It isn’t an understatement to say that social media deeply affects almost everyone on the planet. It is so pervasive in our daily lives that the average person spends over 2 hours a day on social media platforms and we are so reliant on social media platforms for communication that Facebook alone handles 60 billion messages a day.
But how did we get to this point?
There is a long and storied history to social media, with some important milestones that are worth noting on the journey to the societal behemoths we know today.
The ARPANET is one of the most important technological breakthroughs in the history of mankind.
The precursor to the internet we currently know today, the ARPANET project was founded in 1966 by computing pioneer Robert Taylor.
It’s aim? Enable computers to exchange data between each other.
Sounds very simple right?
Not back then. After linking four university institutions in the US, the first successful data transfer took place on the 29th of October 1969, between UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute (SRI).
UCLA’s Charley Kline’s attempted to send the command “login” to a computer at SRI but actually only managed to send the characters “lo”.
And so began a long history of sending data (and miscommunication) between computers that would eventually lead to the advent of social media.
Sending two characters between computers is an important milestone in computing history (and the first steps towards our modern social media) but it’s not quite an Instagram story. The “first social media site” award goes to SixDegrees.com which was founded in 1997.
Based on the Six Degrees of Separation theory by esteemed psychologist Stanley Milgram, SixDegrees.com was the first site to allow users to find people they don’t know through their connections to people they do know. This networking effect is a cornerstone of almost all social media sites and at it’s height SixDegrees had 3.5 million users.
However, it was a case of too much too soon, and limits to internet connectivity and technology (Weinrich specifically mentions the lack of ability to upload photos as digital cameras weren’t widespread by then) led to the site being shut down in 2001, making way for other, much more successful, social media sites.
Whilst SixDegrees.com technically was the first, Friendster was the first social media site to really capture the public imagination.
Founded by programmer Jonathan Abrams, Friendster beat SixDegrees.com’s record of 3.5 million users in its first few months, and trailblazed its path to a $30 million offer from Google (that Abrams rejected).
The meteoric rise gave way to crushing losses however, as Friendster fell victim to stability issues, long load times and a distinct lack of agility that characterised it’s impending competitor, a small site called Facebook.
"Everyone's been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard. ... I think it's kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.".
Those are the words of an unknown, entrepreneurially minded 20 year old called Mark Zuckerberg.
Spurred on by the success of companies like Napster and eager to make the next big thing, Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes created TheFacebook from a Harvard college dorm room in January 2004.
16 years later, Facebook is worth over $500 billion, has 2.7 billion monthly users and is in the news almost constantly. Not bad considering a mere 50 years prior “LO” was all that could be managed.
Also, random fun fact I learnt whilst researching this article, Facebook is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colour-blind and blue is the colour he can see best. Do with that what you will.