Let's take a whistle-stop tour of the evolution of social media platforms. You can also check out this helpful infographic history of social media platforms' by Zenesys.
Why are social media platforms so popular?
Human beings are social creatures, we thrive on, and in fact need, social interactions to maintain a healthy life and mind.
Social media taps into these primal needs and so it should come as no surprise that social media sites and social media apps are so popular today.
But there is more to them than that. Social media apps offer users some valuable features.
- They provide a platform to meet new people and make friends across international borders.
- They allow users to join groups of others who share their passions and interests.
- They are free to use (but as we all know "if there is no product to buy you are the product").
- Specialized forums or platforms provide a large network to potentially find a new job.
- Networks like Twitter have become a valuable way to get real-time (occasionally true) news. Often this information can be seen 'raw,' without any traditional media bias or opinion mixed in.
With the rise in popularity of early social media platforms, it was only a matter of time before business took notice of the growing trend.
Savvy entrepreneurs quickly jumped on the wagon to promote themselves and their (or others') products, eventually evolving into the mass social media marketing industry we are all familiar with today.
Businesses and private individuals have seen the importance and reach of social media. Some have even managed to use it to make a pretty decent living.
1. Antiquity to World War 2
Year or period: Circa 500 BC to 1945
Communication across great distances has been accomplished since antiquity through everything from smoke signals to the written word. This changed very little until the advent of the telegraph in 1792.
This technology finally offered a "faster than horse" method of communication over long distances and was revolutionary at the time. There were, of course, other methods of communications aside from letter-writing, but their utility was limited to line of sight.
1865 saw the development of pneumatic post, which you might still see in banks and supermarkets. This allowed for an even greater speed of communication - but over a much shorter distance. Then, when the telephone and radio hit the scene in the 1800s everything changed.
With their ability to provide, more or less, instant communication, the world would never go back. They both remain very important methods of media to this very day.
2. The post-war years and CompuServe
Year or period: 1945 to 1980s
The technological explosion in computing after the 1940s paved the way for the social media world we see today. Initially humble in scale, with localized computer networks, CompuServe came into being in the 1960s.
The internet, as we know it, was not too far behind. Primitive emails first appeared in 1966.
The 1970s saw further development with 1979 seeing the advent of Usenet, which allowed people to communicate through virtual newsletters, articles, or posts to newsgroups.
This decade also saw the introduction of home computers with the type of social media we would recognize today developing soon after.
Usenet systems were the brainchild of Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. True social media came one step closer during the 1980s.
3. Early social media apps are born: The Well and GENie
Year or period: 1985
1985 saw the introduction of The Well and GENie. GENie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange) was an online service created for GE.
This was a critical moment in the history of social media, in business and in general, and, believe it or not, GENie was still used well into the late 1990s. It had 350,000 users at its peak and was only made redundant by the development of the World Wide Web.
4. Listverse makes its debut
Year or period: 1986
Listserv (the original, not the modern top ten site) made its debut in 1986. This was, in effect, a mailing list that allowed individuals to contact multiple users in one email. This is commonplace today but was revolutionary at the time.
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Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) also first appeared in 1988 and were still in use well into the 1990s. They were used for file sharing, link sharing, and generally keeping in touch.
5. The chatroom rises with The Palace
Year or period: 1994
1994 saw the introduction of The Palace. It allowed users to interact with one another on a graphical chat room server, which they termed "palaces".
Each user would have their own avatar overlaid on a graphical backdrop. It is still in operation in one form or another, if you want to try it out.
6. Sixdegrees.com was the first true social media site
Year or period: 1997
The first recognizable social media site, SixDegrees.com, was born. This enabled users to upload profile pictures and connect with others.
Six degrees also let users make friends with each other and expand their social groups. Incredibly, in 2000 it was purchased for $125 million and shut down in 2001, but brought back a few years later.
Users were able to send messages and post bulletin board items to others in first, second, and third-degree connections - hence the name.
7. Moveon.org was one of the first activist social media sites
Year or period: 1998
In 1998, Moveon.org opened for business. It was initially formed as an email group and began life passing around petitions opposing the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
It later went on to promote general internet activism, such as opposing US military actions abroad, and supporting democratic candidates in the U.S., as well as fundraising.
Whatever your political views and criticisms of the site's motives, it was a forerunner of the plethora of similar social media campaigns all across the political spectrum seen today.
8. Blogging sites begin to appear just before Y2K
Year or period: 1999
Just before the turn of the Millenium, the first blogging sites started to become popular, and this form of social media is still very popular today.
LiveJournal, for example, was founded in 1999. This is a social network built around constantly updating blog posts.
It encouraged users to follow each other and create groups that also interact with one another.
9. LunarStorm was one of the first ad-financed social media sites
Year or period: 2000
In 2000, LunarStorm was launched. This was one of the first commercial advertisement-financed social networking websites.
This strategy would become increasingly important as the decade progressed.
The site was aimed at teenagers and developed in Sweden. By 2007, it had grown to an impressive 1.2 million members, 70% of which were between the ages of 12 and 17.
The site was shut down in 2010.
10. Wikipedia is born
Year or period: 2001
The mighty Wikipedia, whether you love it or loathe it, was launched in 2001. Its impact on the internet cannot be underestimated - even if the validity of its content can often be questionable.
Its founding aim was to provide an online encyclopedia that allowed anyone to edit articles. It should not surprise you that it is the world's most popular general reference site on the web.
It is a not-for-profit entity and, despite its critics, is generally well-loved.
Wikipedia do not consider the site to be social media per se, but it can be described as an online community of like-minded people and thus is affiliated with social media.
11. Friendster was an early giant of social media
Year or period: 2002
Friendster emerged in 2002. This Malaysian-built platform, now defunct, was initially used as a social networking service website. It was used for all the usual things, but also as a dating site and event, band, and hobby discovery service.
It introduced social gaming in 2011. Friendster closed its doors in 2015 after a lack of engagement from its members and, "the evolving landscape in our challenging industry".
12. LastFM was one of the first online music sites
Year or period: 2002
Another important step in the history of social media platforms and social media sites was the emergence of LastFM.
LastFM made its debut in 2002. It was one of the first online music databases and online radio streaming that have become the norm today.
13. LinkedIn appears on the scene
Year or period: 2003
2003 saw the emergence of LinkedIn. Its unique selling point is obvious to anyone who uses it.
Its devotion to social media for business has enabled its steady growth into one of the most popular social media sites in the world.
14. The rise and fall of MySpace
Year or period: 2003
2003 also saw the launch of MySpace, which quickly became "the" social media platform at the time. It allowed users to completely customize their profile, but also to could embed music and videos.
An important moment in the history of social media and pretty revolutionary at the time.
15. WordPress fires up its engines
Year or period: 2003
WordPress was also launched in 2003, opening up blogging to almost anyone. It now powers many websites.
16. Photosharing, MMO's, and online storage becomes popular
Year or period: 2003
Photo sharing became mainstream when the likes of Photobucket and Flickr, among others, appeared in 2003.
SecondLife also launched in 2003. This is one of the forerunners of today's massively multiplayer online role-playing games.
Del.icio.us, an online social site offering storage, sharing, and discovery of web bookmarks, was also born in 2003.
17. Proto-Facebook and others are born
Year or period: 2004
2004 saw many more services launched, including the initial Harvard dorm-based version of Facebook. Care2, Multiply, Ning, Orkut, Mixi, Piczo, and Hyves were also launched.
18. YouTube launches in 2005
Year or period: 2005
YouTube first appeared in 2005 and launched an entirely new method of communication. The ability to create and share media over very long distances was such a game-changer that it has become something of a behemoth ever since.
Other notable launches this year included Yahoo!360, Bebo, and the "mighty" Reddit. Social media platforms were started to find their legs.
19. Facebook launches and begins to monopolize the market
Year or period: 2006
2006 saw the advent of Facebook. It remains one of the most popular social media platforms on the internet, and by extension, the world.
Facebook has seen staggering growth since 2006, and it is now one of the most visited sites on the web.
20. Twitter rises in 2006
Year or period: 2006
Twitter also, launched in 2006, has attained an almost "cult-like" status since inception. Its ability to allow users to interact directly with celebrities was almost unheard of previously.
21. Tumblr and Friendfeed join the fray
Year or period: 2007
Tumblr and FriendFeed joined the party in 2007. Tumblr has grown in popularity, especially with teens and those who prey on them, with its microblogging and social networking features.
To date, it has more than 350 million blogs alone, wow.
22. Businesses 'cotton on' to the power of social media
Year or period: 2008
Around this time, businesses really started to take notice of social media, and especially its power for advertising. Businesses rushed to open accounts and link to them and to other popular sites.
23. The market starts to get crowded
Year or period: 2009
Spotify, Ping, Groupon, and Kontain appeared in 2008, continuing the development of niches within the growing social market. Location-based social media also began to take hold in 2009 with the launch of Foursquare.
This was one of the first sites to introduce a "check-in" feature. 2010 saw the birth of Instagram, Pinterest, and Google Buzz.
The former two have grown in popularity and are giants in their own right today.
24. The emergence of Instagram would shake up the social media scene
Year or period: 2010
Yet another important step in the evolution of social media platforms was the launch of Instagram in 2010. A US-based photo and video sharing platform, Instagram is today one of the biggest social media sites in the world.
It was created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, and is available on jutst about all smart device platforms. One of its standout features in the early days was the ability for users to edit uploaded content within the app and organize material using tags and other location information.
After its release, it quickly became widely popular, acquiring somewhere in the region of 2 million users within its first few months alone. Seeing the potential for the social media platform, Facebook acquired the company in 2012.
Today, it is widely used by private users and businesses to promote themselves and acts largely as an advertising platform.
25. WeChat is another very popular social media platform today
Year or period: 2011
WeChat first appeared on the scene in 2011. A Chinese entry into the social media industry, today, it is one of the world's most popular social media apps.
By some estimates, WeChat has more than 1 billion active monthly users. Described by some as the "app for everything", WeChat is a one-stop-shop for all things social media.
Today it is owned by the Chinese tech giant Tencent and offers its users not only the basics of social media but also the ability to carry out financial transactions and purchases, like booking flights and hotels through the app.
However, due to its popularity, WeChat is also subject to mass surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, and is also prone to censorship of any politically sensitive content in China.
26. The ill-fated Google+ is born
Year or period: 2011
Google decided to launch Google+ in 2011 as a fully-fledged social networking tool. Users were able to form group contacts into "circles" and chat via video "hangouts".
It has recently been discontinued.
27. Multipurpose social media becomes a thing
Year or period: 2011
With the great 'speciation' of social media since the 2000s, a method of unifying their unique features together was fast becoming a necessity. Pheed took advantage of this with its service.
Pheed allowed you to share text, photo, audio, voice notes, video, and live broadcasts in the same space. A strategy since copied by many other platforms.
Social media platforms, and social media in general, were also beginning to drive a lust for rapid-fire updates and information. This led to the launch of Vine in 2012.
Vine, as you are probably aware, lets you share 6-second videos for no other reason than that you can. It was acquired by Twitter in 2012 and shut down in 2019.
28. Minds might just be the social media platform of the future
Year or period: 2016
With growing fears over many major social media sites actively editing content on their sites and suppressing certain demographics, alternative social media sites began to appear towards the second half of the 2010s. One of the most notable social media platforms to emerge was Minds.com.
This free and open-source social media platform has seen significant growth in users since its launch in 2016. One of its unique selling points is not only its strict neutrality when it comes to free speech, but also its integration of blockchain to reward its community with ERC20 tokens.
Users can use these tokens to promote their own content or help crowdfund other users through monthly subscriptions to access exclusive content and other services. Self-described as a "Crypt Social Network", Minds.com's privacy, decentralization, optional anonymity, and steadfast commitment to transparency and protecting freedom of speech is appealing to many of its regular users.
29. Gab is another new contender in the battle for social media platform wars
Year or period: 2016
Yet another new contender in the social media ecosystem is Gab. Also standing for the protection of freedom of speech and individual liberty, Gab also vies for dominance in the market.
Attracting both applause and criticism in seemingly equal measures, Gab has become a controversial social media platform of late. In 2019, Gab launched its Dissenter browser extension that lets logged in users make comments on content hosted on other websites. The idea os that users can bypass any moderation practices that these sites may have in place to launch full-throttled abuse. It is particularly popular with far-right extremists, white-power terrorists, and sex-pests who have been banned by other platforms. It has been described as, "an “online cesspool of antisemitism, hate speech, and racism.
30. The birth of TikTok was another important step for social media platforms
Year or period: 2016
In 2016, the now incredibly popular social media platform, TikTok, was first launched by Douyin for the Chinese market, it was later launched on iOS and Android outside of China.
Primarily focussing on uploading and sharing videos, this social networking app has seen an explosion in popularity over the last few years. Most users use it to record short dance, lip-syn, comedy, or other talent videos and it seems to be really finding its stride.
While many videos loaded to the site may be utterly cringe-worthy, there is no doubt that it is a highly addictive social media platform for millions of users around the world.
31. Parler could challenge Twitter for dominance in the not too distant future
Year or period: 2018
Parler is one of the newest kids on the block when it comes to social media platforms and apps. Launched in 2018, Parler describes itself as an unbiased, free-speech social media platform dedicated to protecting its users' rights above all other concerns.
Named after the French "to speak", Parler was created by CEO John Matze in 2018. The social media platform gained a surge in users when some prominent public figures signed up and promoted the site between late-2018 and early-2019.
Parler, like so many other newer social media platforms, has ambitions to topple some of the older, more established social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Whether it will achieve this grand vision is yet to be seen.
32. Social media is a virtual ecosystem today
Year or period: NA
Today, there is an eye-boggling variety of social media platforms, social media apps, and other social media sites, many of which allow for sharing between each other. As you are all aware, this has enabled this media to allow maximum exposure for users without sacrificing interpersonal communication.
It's actually pretty amazing. Businesses and individuals could not imagine a world without it, such has been its infiltration in our lives.
It has changed our world, for better or good, and is set to make traditional media, like printed newspapers, extinct.
33. The future is uncertain
Year or period: 2018 - Onwards
Who can tell what will happen over the next few decades for social media? Will it even exist in ten, twenty, or more years?
We can never know for certain, but given society's rapid uptake of the medium so far it clearly meets a need we all have. We are social creatures after all, and any form of media that makes meeting and talking with others without actually needing to interact with them in the real world is likely to continue in some form or other well in the future.
Despite this apparent benefit, we have all seen the 'dark side' of social media grow over the last few years, especially its potential for being hijacked for political gain and manipulation. Whether people will tire of the constant stream of bile and abuse, as well as the constant advertising, or feel this is just the price we have to pay for social media, remains to be seen.