A Brief History Of Social Media

There’s no exact definition for the term ‘social media’ and I think if you asked ten different people what it meant you would probably get ten different answers. This is because social media means something slightly different to everyone.
And the reason for this?

Simple – everyone uses social media in a slightly different way.

In a nutshell I would define social media thus:

Social media are websites where people interact with eachother to share and discuss information about each other and their lives using a diverse range of content (words) and multimedia (photos, video, audio).

So how would you define social media?

social media wordle

Now I’ll be the first to tell you I’m not a computing enthusiast (read ‘geek’) but luckily my other half has more than a passing interest in all things techy – both past and present.

When I asked him where social media came from I was really surprised to learn the answer.

Now most of us know the World Wide Web was born in the early-nineties thanks to the brilliant (and, I might add, British) Tim Berners-Lee and I’d hazard a guess you thought social media was born as a result? That’s where you’d be wrong!

Social media as we recognise it was born way back in the 1950’s with the ‘Phone Phreaking’ phenomenon. Phone phreaks were technophiles who worked out how to manipulate telephone systems illicitly, allowing them to make calls for free. As a result clandestine communities of like-minded phreaks sprang up behind the wires of major phone companies where they would meet up ‘on line’ to chat and hold impromptu seminars and discussions.

Fast forward to 1994. With the web still in its infancy the first social networking site was born.

Geocities allowed subscribers to build their own websites and was aimed at amateur users. As such the quality of Geocities sites varied wildly: smileys, gifs and overtly-personal websites dominated (sound familiar anyone?) making Geocities the butt of technophile jokes. Despite this, by 1999, it was the third most viewed site in the world.

In the meantime Newsweek published an article in 1995 entitled The Internet? Bah! Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t, and will never be, nirvana and whilst it makes an amusing read today it reflects well the feelings of the time.

However, and despite Newsweek’s gloomy predictions, the web was here to stay. By 1997 it had over one billion websites, blogging was growing in popularity and AOL (America Online) launched its iconic instant messenger service – I still remember using it (now I’m really showing my age!).

1997 also saw the launch of SixDegrees.com, a website that was the forerunner of the social networking sites we use today. It piloted many of the features familiar on today’s social media sites:

  • users created profiles listing personal information, hobbies, interests etc
  • users created personalised networks of friends and family
  • contacts were made by invitation
  • contacts were arranged into first, second or third degrees
  • users could post updates to their networks, or to specific networks by degree

Friends Reunited was the first real breakthrough in the field of social networking in the UK and my first real taste of social media.

Launched in 2000 Friends Reunited was the brainchild of a couple who were curious about the whereabouts of long-lost classmates from their school days. This curiousity (let’s face it, we’re all nosey and love a good gossip) obviously struck a chord with us because, by the end of 2001, Friends Reunited had 2.5million members!

If Friends Reunited operated with a strong emphasis on networking with classmates from days-gone-by MySpace, which launched in 2003, was born to exploit and nurture our shared love of music. It quickly became the most visited website in the world, only to be overtaken by Facebook in 2006.

Today it is the 303rd most visited site in the world, quite an achievement in the fickle world of social networking, and still has a loyal musical following. Musicians including the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen have MySpace to thank for launching their careers.

Finally, in 2004, social media as we know it arrived. Facebook launched as an exclusive Harvard University social networking site but soon became The Social Network to be part of and rapidly spread across the campuses of America.

It reached UK universities in 2005 and finally ‘went public’ in 2006, no longer requiring members to receive an invitation to join the hallowed blue halls.

Today Facebook has over 1.11 billion active members and is, naturally, the most visited website in the world.

Last but not least (and will definitely not be the last) Twitter was born in 2006. The concept behind Twitter was to combine social networking with microblogging – the result?

A ‘tweet’ or message limited to 140 characters (seriously challenging for wordy people like me!).

On average Twitter members post over 340 millions tweets a day – on every subject under the sun.

Although it can be difficult to verify the authenticity of tweets they have become a valuable source of information for news channels.

News of Osama Bin Laden’s death was revealed to the world through an innocent tweet in 2011:

osama bin laden

In 2012 Barack Obama announced his triumphant return to office in what became the most retweeted tweet of all time. It said simply:

obama office

This is by no means a comprehensive study of social media. Consider it a whistle-stop tour of the trailblazers of social networking instead. There are so many more to discover and experiment with.

I’m certain the future will see the rise of many more social media sites – propelled into being in response to our ever-evolving need to share and communicate more rapidly, more easily and more creatively.

If you’ve been intrigued by this dip into the world of social media and want to know more about how it can benefit you and your business drop me a line.

By Tori Smith, Stori’s founder, blogger and social media know-it-all.


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