Social media has become an integral part of all of our lives. We use it to connect with friends and family, to catch up on current events, and, perhaps most importantly, to entertain ourselves. This is why just under 70 percent of Americans, and more than 2.6 billion people globally, use social media. However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in just 2005, social media penetration in the U.S. was just 5 percent, and most of the rest of the world didn’t even know what it was. All of this means that the history of social media is a brief yet tumultuous one, and studying it can help us better understand just how much, and how quickly, the world around us is changing.
Social Media Definition
Before going too far into the history of social media, it’s important we first discuss exactly what we mean by social media. For most of us, we can spot social media when we see it, but we should work to be a bit more specific. A quick Google search for “social media definition” will reveal countless results, but they will all reflect the following definition in one way or another:
Social media is understood as the different forms of online communication used by people to create networks, communities, and collectives to share information, ideas, messages, and other content, such as videos.
Two things stand out from this definition:
- Social media must include online communication, meaning the history of social media cannot begin before the invention and widespread adoption of the internet; and
- Social media depends on user-generated content. This is why typical websites and blogs do not get included in the world of social media. Only certain people can post to these sites, and there are significant restrictions on the types of content that get uploaded.
Using this definition, we can understand social media to be a wide range of things, such as messaging apps like WhatsApp and Viber, profile-based platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, video portals such as YouTube, and also email clients such as GMail. However, there are many other social media sites out there, especially once you start looking at how people use social media around the world.
History of Social Media
Many people like to link the history of social media to the growth in communications technology that has been occurring since the end of the 19th century. A common starting point is Samuel Morse’s first telegraph, which he sent in 1844 between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore.
However, going off our definition from before, this type of communication does not qualify as social media. First, it did not take place “online,” and second, telegrams do not contribute to any larger community or collective. Instead, they are used to send individual messages between two people. So, while it’s interesting to think of social media as being part of a much larger continuum, the real history of social media starts in the 1970s with the emergence of the internet.
The Rapid Growth of the Internet
The internet has its roots in the 1960s and 1970s when various private and public organizations were working to try and find ways to get computers to communicate with one another. In a sense, this can be considered as the beginning of social media. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s, and really the 1990s, that personal computers became more normal, which set the stage for the emergence of social media.
Additionally, the emergence of blogging in the 1990s helped usher in the age of social media. The idea that an average person could log on to the internet and write about what they were thinking, feeling, and doing, and that these posts could be read by anyone at any time, and responded to, helped people begin to understand the full significance of the internet.
The First Social Media Sites
Using our definition of social media above, the first two social media sites were Six Degrees and Friendster, both of which are no longer around, despite playing an influential role in starting what has become a social media revolution.
The website credited as being the “first social media” site is Six Degrees. It’s named after the “six degrees of separation” theory, which states that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation. This is often called the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” theory, although Kevin Bacon himself is irrelevant to the phenomenon.
The reason Six Degrees is considered to be the first social media site is because it allowed people to make individual profiles and add others to their personal network. It was officially launched in 1997, and it lasted until about 2001. It’s number of users peaked at around 3.5 million. It was bought out by YouthStream Media Networks in 1999 for $125 million, but it shut down just one year later.
A few years later, in 2002, the site Friendster emerged to compete with Six Degrees. Like Six Degrees, it allowed users to make contacts and save them as part of a personal network. People could also share videos, photos, and messages with other users, and they were also able to leave comments on other people’s profiles, so long as they were part of each other’s personal network.
A few months after its launch, Friendster had over 3 million users, and this number continued to grow, eventually reaching over one hundred million.
In 2011, Friendster was rebranded as a social gaming site that was focused mainly on the gaming community. This helped it stay relevant alongside competitors such as Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook, but in the end, Friendster was doomed to fail. In 2015, it suspended all of its services, and on Jan. 1, 2019, it ceased all operations and officially closed its doors.
When Did LinkedIn Start?
Surprisingly, LinkedIn was one of the first social media sites in history. It was founded on December 28, 2002 by Reid Hoffman, Allen Blue, Konstantin Guericke, Eric Ly, and Jean-Luc Valliant. Initially, it was a site focused on professional networking, allowing people to connect with business and school contacts, as well as companies. Today, this is still the primary purpose of LinkedIn. It has stayed true to that purpose to this day. Currently, LinkedIn has more than 575 million registered users, and it’s ranked number 285 on the Alexa Ranking for most-visited sites.
When Was MySpace Created?
Of the original batch of social media sites, MySpace was perhaps the most popular and influential. Launched on August 1, 2003, MySpace quickly became the largest social media site in the world. It started as a file storage platform, but it quickly transitioned to a social network, which contributed to its meteoric rise in popularity.
By 2005, it was clear to the world that MySpace was here to stay, so some larger companies began to show interest in acquiring it. This resulted in the sale of MySpace to News Corp., the U.K-based media conglomerate run by Rupert Murdoch, for $580 million. Shortly thereafter, in 2006, MySpace surpassed Google as the top visited website in world.
The Decline of MySpace
After the sale, MySpace continued to grow, and by 2009 it was generating around $800 million in revenue, making it one of the more profitable social media sites out there. However, as Facebook began to expand beyond its initial audience of just college students, MySpace began to decline, and Facebook replaced it as the top visited site in 2008.
Another reason MySpace began to decline was its use of on-site ads to generate revenue. Many argue that its deal with Google 2010, which consisted of a $900 million, three-year advertising agreement, overloaded the site with ads and made it difficult to use.
However, MySpace, despite its decline, continues to operate to this day. In 2016, it was bought out by Time Inc., and in 2018 it was bought again by the Meredith Corporation. Currently, it’s still ranked 4,153 on the Alexa ranking of most visited sites in the world.
When Was Facebook Founded?
Facebook was founded on February 4, 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, as well as Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollom, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes. Facebook started as a social media site exclusive to Harvard students, although it quickly spread to the rest of the Ivy League, as well as Stanford and MIT. However, after 2006, Facebook was available to anyone claiming to be above the age of 13, regardless of whether or not they had an affiliation with a university.
After its launch and subsequent expansion, Facebook grew quickly, surpassing MySpace in 2008 as the most visited site in the world. Today, it ranks #3 on the Alexa traffic rankings, behind only Google and YouTube.
Facebook went public in 2012 and it received a valuation of $104 billion, making it one of the highest IPO valuation’s of all time. It currently generates over $40 billion a year in revenue, and it is considered as one of the most important tech companies in the entire world.
Currently, Facebook has just over 2.3 billion active users, a number that has grown consistently since its launch. This amounts to just under 30 percent of the entire global population.
When Did Twitter Start?
Twitter was created on March 21, 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Noah Glass, Biz Stone, and Evan Williams. It distinguished itself by limiting users to only 140 characters, a policy it held onto until 2017, when it doubled the character limits in all languages except Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Twitter went public in 2013 and was valued at $14.2 billion. Today, it has around 335 million monthly active users.
When Did Instagram Start?
Instagram was launched on October 6, 2010 by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger. It separated itself from the competition by focusing exclusively on video and photos, and by only allowing photos to be framed in a square (a restriction which was lifted in 2015). ‘
Instagram grew quickly after its launch, surpassing one million registered users in just two months. Currently, it has 1 billion active users, which makes it the sixth most popular social media site in the world. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram for approximately $1 billion in cash and stock.
When did Snapchat Start?
Snapchat was started by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown in September 2011. Its distinguishing feature was that it allowed users to send photos to one another that would disappear shortly after being opened.
Today, in addition to this service, Snapchat also allows people to chat with one another as well as share a “24-hour story,” which gives users the chance to post photos and videos and save them for one full day. Currently, it has around 186 million active users, although it is particularly popular among young people, leading many people to believe Snapchat’s influence will grow in the coming years.
Social Media Today
The history of social media is relatively short in terms of time, but this doesn’t make it any less exciting or influential. Today, social media is an integral part of the lives of people around the world. Overall, there are some 2.62 billion social media users around the world, and this number is expected to grow to over 3 billion by 2021.
In general, today’s market is dominated by just a handful of companies. But if we can learn anything from the history of social media, it’s that this will change. New companies will emerge, and, as people’s preferences change, old ones will die or merge into something else, rewriting the history of social media as they do.