulian Ionescu

    Wow, this was a tremendous effort and the result is a great post… Very good writing and description!

    Take care,


  • magazin

    Usenets have no centralized server or dedicated administrator, setting them apart from most BBSs and forums. Usenets are mostly responsible for the development of newsreader clients, which are the precursor to RSS feed readers so commonly used to follow blogs and news sites today.

  • katalog tasarim

    I don’t like social network site.. Very virtual.. I miss old times.. real friends…:(

  • Justin Bieber

    Great list! But don’t forget early communities like ebay and craigslist that relied on community feedback…

  • Soumava

    This is a great help!!!
    I am Soumava. Currently writing a thesis on ‘efficiency of marketing in social networking sites’ from VUB, Belgium.
    If you dont have any objection can i use this informative blog in my paper?
    Keep up the good work.
    Cheers ;)

  • Dena

    AOL made great strides? Did you forget about Netscape (which was ultimately bought by AOL) which made Huge strides making the Internet available to people and business via enterprise server software, mail, work sharing via collabra integration, security, java-script (thanks Brendan), and free dev libraries?

    It’s like skipping a’s the 40s, 50s,..70s, 80s..

  • Jessica

    This is a great article. Personally, I think social media is the future, especially for internet marketing these days. Things seem to get more and more personal/community everyday.

  • heloc

    Great retrospective writeup.

  • efty

    Too bad it’s not accurate.

  • oyun oyna

    Too bad it’s not accurate.

  • Dare Ariyo

    You have just made my project work easier. Thank you sir.
    Lagos, Nigeria

  • Thomas Craig Consulting

    Great article, nice to see the history and timeline for the social media buzz that has taken over the internet. I see more and more companies promoting their facebook pages then anything else.

  • Şarkı Sözü

    This is a great article. Personally, I think social media is the future, especially for internet marketing these days. Things seem to get more and more personal/community everyday.

  • Eddy R.

    Is it possible to get a pdf-file for printing?


    Eddy R.

  • Zee

    Thanks for this informative post! I recently read something similar about Social media and communication online- very good!
    Check out his link:

  • Jon Ryan
  • Brigit Law

    Hi Jon, Great picture – thanks for sharing! Fits also in my case of educating people what to write and say when using social media. Lot’s of people come to me and say that they do not to start communicating via social media because they do not know what to say.

    Indeed, it is not easy to become a good journalist in one day and write your own story day in day out. But that is what social media inspires, the democratization of information sharing. After a period of information dictatorship by CEO’s, politicians and journalists, we are back to the old days, but with new tools.

  • Thalys

    Very informative article. It is very good to see a clear picture on the history, timeline and development of social media. It is a real buzz, that cannot be ignored anymore and that has taken over the internet for a bit.

  • fine art photography in Miami

    Great article, nice to see the history and timeline for the social media. Very informative article. It is very good to see a clear picture on the history, time line and development of social media buzz that has taken over the internet..

  • Web Design Banbury

    Really interesting post! Many thanks for this. LC

  • Namrata Singh

    article is very nicely pulled together…helped me alot..great work author…cheers!!

  • Web design Shrewsbury

    Great article, it is amazing how social networking has evolved over the years – the internet is such a great tool and is always been worked on to make better things. I wonder what the next ten years will bring us . . . :)

  • tuz

    Excellent post. Nice explained about social media. Thanks for sharing this informative article..

  • Cait

    Hi there,

    Why no email groups? Yahoo groups, Smartgroups (now defunct) and latterly, Google groups?

    Also, there’s no mention of Last FM in niche – Last FM was *hugely* influential when it launched in 2003 as “Audioscrobbler” with “Last” as a sidebar which quickly absorbed the stats-engine. Friendster + Last in the UK was a profound idea bomb thhat really kick started a lot of projects.

  • Cait

    (ps: it is a great post, btw!)

  • Chris

    Several of my students used your article as a reference for a final term paper on social media marketing. I am really curious about your qualifications and references. Without them, I can’t decide whether your article qualifies as a good source for an academic paper in a university setting. Thanks.

  • slim

    social n\wking sites are good for connecting with ur old frnds…but the trend now is to compete and top each others frnd list and to show off that they have a lot of frnds.i think tats all way too stupid..i c some of my frnds desperately posting new pictures and updating frnds and spending 24*7 for such sites.are the youth nowadays really that dumb?y spend so much time for something so useless whereas u could be utilising tat time for a lot of other creative things..u could even hang around with ur frnds..go to the movie..or go and play outside…do lots and lots of stuff..