Social media history encompasses a far greater period than many might expect. While social media as we’ve now come to know it, might be more closely associated with the likes of Myspace, Facebook and Twitter, people have been engaging in social media activities for hundreds of years. Those earlier forms of social media, however, were far less efficient or effective than modern channels.
When Was Social Media Invented?
When did social media begin? Was it invented, or did the technology evolve over time? There are no simple answers to any of those questions since the origin of social media remains under debate.
Did it start with the birth of the telegraph in 1844, or with what ultimately became the internet in 1969? Or, was social media invented with the introduction of the first digital bulletin boards in 1978? Many, however, argue that social media was invented when the first social networking websites launched in 1997. Ultimately, the credit for social media lies with many innovative thinkers who contributed their ideas over decades.
Social Media Pre-1900
Social media saw its origins in traditional forms of written communication. The earliest methods of communicating across great distances relied on hand-delivered correspondence such as letters. The earliest postal service began as early as 550 B.C.E., and the primitive delivery system ultimately grew, widespread, and streamlined across the following centuries.
The telegraph was invented in 1792, and it allowed personal messages to be delivered over long distances much faster than a horse and rider could carry them. Although telegraph messages were short, they were a revolutionary way to convey news and information. In fact, many claim the birth of social media corresponded with the development of the telegraph.
Developed in 1865, the pneumatic post created another way for letters to be delivered quickly between recipients. Although no longer popular outside of drive-through banking, the pneumatic post utilizes underground pressurized air tubes to carry capsules from one area to another.
Two important discoveries occurred in the final decade of the 1800s: The telephone in 1890 and the radio in 1891. Telephone lines and radio signals enabled people to communicate across great distances instantaneously, something that mankind had never before experienced. Both technologies are still in use today, although the modern versions are far more sophisticated than their predecessors.
Social Media in the 20th Century
Technology began to change rapidly in the 20th Century, and so did the evolution of social media. After the first supercomputers were created in the 1940s, scientists and engineers began to develop networks between those computers, which later would lead to the birth of the internet and the World Wide Web.
The earliest forms of the internet, such as CompuServe, were developed in the 1960s. Primitive forms of electronic communication also were developed during this time. By the ’70s, networking technology had improved, and in 1979 UseNet allowed users to communicate through a virtual newsletter and digital bulletin board systems.
By the 1980s, personal computers were more common, and social media was growing more sophisticated. Internet relay chats, or IRCs, were first used in 1988 and remained popular well into the 1990s.
Before the end of the century, social media as we now know it began to take shape. The first recognizable social media site, Six Degrees, launched in 1997. It enabled users to upload a profile and make friends with other users. In 1999, the first blogging sites became popular for user-generated content, creating a social media sensation that’s still popular today. Providers such as America Online also introduced wildly popular instant messaging apps at the end of the last millennium.
The First Social Media Platform
The first true social media platform launched in 1997 after Six Degrees founder Andrew Weinreich, known as the father of social networking, applied for the first social networking patent. There he described, “a networking database containing a plurality of records for different individuals in which individuals are connected to one another in the database by defined relationships.”
Weinrich named the first website for social media after the “six degrees of separation” theory, which proposes that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation. Six Degrees might not have lasted long as its own social networking site, expiring in 2001, but the idea set the stage for social media’s rapid evolution to come.
Early Social Networking Sites
When the launch of the first social media site let users create online communities and post content, the concept quickly grew in popularity. Early social media platforms like Friendster attracted millions of users around the world, connecting people through shared friends, family members and acquaintances. Of course, social media was about more than making friends, even from its beginnings. Other sites like Hot or Not, for example, invited users to post photos and rate one another on physical attractiveness.
LinkedIn launched in 2002, but a year later social media as we now know it began to take shape with the introduction of Myspace. The Friendster rival gained early popularity among young people, but unlike most of its early rivals, Myspace soon attracted a broader demographic. Myspace featured customizable personal profiles that often included photos, videos and even music. What early social media user doesn’t still get nostalgic for memories of Tom and their top friend lists?
At its peak, Myspace boasted 25 million users, and it was the most visited website in the United States. Unfortunately for Tom, Myspace was eclipsed by Facebook in 2008. It since attempted to rebrand itself as a social network focused on music, but mainly has been relegated to the history books.
Of course, Myspace wasn’t the only early platform to dominate the social media landscape. Sites like Reddit, Tumblr and Flickr established their own niches in the early 2000s and continue to attract audiences today.
Social Media Platforms Today
Once Myspace’s wild yet short-term success solidified social media’s popularity, a host of competitors, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, rushed to join the fray, leading to rapid growth. These sites still remain some of the most popular social media channels today. Other platforms like Spotify, Foursquare and Pinterest also launched to fill various social networking niches.
The introduction of smartphones and other mobile devices for digital communication meant that social media platforms were in the palms of users’ hands at any time and practically any place. Today, there are a tremendous variety of social networking sites, and many of them can be linked to allow cross-posting. This creates an environment where users can reach the maximum number of people without sacrificing the intimacy of person-to-person communication.
Now that social media is cemented among the population, the data generated by its users can be just as valuable as the engagement between them. Organizations utilize that data in their social media marketing efforts, and U.S. marketing professionals spend $40 billion each year on promotions. This demand has given rise to influencer culture over the last decade, and those with the most followers on TikTok, Instagram and other popular social networks can earn money for their digital marketing efforts as they create networks with the online community.
Brief Histories of Popular Social Media Sites
What are the histories of some of the most popular modern social media outlets? How did major players like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram contribute to today’s online social media landscape? Who founded Pinterest, and how did YouTube originate? Read on for the answers to these burning questions and learn a brief history of social media sites.
Launched in 2004, Facebook began as a social media site for college students. Created by Mark Zuckerberg while he studied at Harvard, Facebook soon began to gain popularity throughout the collegiate community and beyond to overtake other top social networks. By the end of 2004, it already boasted more than 1 million users.
Today, more than 3 billion people around the world use Facebook to form business and personal connections with like-minded individuals. Due to the platform’s massive success, its parent company, now named Meta, has made significant acquisitions and remains a force in the realms of communications, media and pop culture.
Launched in 2005 as a video-sharing platform, YouTube has grown into a popular social media site where users share content including how-to videos, recipes and humorous commentary. YouTube was created by a group of former PayPal employees after a fruitless search for a video-sharing website.
With the upload of the first YouTube video, “Me at the Zoo,” a phenomenon was born. When Google purchased YouTube for $1.65 billion in 2006, there was no doubt that video would be the content of the future. Users around the world spend about 1 billion hours every day watching them, the equivalent of about 5 billion video views daily.
Founded by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass in 2006, Twitter changed the social media landscape as a microblogging platform with a maximum of 140 characters per post. Twitter’s popularity as a microblogging service skyrocketed in 2009, and it saw its number of unique visitors increase by 1,300%.
Twitter found financial success when it introduced sponsored advertising. Its popularity among journalists and activists led to Twitter’s role in both movements and controversies over the years. Its precise future remains in question since Twitter’s somewhat chaotic purchase by entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Created in 2010 by founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, Instagram originated as a photo and video-sharing service, although the social media site also has evolved to become a community-building platform. Instagram’s popularity spread like wild wire, and it reached 1 million registered users within just 2 months of its debut.
Purchased by Facebook in 2012, Instagram has expanded its list of features to include live video streaming and shoppable posts. Today, Instagram boasts more than 1.2 billion users, and it’s expected to add at least 50 million more by 2024.
TikTok first made its mark on the history of social media when it launched in 2016. Originally released only in the Chinese market, TikTok became available around the world in 2017 and 2018. The short-form video hosting service became extremely popular among social media influencers, who utilized the opportunity to create awareness of their brands among TikTok’s active users. Now available in more than 150 countries, TikTok is now the leading destination for short videos with more than 1 billion users.
Stanford University students Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown and Bobby Murphy introduced Snapchat in 2011 after initially pitching the concept during a product design class. The idea was for a photo-sharing social media site in which messages are deleted automatically after a set period of time, and fellow students called it terrible.
Fortunately for the founders, their classmates were wrong. Just one year after launching on Android, Snapchat users were sending 20 million snaps every day. Just a couple of months later, that number was up to 50 million. Today, 363 million people, especially young adults, use Snapchat each day.
The gaming community has its own social media platform in Twitch, a live-streaming service where users broadcast themselves as they play games in esports competitions. Twitch also features music broadcasts, creative content and other live streams.
Introduced in 2011, Twitch started as a spin-off of the now-defunct general-interest streaming platform Justin.tv. By 2014, Twitch established itself as the fourth-largest source of peak internet traffic in the United States. Later that year, Amazon acquired Twitch for $970 million. Twitch now boasts more than 140 million unique monthly users.
A social publishing site open to a wide array of stories, ideas and perspectives, Medium was created in 2012 by Ev Williams, who was one of the founders of both Twitter and Blogger. Williams developed Medium to publish content longer than 140 characters as an alternative to Twitter.
While its authors remain a mixture of amateur writers and professional journalists, Medium has heightened its focus on independent submissions. Medium now offers its contributors a massive audience and extensive reach with between 85 and 100 million monthly active users.
Pinterest was founded in 2010 by Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra as a visual discovery engine where users bookmark images, creating virtual vision boards. Initially available by invitation only, Pinterest launched for the general public in 2012. The same year reports that Pinterest had achieved 11.7 million unique U.S. visitors made it the fastest site ever to surpass 10 million unique visitors. By 2022, Pinterest boasted 431 million active users.
University of Virginia roommates Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman founded Reddit in 2005 after the duo received $100,000 from Y Combinator to work on this project. They envisioned a place where users could share personal stories, discuss topics of interest and vote for the most popular content.
The site soon took off among younger users who appreciated the forum to share ideas. Publishing juggernaut Conde Nast acquired Reddit for between $10 and 20 million in 2006. The social media site continued to grow in popularity, and by 2020 it had 430 million monthly active users.
One of the earlier social network platforms to make its debut, LinkedIn launched in 2003 as a channel for business professionals to connect for enhanced career opportunities. Users not only rely on LinkedIn to network with business acquaintances, past coworkers and old schoolmates, but the platform now serves as a leading resource for job seekers and recruiters, boosted by its premium memberships. Showing no signs of slowing down in its third decade, LinkedIn boasts 875 million members in more than 200 countries around the world.
Understanding How Social Media Began
Social media users around the world rely on a plethora of platforms to make connections and engage with online communities. Still, social media didn’t get its start with Instagram, Facebook or even Myspace. The social networking activities we engage in today have their roots in some of the earliest forms of mass communication. Those building blocks include traditional mail, telegraphy and of course the birth of the internet.
Where will social media take us into the future? Will we see increased social media marketing, virtual reality and increasing breaches on our privacy? Will micro-blogging dominate, or will future social media users demonstrate a preference for longer-form content? How will video influence future social channels, and what role will social media play in future world events? Only time will tell.