From UseNet to Google+: A brief history of social networking

While Facebook shares seem as volatile as anything, one is left questioning how valuable social networking really is. As the poet and philosopher George Santayana once said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I think its time that we take a good look back at how social networking has developed on the internet since the days of yore.

Email, IM and the UseNet

Many people think that social networking is what defines web 2.0, but in reality the entire internet has been designed as a social network, facilitating connections and communications between people and allowing them to discover each other. I still think of some of the oldest tools on the internet as forms of social networking. Email allows me to communicate with people I know, but just like most of the social networks around today, it also allows a very large number of commercial entities to directly send me information that I may or may not be interested in.

We’ve also had Instant Messaging for yonks. In fact, many of the features like video conferencing, whiteboarding and desktop sharing were around right back in the mid-90s with the launch of CU-SeeMe and Netscape’s CoolTalk. But modern social networking services also allow us to find people with common interests or backgrounds. That’s also not very new — the UseNet allowed you to subscribe to news groups that dealt in all sorts of particular and often peculiar topics of interest.

Similarly, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) provided many channels that allowed you to meet people of a similar mindset on the internet. All of these tools provided the groundwork for what we now call ‘social’. The main thing about these technologies is that very few were heavily monetised. That’s quite important, because it shaped how people think about the internet as a whole. Mostly, people expect many of these basic tools on the internet to remain free.

Welcome to Geocities

When the web started to get popular, there were numerous start-ups that took advantage of the opportunity to host personal web pages. The biggest name in this game was Geocities, founded in 1994. Nearly everyone I knew had a Geocities page at one point. Geocities defined social in a new way, by creating ‘communities’. That meant that when you signed up at Geocities, you selected a virtual-city that you would belong to, which usually helped to define your interests or the types of things that you would include on your web pages. You belonged to a neighbourhood and you could easily visit other pages within your community.

When Yahoo bought Geocities, it immediately tried to turn it into a revenue-generator. The easiest way to do this was to sell advertising, which would be dumped onto your pages for all to see. If you wanted to get rid of the adverts, you paid for a premium account. While many of Yahoo’s practices were not widely appreciated at the time, it also helped to show that there were potential revenue streams within online social communities. In fact, when Yahoo finally closed Geocities in 2009, it hosted more than 38-million user-built sites and was the third most popular domain on the internet. While Yahoo struggles to find its feet in current times, it is hard to imagine how close it was to being the Facebook of the time.

Classmates and Six-degrees

None of these technologies so far had worked around connecting people in the same way that they were connected in meat-space. In 1995 came along and turned all of that on its head. By connecting people who went to school together and providing them with a means to get in touch and communicate, a revolution was born.

Classmates had hit on one of the most important parts of building an online community: people are looking for people they know. Classmates almost went public in 1997 when it had reached the 50-million user mark. But it withdrew its IPO due to poor market conditions. In reality, Classmates had the potential to dwarf Facebook and it had the market in the midst of the bubble. Now, Classmates is still running, but has lost popularity in the wake of the next big thing.

Next to Classmates, Six-degrees defined the future of sites like LinkedIn. Often we want to meet people based on the people that we already know. In 1997 Six-degrees appeared on the net and quickly garnered the following of a few million users, myself among them. Once again, the tale ends poorly. While the initial uptake looked promising, the technology struggled to catch-on in the mainstream. Six-degrees shut down in 2000, with its founder stating “We were early. Timing is everything.”

From Friendster to MySpace

The arrival of Friendster on the internet in 2002, heralded the beginning of a mass-movement to build the ultimate social networking site. Friendster looked set to grow from the start, gaining more than 3-million users in the first three months. Its design was based around the idea of building ‘circles of friends’, very similar to the concept used in Google Plus.

Friendster quickly became the darling of the press, with Jonathan Abrams (its founder) appearing on many magazine covers, a bit like Mark Zuckerberg does today. Google offered to buy Friendster in 2003, but was turned down as the site started to catch on. But Friendster quickly found itself battling growing competition mounted by new-kids on the block like MySpace and ultimately Facebook. Friendster is still running, but is valued at a pittance of its 2003 worth.

Then came MySpace. MySpace was favoured by new musicians trying to promote their music, and became a hangout for millions of people. MySpace followed the Geocities methodology of providing space where people could create their own stylized web pages and share information. MySpace was purchased for US$580-million in 2005, by News Corporation. By 2008 it had over 76-million US visitors alone. But as with all of these social networks, time was running out.

MySpace quickly became a social-networking graveyard. Last year, it was sold to an online advertising company for US$35-million. Today visiting a MySpace page often feels like you are looking at a snapshot in time. Comments from 2010 are about as current as you will get.

LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+

LinkedIn beat Facebook to the market by nearly a year. Its entire focus was dedicated to networking business colleagues and using social networking features to drive business communications. LinkedIn currently has more than 161-million subscribers and surpasses MySpace in traffic by a significant order of magnitude.

It’s also showing incredible growth, with LinkedIn claiming that it’s growing by two members every second. It’s also making a lot of money. Last year, it earned more than US$154-million in advertising revenue alone. LinkedIn jumped onto the stock exchange in January 2011 and unlike Facebook, shares seem to be going from strength to strength. Its shares rose 9.5% to US$83.68 in pre-market trading at the end of last year. In the first quarter of this year, LinkedIn raked in US$188.5-million in revenue, most of which it used to purchase SlideShare, on online presentation viewer. LinkedIn looks hot for a while still and set to grow. The question that should be sitting at the back of your mind now is ‘for how long?’

Facebook is the big-daddy of social networks. Or at least it has been for a while. Launched in 2004, Facebook arrived on the scene with a vengeance. It has seen unbelievable growth. This year, Facebook announced that it had over 900 million active subscribers. One of the keys to Facebook’s success is the way in which it has pushed into the mobile market.

More than half of its current subscriber base accesses Facebook via a mobile device. Facebook has also geared itself toward capturing the interest of younger online users, with more than half of its users aged under 35. Facebook is undeniably one of the most powerful forces in the social networking world today. The Facebook IPO was one of the hottest tech-news topics this year. The IPO raised US$16-billion, making it the third largest in U.S. history.

That news didn’t come without a few storm-clouds. Currently Facebook is under investigation following claims that weakened growth forecasts were not made available to all shareholders. Facebook has dealt with a lot of controversy in the past and has managed to sidle through relatively unscathed. It remains to be seen whether Facebook really will dominate for that much longer.

Google+ came along last year as a breath of fresh air in the social networking world. However, the market is already saturated with social networks and one lesson that we’re all learning is that social networks only take off if enough people use them.

Google+ is no dwarf in the game though. Google is projecting 400-million users by the end of 2012. The problem with that though, is that Google+ users are spending about three minutes a month on the site, compared to the whopping 7.5 hours a month that people spend on Facebook. Google seems to have everything it needs to build the perfect online community.

Half the world uses Google for email. Its got its own Instant Messaging and Video Chat services. YouTube is in the fold. Calendaring, documents, photo-sharing, and now Google Drive to store pretty much anything you can think of. Google knows that there is money in the social networking market, so its working hard at getting a slice of the pie. That’s probably one of the biggest drivers behind the changes to its privacy policies earlier this year.

Even while Google+ remains a ghost town, Google could still topple Facebook in the near future. That said, despite huge capital investment and massive user bases, history has shown that even very successful social networks can fail.

The future

I’m not going to make any big predictions about the future of social networking. This market is way too fickle to pin down. What I am interested in is how each social network has come along and taken up ideas from predecessors and built upon them. Looking forward, I think we need to look back down through some of the technologies that we have had around for a long time now, and consider how they can be used better within our current socially oriented framework.

I’m thinking back to things like NNTP that drove the UseNet, to the P2P software that is the flagship of piracy but also the ground for many useful networking tools, to security technologies like PGP and SSL to secure, encrypt and validate the things that we say and do online.

Social networking sites and services come and go, but their success is dependent on innovation. The social networking giants of today may be gone tomorrow, but they will only open the door for new services and I believe that if we keep looking back we will see the gaps that these services will set out to meet.



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