In less than a generation, the rise of social media has resulted in a dramatic shift in the way that people across the work communicate. As it has evolved social media has without doubt been a fundamental force is shaping how we use the internet, from direct electronic information exchange, to virtual gathering place, to retail platform, to vital 21st-century marketing tool.
But where did it all start? How did social media going from an unknown to affecting the lives of billions of people? Let’s take a whistle stop tour of the rise of social media, from its pre-internet roots all the way up to its modern controversies.
Social media finds it’s foundations in a simple concept that many of us now take for granted; the ability to communicate near instantaneously across large distances. It can be argued then that social media owes a great deal to Samual Morse, who on May 24, 1844 used a series of dots and dashes tapped out by hand on a telegraph machine to send the first electronic message from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. It seems Morse may have had inkling of the huge ramifications of his achievement, writing in his message “What hath God wrought?”.
In 1987, the direct precursor to today’s internet came into being when the National Science Foundation launched a more robust, nationwide digital network known as the NSFNET. Soon, early forms of social media began to take shape in the form of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) and early instant messaging systems such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which was first introduced in 1988.
The start of the first social media platforms is commonly credited to Sixdegrees, which first launched in 1997. At its peak Sixdegrees had more than 1 million users, who could upload profile pictures and connect with others, but shut up shop in 2001. This was closely followed by one of the first social media giants, Friendster, perhaps most recognisable of the early social media platforms in comparison to their modern descendants. Founded in 2002 you could create a profile, post status updates, reveal your mood, as well as messaging friends… and friends of friends of friends.
The Birth of Giants
In 2003 we saw the beginnings of the true rise of social media to a place of cultural dominance. With the birth of Myspace, along with its customizable public profiles which were visible to anyone, by 2005 it boasted 25 million users and was the fifth popular site in the United States. “The Facebook” followed in 2004, though it wasn’t until 2005 that the “the” was dropped to become the Facebook we know today. By 2012 Facebook would have 1 billion users.
Around this time the surge of social media really started to build up speed, with new sites appears on the scene left, right and centre. By the end of 2010 we had Photobucket and Flickr letting us share images, Wordpress and Tumblr had popularised personal blogging, Twitter was driving conversation, LinkedIn was bringing professionals together, Youtube was letting us watch all the cat videos we could want and Instagram was giving us filters we never knew we wanted.
As of 2020 there are 3.6 billion people with some sort of social media account, which, considering at the same time roughly 5 billion people in the world have internet access, means that nearly ¾ of internet users are engaged with social media. It is no surprise then that social media has had a huge impact on almost all facets of our lives. From communicating with friends, family, and often complete strangers, to the ways businesses market themselves and engage with their customers, and even playing pivotal roles in major geo-political events.
There is no doubt about it, social media is a big part of the modern world, and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.