A Brief History of Today’s Social Media, from the pre-World Wide Web to Instant Sharing Capabilities
For many today, the instant sharing of content is so common, that we often forget about the days when connectivity was not available to the general public. With websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, and YouTube, the options for sharing user-generated content are vast, and typically cross platforms. In real time, we can see a pass intercepted in the final 20 seconds of the Super Bowl, and seemingly before the ref can blow his whistle, users are already tweeting about the pass using hashtags like “#WorstPlayEver” and “#WayToGoCoach”. The wide platforms for content sharing can be traced to a time before many people even knew what the internet was. To understand the impact of the media we share today, and our ability to share instantaneously, we should first explore the beginnings of this technology.
In its earliest stages, the first networks were spawned as a result of North American response to the Soviet Union launching a satellite name Sputnik into space. Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958, an agency called Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) was created. At the time, technology had advanced only as far as room-sized computers that were capable of reading magnetic tape or punch cards, and the computers were unable to communicate with one another. The main focus of ARPA was to focus on computer science, with hopes of changing the way technology exchanged information. A network of four computers was developed, called ARPANET. This network was connected to others, and in 1977 became part of a group of networks. The communication between them was later referred to as inter-network connectivity, which was shortened to ‘internet’.
The internet as we know it today began taking shape in the late 1980’s. Early forms of communication over the internet were typically limited to government and military uses. In 1989, the “World Wide Web” was first proposed, giving users a gateway to access the growing network of users and growing content. At this point, sending basic text to a user on another computer was considered advanced communication. In 1991, the World Wide Web went public, and the first web page was created. This opened the door for creativity, beginning with web designers who learned complex codes and manipulated large functions on slow connections to bring a visual to the screen of the end user.
In 1994, the first “blogs” began to emerge on the internet. Blogs allowed users to generate content on the internet for others to view and read, much like the traditional journal had been used. The desire to interact with other internet users progressed quickly through the coming years, and by 1997, America On-Line, or AOL, had prevailed as a leader in online communications, through email, as well as with a platform called AOL Instant Messenger. It is important to note that during this time, connection to the internet was performed by “dialing up” a server using a phone line, at a speed of 56 kbps. To put this into perspective, an average high-speed internet connection today is approximately 400 times as fast.
During most of the 1990’s, sharing between users came in the form of reading what had been entered on a website by the site administrator, or creator. Search engines were small and limited for the most part, until Google was unveiled in 1998, allowing millions of internet users to search an amazingly broad spectrum of sites using key words. However, even with the expansive search engines, users were typically limited to page-specific information. A huge shift in the way we share content came in 1999, with the advent of peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing applications such as Napster. These allowed users to share entire files or folders directly to/from each other, without first sending the content to a website to be hosted. With approximately 70 million users by the new millennium, the internet had made great strides in market penetration.
Over the next few years, web pages were developed that allowed users to share media in a way that had been previously missing. While sites like Wikipedia were useful in topic-specific information, and news web pages could deliver breaking headlines with a story, a new market was emerging. The youthful aspect of the internet drove content creators to find an appealing way to share. And so began the social media that we know today. Photo sharing sites like Photobucket allowed for entire albums to be uploaded and shared with friends via email. Along the same lines, websites like Friendster and Myspace gave users the ability to create their own digital “network” of friends online, with the option to post on “walls” and interact with each other in a whole new fashion. Facebook soon followed, bringing along a host of new features for user interaction. Blog posts began transitioning from long subject-driven posts, to more frequent short posts about individual topics. Twitter joined the ranks in 2006, garnering large numbers of users with the unique appeal of “140 characters or less”.
With the enormous growth of internet users, it was evident that content creation was on a sharp rise. However, all of this content was being generated via home computers and/or laptops. In order to share photos, a user would typically transfer files from a camera to a memory card, from the memory card to the computer hard drive, and THEN to the internet.
Then, 2007; Apple releases the first iPhone. The newfound ability to quickly and easily create high-quality content like photographs and videos was an instant success. Using cellular data, users became able to upload pictures to their favorite social media applications. By 2009, and in conjunction with mobile platforms, Facebook had reached 350 million users, and the instant sharing aspect of media began reaching new heights. Through advances in cellular network availability, users essentially had the option of being constantly connected with content of their peers. In 2011, Facebook reached over 500 million users, and by the next year, they had doubled their user base, which at the time equated to about 40% of the entire internet population.
As social media continues to grow, so must the education of the users. New mobile applications are released daily, all in attempts to be the “next big thing” for content generation and sharing. Photo sharing apps like Instragram, messaging apps like Kik, and music sharing sites like 8Tracks have grown to become competitors of YouTube and Facebook. The growth of social media as we know it in the last 5 years is exponentially greater than the 5 before that, collectively astronomical when compared to the simple blogs in the early days of internet.