When trying to describe the history of online social networking, it is easy to get bogged down in dates, inventors, or even the technologies such as TCP-IP, HTML and packet-switching that make the Internet work. The history of the Internet is a fascinating story of various technologies that truly changed the world. From its beginnings within the U.S. Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA), to the invention of the Web by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in France, in 1991, the Internet has revolutionized the world.
The earliest form of the Internet was only social networking in the most loose of terms. It was initially designed to be a scientific networking tool. While the researchers used it for online conversations and other "non-official" purposes, it was not designed for such things. The first true online group, designed purely for social purposes, was arguably the one formed in 1985, before the Web itself was created: a group called the WELL.
The History of Online Social Networking Begins in a WELL
The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link was created to provide "a literate watering hole for some articulate and unpretentious thinkers" - in other words, not to sell anything, not to gather one particular belief system or group together, but just as an online place to discuss whatever the members wanted to.
Members were what made the WELL such a special place, and this is a truism for every successful social networking site since then. It was different than pioneering web "communities," such as Tripod or GeoCities, because it was not about staking out real estate on the web, it was all about the conversations between artists, writers, scientists, and just plain folks who had something to say. The archives of the WELL have become invaluable to historians of the philosophy of the late 20th century, simply because of the unfettered thoughts of people that were expressed there.
Why Did the WELL Decline? And What Came Next?
What makes a social networking site different from other kinds of sites is the fact that it is driven by the content, and the interactions of its members. The challenge, therefore, was to create an environment that would enable people to do those things easily and efficiently. In effect, the success and failure of online social networking sites were based on how well the designers got the computer out of the way, and just let people express themselves.
Friendster should have been the preeminent social networking site out there. With plenty of money in venture capital and a visionary leader, it offered many of the same services that are now offered by the big powerhouses of social networking such as Facebook and MySpace. Unfortunately, early on it was plagued with many technical difficulties that made it difficult, if not impossible, for the users to actually interact. As a result, as much as they may have liked Friendster, they found other services where they could communicate with each other more easily.
Another aspect of social networking that came about as a bit of a surprise was the desire of people to communicate, not only through words (as on the WELL) but also through pictures, music, and video. At first, social networking websites began offering these as features of their sites, but at a certain point they began realizing that they were reinventing the wheel, since online media sharing sites such as Flickr, Xanga, and YouTube were already offering these features. Instead of trying to create a "gated" online community (such as AOL.com), the most successful social networks discovered that by cooperating, and offering the majority of their services for free, they can attract a more dynamic and supportive client base. This is why you can click a button on your Facebook profile and feature a video you've found on YouTube, or why your can configure your MySpace profile to play music acquired via Rhapsody.
What's Next: MicroBlogging
The future of online social networking is a leaner place, led by pioneering "micro-blogging" services like Twitter and Tumblr. These have taken the virtue of easy, quick communication to an extreme - with features like updates via cellphone, and a limit of 140 characters to any text. They are also tied into more robust services through the technology of Really Simple Syndication, so that a new picture put up on Flickr can be automatically listed on Twitter, and a new Twitter post will automatically post on Livejournal.
As more and more people keep "living out loud" through their social network, concerns about privacy and too much information are often discussed. But the same drive that led people to move from communicating with grunts to communicating with words seems to be alive and well on the internet, and the future looks to be ever more interconnected.