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The history of social media software

Hack Reactor

History of Social Media Software

By Peter Suciu for Hack Reactor

Chances are anyone reading this article has used social media recently, perhaps even today.

Currently, 48.3 percent of the global population uses social media to connect, communicate, engage, and even uses social media to stay informed, according to data from Statista.com. The number of social media users is also projected to increase to 56.7 percent of the global population by 2025.

Facebook remains the top platform, and anyone who watched the 2010 film The Social Network may have been led to believe that Mark Zuckerberg invented "social media," but that would be a major misunderstanding. 

Social media predates not only Facebook, but even Zuckerberg, who was only born in May, 1984. By that time there were already proto-social media platforms that allowed users to do much of what they do today, albeit without photos, memes, and emojis. 

"Geeks have indulged in social banter for as long as we've maintained networks. Rumors to the contrary, I don't think early telegraphers ever carried much traffic about Baby Yoda, though probably gossip about the royal families was fair game," quipped Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.

"One of the earliest purpose-built systems for social interaction was PLATO, which evolved over many years at the University of Illinois," added Purtilo, who said he was one of its early users.

PLATO, which ran on the school's ILLIAC I computer, was first launched in 1960. By the late 1970s, it supported several thousand graphics terminals around the world. It has been credited with introducing many modern concepts including forums, message boards, chat rooms, instant messaging, multiplayer video games, and even email.

"It served mostly the local community, but there were also other long haul networks, such as DARPAnet, but these were 'official use only," said Purtilo. "By 1980 we started to see technologies based on unrestricted sharing, and the premier example was USENET in which sites, chiefly university campuses, operated modems over telephone lines 24/7 to relay traffic about the world."

USENET – The birth of social media

While it might not be recognizable to today's younger users who communicate on their smartphones as "social media," these "User Networks”  were essentially the proto-social platforms. It was here that concepts such as "flame wars" and "trolls" originated, and also where the first use of spam was posted by immigration attorneys Canter and Siegel who advertised green card services.

"The convention for 'net news' grew on top of USENET as discussion forums organized by topic," explained Purtilo. "I was the 'moderator' – roughly 'editor' who processed posts and ensured discussion remained on-topic – for a group called 'rec.guns' technical gab about firearms and shooting sports; I processed a million posts over several decades. This was the classic era of bulletin boards. With the web – another sharing convention layered on top of the Internet – interaction came to be centralized around one or another site."

The Web to Web 2.0

Throughout the 1980s there existed other proto-versions of social media in America Online (AOL), CompuServe, and Prodigy. These dial-up services were walled communities that existed apart from the Internet but still provided many of the functions seen in modern social media including the connection of online "friends," the ability to chat, and the transmission of news and information.

"Most of us long-timers recognize that the net as we knew it changed forever when AOL launched, making these technologies available for all consumers rather than a community chiefly populated by adventurous technologists," said Purtilo. "Once there was real money in it, the social media firms you see today emerged to sponge it up."

The big "change" came in 1989 when English scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, followed by the first browser a year later. Within a few short years, the concept of websites was born, but the web as we knew it then continued to exist alongside the rest of the Internet.

Then in 1997, Six Degrees launched. It allowed users to upload a profile, make friends with other users, and have a presence that didn't include an actual website or even web page. 

"Social media services were more personal in the beginning," said technology industry Josh Crandall of Netpop Research.

"The services focused on individual contributors, who were mainly early adopters of technology, as the primary driver for growth and success," added Crandall. 

"Back in the day, the user interface designs were all over the place," he noted. "Some were very specific and dull (Friendster and Craigslist) and others were a disorganized mess of self-expression (MySpace). Facebook revolutionized the way users interact with social media by creating a contained, relatively simple interface that contained a handful of different types of content types - text, pictures, and videos."

The other significant innovation Facebook created was the Newsfeed.

"The Newsfeed changed the way people consumed content. Rather than relying on an intentional action by the user to go visit a particular conversation or topic, the Newsfeed presented a variety of snippets and topics that are of interest to the user," said Crandall. "This flipped the user experience from searching for content to simply refreshing the Newsfeed to see what pops up. It changes an intentional relationship between users and their search for content into an addictive relationship in which the user refreshes their Newsfeed to see what pops up."

Web 2.0 technology also put a far greater emphasis on user-generated content and ease of use online that was a major game-changer in social media. This allowed a shift from the web being more about content consumption to one that involved content creation.

"In 2006 and 2007 we were still calling social media, 'Web 2.0,'" explained technology entrepreneur and inventor Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible. "In the early days, MySpace was king, only the early adopters heard of or were using Facebook. YouTube was growing while Yahoo was dying. There were new social platforms popping up every day. While the newcomer list hosted names like Twitter, Pinterest, and Skype, it also included companies like Michael Naef’s 'Doodle,' Bill Julia's 'FastPitch,' and Leah Culver's 'Pownce.'"

The services that didn't survive

For every Facebook and Twitter, there were services such as Friendster and Meetup. Some burned out quickly, while Second Life – which was an avatar-based platform similar to a massively multiplayer online role-playing game – reached a zenith, maintaining a small but hardcore group of followers.

Additionally, as has been seen during recent election cycles, social media has divided as much as it has united. In that way, we've seen a rise of anti-social media, where each side on every issue takes a stance and shouts into the proverbial void.

"We've lost quite a lot of our sense of community from the early years," explained Purtilo. "Nobody called it 'social media' at the time, but much of the original traffic was unfiltered interaction based on peer-to-peer technology, meaning no single entity was really in control. It was pretty organic. Even most network administration was done by consensus. Tech ideas were adopted by force of reason, not reason of force – you had to learn how to persuade since nobody could dictate. Some debate got pretty colorful, but it was productive and in the end, we were all able to move on."

Social media platforms have also begun to cater to groups rather than the masses.

"Unfortunately young people today grow up with this twisted view that community is a narrow thing that you fight for rather than a broad identity that we can all share. Tribalism is the biggest moneymaker of all for social media," said Purtilo.

"Here's the really scary part," he added. "Today, I have students who actively fight for whatever social justice issue is the flavor of the month online, yet who are seemingly incapable of sustaining a simple conversation in person. They might sit across a table from one another yet social banter will still involve texting on their phones in order to avoid having to make eye contact while speaking. They're making big money for big media, but the cost is paid with our humanity."

A monetized platform

The cost paid is easy to see today as everything is a lot more commercialized, and companies like Facebook aren't really about connecting people as they are platforms for advertising. 

"Almost all traffic goes through a very few companies that employ spectacular data analysis tools to decide what to share, when to share it and how to package it," said Purtilo. "We're not the customers, we're the commodity, and even our smallest interactions are harvested and studied in order to put us in bins for sale to advertisers. Social media firms might offer the illusion of community but these are generally forums to which we get channeled quickly in order to hear other voices that sound just like us."

Another facet is that social media has taken users away from websites to Facebook pages, where content isn't always duplicated but rather is condensed. This is true not only for users.

"Today, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp success is driven just as much, if not more so, by business and corporate users as they are by individuals," said Crandall.

"Businesses recognized the need to connect with their market online," Crandall suggested. "They spent a lot of resources to retool or create new content that was expressly made for social media sites."

Safko warned that social media has also ushered in "The Democratization of Technology."

"For the first time, all unreachable technologies were available to the masses without any barriers to entry," he added. "At first, we thought that was a great opportunity for everyone!  Then we realized that when every idiot can publish a book, then every idiot will publish a book. Everyone with nothing to say can say it along with the other five billion videos watched each day on YouTube. The same was true for radio/BlogTalkRadio, newspaper/blog, journalist/freelance, coach, trainer, speaker, and educator. This caused a glut of poor-quality content to flood the Internet which reduced the value on all online content, membership sites, ebooks, and other I.P. over the Internet."

Social Media and Privacy

One issue that all of the platforms have had to deal with is user privacy and how an individual's data was being utilized.

"Facebook has been on the forefront of the privacy debate for a long time," explained Crandall. "They have shaped and pushed the relationship between social media platforms and consumers to the limit. As users share more information about themselves online, social media platforms are in a more leveraged position to use that data for means other than what the user intended. When social media services apply user data that's been submitted for a particular purpose (say a personality quiz) for another purpose (say target users with specific types of news stories), that's a problem. It would be beneficial to society if social media platforms were held accountable to prevent the next Cambridge Analytica fiasco from ever happening. We've seen the damage it can do."

The issue likely hasn't been fully resolved, warned Crandall, who also suggests this could offer new opportunities for new entrants to establish a foothold and gain the trust of their users.

"Social components will be baked into services of all sorts to create a back-channel for service enhancements and affinity. I think about transportation solutions like bike-share or scooter-share programs. Not only will a user be able to rate their equipment and provide feedback on the condition, but they may be able to share their opinions about the places they visited and trips they take. All of this human-generated content will only enhance the AI algorithms that are learning how to manage us, and our experiences."

The future of social media

If there is a final lesson from past experience is that social media's rule is fleeting. Rome may not have been built in a day, but its empire lasted hundreds of years. Social media companies have risen and fallen in considerably short timeframes.

This trend is simply the latest "new guard" driving out the "old Turks" in the tech world.

Just as before Google, there was Yahoo, AOL existed before Facebook was ever even a consideration – and so big it merged with Time Warner, only to have it spun off and fade into near irrelevance. 

"We saw the same scenario play out with computers in the 1980's – people were sporting Commodore 64 and Atari computers but it was only Apple and Microsoft that eventually won out," said Safko. "The social media industry will continue to evolve along the same lines, less membership loyalty and less participation, higher PPC costs, and further fragmented audiences. Who remembers using Netscape to search Magellan, AOL, and DogPile for the best Internet Search Results?"

We may already be seeing the rise of the undiscovered country to paraphrase the Bard.

"We're getting a glimpse of it now," said Purtilo. "Young people who have only been trained to interact digitally – meaning by conflict – are finding their voices and often say on the street what previously they only texted online. Social media protected them from having to learn how to interact with people who might hold other views. I fear we'll only see more violence as people discover the unhappy consequences of taking strident online messaging out to the streets."