Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A History of Social Networking and Its Influence on Social Media

          In the early morning hours of March 4, 1971, I was born.  The same year saw the birth of email - two computers sitting side-by-side communicating for the first time.  Not as Earth-shattering as the first images of man walking on the moon two years earlier but the implications of this seemingly insignificant moment would prove to be the spark that ignited the launch of social networking and, ultimately, social media as we know it today.
Photo Credit: Jackie's Page

Social Media & Social Networking Defined

Many argue as to whether this moment in history truly was the birth of social networking. To answer this, we first need take a look at what the term “social networking” means and why it isn’t synonymous with “social media”. Social networking is the act of engaging with like-minded people with the purpose of sharing knowledge, while social media provides the vehicle for us to share this information. Confusing? Here’s another distinction between the two: try to view social networking as a verb, denoting what we do online, and social media as a noun, the network of online platforms that enable us to do what we do online.

Would it be safe to say then that social networking is the joining of any one of the social media platforms that allows individuals, both friendly and unfamiliar, to share information based on personal and professional interests? These two terms might lend to some confusion but as history unfolds, one thing is apparent: social networking and people’s innate desire to connect with one another, created the need for social media.

The Wave of the Seventies Recedes into History

While some see the March 1971 event as the birth of social networking, paving the way for future advancements, such as the Computerized Bulletin Board Systems (CBBS) of the same generation, now outdated and nearly forgotten, others believe the users of CBBSs themselves were the true social networking pioneers. In the late 70’s, CBBSs allowed their “privileged users” to exchange data via phone lines. I use the word “privileged” in the sense that few people had access to CBBSs and the few that did were quite leery of incurring the hefty long-distance phone call charges associated with networking through these “boards”. With these limitations, CBBSs were a luxury limited to those in the computer industry and a select number of educational institutions. Of course, there was a sprinkling of users outside these circles but lacking in their ability to be embraced by the masses CBBSs were quickly replaced by the next wave in the social networking surge. 
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ISPs Bring Internet to the Masses

By providing simple and affordable access to the Internet, the emergence of Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, in the early 90s made social networking feasible for an insurmountable number of people. With this wave of internet access, email, Instant Messaging, and internet forums were launched. Email, cutting-edged technology a mere two decades prior, was now an increasingly favored mode of communication for people who were at one time “email-challenged”.

Similarly, Instant Messaging proved to be a preferred method of communicating online when it appeared on the scene in 1996. Mirabilis, an Israeli-based company, introduced a free instant-messaging tool called ICQ, shorthand for “I seek you”. Quite clever J. Operating from ICQ, users were able to interact with other users in “real time”, as soon as a message was typed, the receiver could read and respond. Simply put, Instant Messaging became the online version of “chatting”.

The Dawning of Social Media Sites

With an ever-increasing presence of online forums, feeding internet users’ insatiable hunger for connecting with one another, a new term had been born: social media. While these earlier platforms could lay claim to birthing social media, many view the arrival of mega networking site MySpace, in 2003, as the true beginning of social media. Allowing users to connect with their friends on a multidimensional platform, MySpace appealed greatly to younger internet users, the bulk of online networkers at that time.

It could be argued, though, that any one of the socially-based sites prior to MySpace planted the seed that would eventually grow into the social media frenzy of today. There was Geocities in 1994 or the Globe one year later, in 1997, or Friendster, the first online connecting of “real-world” friends, in 2002. Regardless of which site you believe to hold the title of the first true social media platform, social media had been born and with the never-ending ebb and flow of the online tides, a new wave was about to crest – Facebook!

Social Networking and Social Media Today

It’s no secret that Facebook is now the Social Media behemoth, overtaking MySpace in 2008 as the number one visited online site. Initially limited to college students, Facebook exploded once it was unleashed to the public. Appealing to a broader user-base, Facebook is nearing 1 billion active users. It’s hard to imagine any one online site or network surpassing this massive number but, just as Facebook rose above MySpace earlier this decade, there are other platforms today, such as Twitter and Pinterest, launching their own social media crazes!

With the birth of the first email, now seeming to have occurred in another lifetime, one thing is for certain – change happens quickly and no one can predict what the future wave in social networking will be. All we can hope to do is ride each wave as it rapidly approaches shore.

What do you think was the true beginning of social networking? Do you have a favorite “new wave” social media platform? Share your thoughts in a comment below:

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