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From Chat Rooms to Snapchat: The History of Social Media

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How we communicate with each other over the Internet has changed significantly from the early days in 1973.

When we think of social media, we tend to list off the most popular sites of the moment. However, social media has been around in some form since the beginning of the Internet. Over the years, social media has taken the form of chat rooms, networking sites, and microblogging. For every, Facebook there are hundreds of Orkuts. Instead of going through every social network ever created, we’re going to take a walk down memory lane and revisit some of the most notable innovations in social media technology.

PLATO (1973)

In 1973, David R. Woolley created on PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) what may be the first online community. Woolley’s first program for PLATO was Plato Notes, one of the first online message boards. Personal Notes, Term-Talk, monitor mode, and Talkomatic would join Plato Notes and become the predecessors to email, instant messaging, and chat rooms, respectively. For those who want to learn more, Woolley wrote an article in 1994 that explores in-depth PLATO’s place in history as a proto-internet. Access to Plato Notes and Talkometric was limited to those who had access to PLATO, which was a generalized computer-assisted instruction system.

Usenet, CB Simulator, and AOL (1979-1995)

The next major development in making the Internet a social place came from the minds of Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis in 1979. Their creation, Usenet, was the precursor to modern-day forums and launch in 1980. Until 1987, when the Great Renaming took place, Usenet newsgroups were fairly unorganized. The Great Renaming introduced the Big 7 hierarchies, which were comp (short for computers), misc (for miscellaneous), news (for newsgroup news), rec (for recreation and entertainment), sci (for science-related discussions), soc (for social discussions), and talk (for controversial topics in general. There was also alt, which was jokingly nicknamed “anarchists, lunatics, and terrorists” because it was prone to the same type of chaos Reddit is known for today. In 1995, the Big 7 became the Big 8 when humanities was added. Usenet also contributed to our Internet vocabulary FAQ, flame, and spam.

While Usenet offered message boards, the first major commercial online service provider, Compuserve used CB Simulator to entice people to sign up for Internet service. Also introduced in 1980, CB Simulator, which was name after CB radio, was a collection of chat rooms. The Washington Post reports that it even had roleplay “channels” and, in 1983, was responsible for some of the earliest instance of people getting married after meeting on the Internet. In 1992, AOL would use the same tactics, a year later this was combined with free trial floppy disks, to get people to sign up for Internet service.

SixDegrees.com and AOL Instant Messenger (1997)

The year 1997 brought big change to the Internet. SixDegrees.com, which you can still join if you are so inclined, introduced the concept of a social networking site. Many of the familiar hallmarks that dominate every social networking site since were introduced here. The site had profiles, friends’ lists, and allowed users to list their schools. As in the early days of Facebook, you had to be invited to the site. Once you joined, SixDegrees.com, which was based on the six degrees of separation concept, let you message your first, second, and third degrees and see how you were connected to other people. At its height, SixDegrees.com has 3.5 million registered users. However, the limited availability of the Internet meant that it was not very user-friendly.

The other major development of 1997 was the introduction of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), which complimented AOL’s then-active 19 million chat rooms. The fact that AIM was free, easy to use, and allowed everyone to chat with friends accounted for its rapid spread. Fortune reported that four years after it’s launch AIM had 36 million active users.

Yahoo and MSN Messengers (1999)

Two years later, in 1999, AOL’s biggest competitors played catch up and launched their versions of AOL’s popular messenger feature, Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger.

Friendster (2002-2003)

After the failure of SixDegrees.com, Friendster took its place in 2002. Believe it or not, that same year LinkedIn was also launched. The two sites would have two very different fates. Friendster would become a memory— at least in the United States —when Myspace launched a year later. By the time Facebook launched, Friendster was already a punchline. As for LinkedIn, it is still going strong as the most popular business networking site.

Facebook Kills Myspace (2004)

Myspace and it’s founder Tom Anderson, better known as Myspace Tom, quickly met the same fate as Friendster. When 2004 rolled around, Facebook was invented and quickly gained popularity among college students. The next year, a high school version of Facebook was introduced, putting the final nail in Myspace’s coffin. Users flocked to Facebook because the sites sleek design was a more pleasant experience than the garish backgrounds, obnoxious fonts, and loud music that appeared on most of the Myspace’s profiles. On some level, users were also relieved that Facebook didn’t have a Top 8 that caused drama IRL. When Myspace was sold to News Corp in 2005, it was already a relic that everyone wanted to forget.

Facebook Expands and YouTube grows in popularity (2005)

In 2005, the world of social media as we know it today started to take shape. Not only was that the year Mark Zuckerberg widened Facebook’s audience, but it was also the year YouTube came onto the scene and grew rapidly. While it seems quaint compared to the 1 billion views and 300 hours of video uploaded every minute that YouTube now sees, in 2006, USA Today reported that viewers were watching more than 100 million videos per day and that 65,000 videos were uploaded daily.

Facebook Opens to Everyone and Twitter (2006-2007)

For the Internet, 2006 was another landmark year. Facebook officially allowed anyone regardless of their school status to join, enabling the social networking site to grow to its user based to its current number of over 2 billion active monthly users. The site also combined many of the previously created features, such as private messaging, profile pages, and Facebook groups, which can be seen as a sort of modern day chat room. This was also the year Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams created Twitter.

Twitter wouldn’t take off until the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive conference. At the conference, Twitter encouraged attendees to sign up for the social platform. This resulted in a significant increase and more awareness about Twitter, which caused the site to grow exponentially. On the day Twitter launched, only 224 Tweets were sent. By the time it was officially in the mainstream, in 2009, there were 2.5 million tweets sent daily.

Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat (2010- 2011)

The most recent social platforms have seen a move toward sharing pictures and video. 2010 saw the launch of Pinterest, which allows users to “pin” pictures to their boards for other users to check out, and Instagram, which enables users to share photos with friends. In 2011, Snapchat became available and pioneered the concept of sending friends a message that would disappear after a certain period of time elapsed.

The Internet and social networking have come a long way from the days of PLATO. Over time, as the Internet became more and more popular, what social on the Internet looks like has changed. The early days saw a heavy focus on messaging and chat rooms. The middle years of social shifted toward profiles and friends lists. Currently, while the giants from the middle years of social media platform development are still going strong, social media users are flocking to sites that are specifically for photo and video sharing. As much as we like to speculate what the next big trend will be in social, we have no way of knowing for sure. The early Internet innovators could only dream—when they dared to do so— of a future where everyone had access to Usenet everywhere they went.

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