Every year since 2010, June 30 is celebrated as Social Media Day. Inexplicably, this event was launched by Mashable rather than a social media company like Facebook or Twitter. Mashable decided that June 30 would be the day they would celebrate social media’s impact on global communication.
But what happened? How did social media become so ubiquitous that we’re supposed to celebrate it just like we would father’s day or mother’s day?
That’s a tough question to answer, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that humans are social animals. What may have evolved as a survival instinct is now an inseparable part of our lives. We need to socialise, however infrequently and ephemerally. Any platform that enables that will have people flocking to it in droves. If you think about it, the current social media obsession was inevitable.
As with everything however, social media has also evolved over the years. In the early days, a reliable postal service was a revelation. Pen pals were a thing and the telegraph simply shook the world.
The ability to communicate via voice, courtesy of the radio and telephone, suddenly brought in another dimension to the mix. This was in the early nineteenth century. Fast forward a 100 years to the birth of the internet and you have a network unlike anything before it. The mobile phone of course was the next revolution.
The Bulletin Board System and Usenet
The true birthplace of the modern social network was BBS or Bulletin Board Systems. On the surface, it was nothing more than a text-based communication system, but beneath it all were the first seeds of a revolution. Communication happened via a fledgling internet, one that was powered by modems and telephone lines. Given the high price of internet access, the limited bandwidth and the cost of long-distance communication, BBS was mostly limited to local groups.
Despite the horrendous speed, it was a social platform, giving like-minded people a platform on which to communicate in peace and quiet.
Services like FidoNet started curating BBS groups creating a sort of network of groups.
Close on BBS’ heels was, of course, Usenet. It’s hard to describe Usenet to someone who’s never used it before, but it’s best to think of it as a sort of forum where communication happens via email. All of this data was stored as some sort of newsfeed that users could access and read. Similar to many websites and newsfeeds of today, people could browse through complete articles and news stories as well.
Alongside Usenet, IRC or Internet Relay Chat, started gaining in popularity. IRC was very much akin to the WhatsApp groups and other messaging services of today.
The first baby steps into creating a recognizable social platform began with Aol (America Online). It’s considered by many to be the “internet before the internet” and featured everything from email to bulletin boards to Usenet access, online courses, educational services and more. Everyone who was anyone was on it and they were glad to be there. The world was suddenly a smaller, more accessible place.
Geocities and other blogging sites started rising to popularity in the early nineties. More and more personal information was being posted online and a lot more data was being shared.
It was around this time that experimentation with real social networks started. Classmates.com for example, started out as a networking service for, well, classmates. You still couldn’t create personal profiles, but the ability to find and connect with long lost buddies, crushes and exes had wide appeal. Even today, Classmates.com is said to be host to over 57 million active users.
Sixdegrees.com was an even more dedicated attempt at a social network. Going by the assumption that the entire world is related by “6-degrees of separation,” the network laid the groundwork for social networks as we know them today. Groups, invites, personal profiles, even pesky advertising, all of this was born here.
The aforementioned pesky advertising eventually killed off sixdegrees.com, but its legacy still stands.
Y2K and the Social Media bug
The year 2000 saw the Y2K bug and social networking taking a more serious turn. The first decade of the new millennium saw Friendster, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn burst into existence. Each offered their own take on the social networking mantra and were enormously successful in their own right.
Friendster for example, took the six-degrees concept and added circles to the mix. Yes, exactly like Google Plus. The idea was that you’d have your circle of friends who’d have their circle of friends and then these circles would intermingle and you’d have circles of circles and so on.
In their own words, “Friendster is an online community that connects people through networks of friends for dating or making new friends.” Technical issues and bad management decisions eventually killed off the platforms.
LinkedIn needs no introduction. Founded in 2003, the site started off as a network for professionals and businesses and is now host to over 300 million active users.
Quickly following LinkedIn were Facebook and YouTube. The former started out as Facemash, a dorm room experiment that went from a handful of bored Harvard students to an all-encompassing social platform with a billion plus active users in a little over 10 years.
Twitter, founded a few years after Facebook, was essentially SMS for the internet. Instant Messaging services on phones didn’t exist at the time and SMS was the most popular medium for communication on phones. A web-version of the same thing might seem like an odd idea, but it’s now bloomed to beyond mere text and about 300 million active users.
Google also tried to dip their foot into the social media pool, but Google+ was, and still is, a strange, ever-present but completely ignored platform. Its one claim-to-fame was Hangouts for no other service offered true video conferencing services. The problem with that was that people didn’t have the bandwidth, at least on mobile, to find much use for it and Google+ wasn’t that appealing.
Think about it, today, in 2016, everyone is offering some live video service or the other, but nobody’s talking about Hangouts.
Regardless, Google did claim to have over 500 million registered users in 2014, but what they’d rather not tell you is that more than half of those users haven’t even logged in to their own profiles.
The world is on mobile
3G internet and capable smartphones moved socializing to the mobile platform. Social networking has also been simplified today. Sharing is now about what you want to share and how quick you want to share it. Location? Foursquare. Photos? Instagram. Dating? Tindr. Information? WhatsApp. Work? Slack.
In 2015, Facebook faced a minor internal crisis because the world was only sharing memes and gifs on their platform. If something didn’t change soon, it would die. And change it did. You can suddenly share your state, not just your status. You can “react” now, let people know if you’re safe, communicate faster, and so much more.
Interaction takes centre-stage over sharing today, and everyone understands that now. Increase in usable bandwidth also means that interactivity can take more bandwidth-heavy forms, such as live video.
What does the future hold?
The future is unknown, but everyone’s betting big on virtual reality. Facebook and Twitter are working on VR and AR and immersion is the new buzzword. This is not something that will happen anytime soon of course. Convenience is key to sharing as much as platform. When creating VR content is easy, so will be the sharing of VR content.
Taking things a step further, Mark Zuckerberg himself spoke about sharing emotions using electronics that can read your emotional state. Apple already lets you share your heartbeat for example.
Whatever happens, there will always be a social media platform. We’re social creatures after all.