Skip to main content

The Origins and History of Social Media

4th October 2017
Reading Time
6 minutes

Where does Social Media come from?

Social media in one form or another have now been established for more than two decades, since the Internet was still in its infancy.

We can narrowly define social media as Internet-mediated membership-based applications that allow members selectively to establish formalised personal connections with other individual members and send private messages to them or to personally selected groups of them.

In this they differ from conventional Internet mailing lists, message boards and even chat rooms where all activity is public or to an audience selected by the moderator. These conventional online group communications media had been around since the very launch of the global Internet and even, in more limited settings, before it.


Precursors to Today’s Social Media Networks

Arguably the earliest examples of social media proper were personal Instant Messaging services such as ICQ (launched in November 1996), AOL Instant Mesenger or AIM (1997), Yahoo! Messenger (1998) and MSN Messenger (1999). These were based on a simple, streamlined concept of building a personal social network for real-time conversations with individuals and small groups, and achieved an international user base in the hundreds of millions in their prime. In general it was necessary to know someone’s personal identification (typically either an email address, or a screen name, sometimes known as a NIC) from other sources before adding that person as a contact using these services.

For much of their lifetimes, these dedicated personal instant messaging services coexisted on the Internet with networks run by some of the same parent companies that allowed users to set up and administer their own public or private groups centred around message boards but with varying degrees of other functionality. One of the most sophisticated and flexible platforms was MSN Communities (1999) – renamed MSN Groups two years after its launch, but ultimately axed in 2009. This was followed by the simpler Yahoo Groups, each group offering just a single message board. Neither of these services included instant messaging, which was not felt to be necessary when the service providers already offered it through their dedicated applications.

A third prong to the segmented social media scene of the earlier Internet years was the stand-alone chat room, essentially involving a rolling real-time print-out of comments typed by all users presently signed in to the room. This was an enormously popular facility in the 1990s and early 2000s, with all the major providers of instant messaging services also offering their own networks of chat rooms themed around a bewildering array of different topics. Friendships formed in chat rooms fed across into instant messaging networks. However, the chat room genre eventually fell foul of enhanced sensibilities around the dangers, particularly for children, of mingling with strangers in such an environment, as well as computer security concerns arising from connections via chat-hosting clients; and MSN was the first major provider to axe its thitherto highly successful free chat service in the Autumn of 2003, initially introducing a paid model that achieved a very poor uptake with its user base, and then swiftly pulling the plug on its service altogether.

While the precursors to today’s social media networks were predominantly used for leisure, some savvy marketers saw good opportunities to make use of chat rooms and the opportunities afforded by those forum groups that permitted it to promote their products and services using them.

A late entry to the instant messaging scene that remains highly popular today is the audio-based and video-enabled Skype. Like AIM, Yahoo Messenger, ICQ Messenger and MSN Messenger, it is essentially designed to facilitate private communications between people who have already met through other sources. But its integration of audio and video functionality has allowed it to remain popular with today’s Internet users even while those other former giants of instant messaging have largely fallen by the wayside.


Contemporary Social Media Networks

When we think of social media today, most of us probably think of membership-based websites integrating the establishment of private personal networks with the ability to find and get to know other people whose contact details were not previously known.

Early examples of social media networks combining the functionality of instant messaging services with that of open network-building opportunities included (launched in 1997) and Friends Reunited (2000), the latter specialising in reconnecting old school acquaintances and friends.

LinkedIn, focused primarily on professional networking, was launched in May 2003. Myspace (August 2003) became fleetingly much more successful than any of its predecessors in this genre, before Facebook (open to the general public since 2006) gradually closed the gap and attained market dominance. Both Myspace and Facebook integrated simple message board-based groups with personal social network development.

Twitter (putting its focus on pithy public broadcasts though retaining a core of private networking functionality) appeared in the same year as Facebook went public, with Instagram (focused on photographic posts and exclusively available to Smartphone users) following in 2010, and Snapchat (also limited to access by Smartphone) in 2011.


Were there Social Media before the Internet?

Here is our summary of major developments in the use of remote computer networks before the Internet, particularly in relation to the question of primitive steps towards the development of social media. It is not a comprehensive technical history of networks before the Internet.

Prior to the public launch of the privatised global Internet in 1995, there were some more limited networking systems connecting computer users at a distance. The first to operate on the principle of a distributed network of direct peer-to-peer computer connections without the intermediary of a central computer was Arpanet, developed in 1967 and launched in 1969, but it was created for the purpose of resilient government communications in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States, and in practice, it was used to connect computers at just four universities in the United States, with additional nodes in the UK and Norway added in 1973. Usage by anyone other than military personnel and validated others working on government contracts was expressly prohibited.

While direct peer-to-peer communications in text between users at a remote distance from each other were enabled by this system, and an email program serving Arpanet was launched as early as 1972, the user base was too small for there to be sufficient incentive for anyone to develop fully functional social media applications. Arpanet was decommissioned in 1990.

Another network called Community Memory was launched at Berkeley in 1973, and featured a searchable bulletin board system, making it a primitive precursor to later forum applications. A mainframe computer storing the database was served by a variety of user terminals in Berkeley and San Francisco. It was brought offline in its original form in 1975, but it was relaunched not long after with enhanced network infrastructure, and remained locally popular until the plug was pulled in 1992.

The National Science Foundation launched its own network called NFTNET, that operated using Arpanet infrastructure and system technology from 1984, and continued to run after Arpanet was shut down in 1990. NFTNET provided a crucial bridge to the Internet, because in 1988 it started to promote the development of local private networks that could hook up to its system and therefore ultimately to each other at long distances. NFTNET was closed in 1995, leaving behind just the Internet as we know it, chiefly run by private companies. We are not aware of any evidence that social media applications were operational on NFTNET.

Three private computer networking services used in the United States long before the Internet were Compuserve (from 1979); Trintex (from 1984), later renamed Prodigy; and America Online from 1983.

Prodigy had a more limited user base than Compuserve, but allowed users to send each other email-style personal messages, and featured bulletin boards as well as email functionality, giving it much in common with the precursors to modern social media on the Internet that we discussed above, but at a less sophisticated level of operation. Prodigy survived into the Internet era, and adapted by allowing users access to the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s.

Compuserve was extremely popular in the United States in the 1980s and early-mid 1990s, reaching a user base of 3 million by 1995. From the early 1990s, it offered an online chat service as well as message boards.

America Online started out as a dedicated provider of downloadable computer games, but gradually diversified, developing a very early online chat service called Habitat as early as 1986. By 1992, AOL had been integrated with Windows and was therefore fully compatible with modern PCs, so it continued to thrive in the Internet era, reaching its peak subscriber base in the early 2000s.

In the UK, the Prestel videotext service launched in 1979, and allowed users to access hundreds of thousands of teletext-style information pages at will over the conventional telephone network, using adapted television sets or home computers. An estimated user base of 200,000 had been built up by 1983, with 65,000 terminals in use by 1986. Personal messaging services were operational on Prestel by the mid-1980s, but the functionality was no more sophisticated than that of Arpanet’s email program in the 1970s, and it cannot be deemed to have constitute true social media as we know it today. Prestel was shut down in 1994.

Similar videotext systems to Prestel, many of them using Prestel’s technology, were trialled in the late 1970s and early 1980s in many other countries, including West Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong, and most of them went on to be launched to the public in their respective countries in the 1980s. The French system Minitel became a national institution, with three million terminals operational by 1985, many of them conveniently located in public places, and continued to be highly used into the late 1990s, but chiefly for the purpose of information gathering.

Similarly, we would argue that the existence of group voice chat lines on the traditional telephone network, which were in vogue in the 1980s and early 1990s and did not require the use of text input of any kind, did not constitute proper social media in the modern sense of the term, because of the lack of individual user choice and control over who else was on the line, even though the functionality was transparently social.


Now that you have a good understanding of the origins of social media, explore the benefits and risks of using the platforms in our most popular article here.

Want to succeed online?

GWS Media have over two decades of experience in all areas of online marketing work, from logo design and website design and development to copywriting, content marketing, SEO and email marketing. Contact us today for a chat about your project, and we'll be delighted to see if we can help.

Start a project