A Brief History of Social Media
Social Media has recently become an integral part of our everyday lives, but it’s been around since long before Facebook and Twitter. What has changed is that social media is now widely available whereas it used to be limited to those with an in-depth understanding of technology and underground hacker circles.
Social media has always been about two things: socializing and information gathering. Put the two together and you have a network of information sharing. Part of the lure of social media has to do with “finding stuff out”, especially if the information in question is something you’re not really supposed to know about (hence things like Facebook stalking). It makes sense, then, that social media started with the telephone in the 1950’s. A number of “phone phreak” groups emerged, fascinated with the telephone system and how to infiltrate it. Part of what started the phreak movement was the high cost of making a phone call. Those who had the technological capabilities to do so did whatever they could to find a way around it, hacking into lines they did not have to pay for. They also made a practice of hijacking phone company test lines and conference circuits so that they could hold virtual conferences.
In the 1970’s, a new form of social media emerged. It was called the BBS, or the “bulletin board system”. When BBSes first appeared on the scene, they were small servers powered from a personal computer attached to a telephone modem. BBSes worked much the way many forums and blogs do today; people could engage in community discussions, online games, upload and download files, etc. The main problem was that the computer was not a standard household commodity. They were large, expensive, slow and inefficient, thus severely limiting the number of people the actively participated on BBSes.
In the 1980’s, social media was very much an underground phenomenon. There were some legitimate BBSes, but the large majority of them were somehow connected to adult content, pirate software, hacking theories, anarchist movements and virus codes. Because of the nature of much of the online interaction, real names and identities were strictly guarded and the web was not a place for personal information sharing.
Social media became more “social” in the early 1990’s when the world wide web became available to the masses. Site like Compuserve and Prodigy were the first attempts to engage social media with more mainstream culture, but their early iterations were slow and expensive. As the Internet became more readily available, however, and service became faster, chat systems such as the AOL instant messenger began to take hold. The next huge trend was Napster, opening up the possibilities of information sharing and extending the possibilities of the type of media that could be exchanged online. Napster made music available online, and for free. Until recording labels and artists began to dispute the distribution of copyrighted material, Napster was the main source for media distribution.
The next phase of social media came with the emergence of social networking sites. “Friendster” was the first of its kind but was quickly trumped by MySpace and then Facebook. As the Internet became a necessary tool for everyday life, people began to let go of the fear of revealing their real identity, indeed, many have put their full life on display for almost anyone to look at.
It is hard to imagine a world without social media now. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the vast blogosphere are not only used for entertainment purposes but have become a major part of business and political interaction. So what’s the next step? There has been a lot of buzz about Google Wave and the possibility it presents to provide a platform for real-time productivity and collaboration rather than just talking about it.