Thursday, August 6, 2020

In My Footsteps: The Dawning of Social Media

     Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others today are as commonplace as rotary telephones and the phone book were to people forty years ago when it comes to communication. Social media allows all to have a voice and an opinion and makes connecting with friends, colleagues, and strangers easier than ever before in the history of mankind. It seems like everyday a new social media platform is being created and unleashed. However as Reddit, Snapchat, Pinterest, and Twitch become part of everyday life the entire idea of social media had to begin somewhere.

     The concept of social media had been forming as early as 1969 with the creation of ARPANET through the government agency Advanced Research Projects Agency. It was not until 1991 though that the internet itself became publicly available. On August 7, 1991, Tim Berners-Lee, a graduate of Oxford University, first made public his World Wide Web that he had invented in 1989.

     Although America Online became an icon of early internet availability it was actually CompuServe that was the first major commercial internet provider in the United States. It was founded in 1969 and remained a major part of the early World Wide Web revolution with AOL and Prodigy. Prodigy shut down in 1999 while CompuServe was purchased by America Online in 1998.

     Most people, myself included, who got their starts on the internet in the mid-1990’s remembers the classic dial-up modem noise as AOL loaded revealing several happy faceless figures when the connection was complete. As one of five kids between the ages of 11-18 when we first got our Gateway computer and internet in early 1996 it was a battle for screen time and a battle to use the telephone which the computer modem was connected to.

The classic dial-up screen from AOL. (Digital Trends)

     I also remember the mass of free trial CD-ROMs allowing people to go online without commitment. It began with a partnership with Blockbuster Video and exploded thereafter. While they definitely helped bring AOL to the masses the former Chief Marketing Officer of AOL, Jan Brandt, said in 2015 that the company spent more than $300 million on those free trials. The discs were 500, 750, or 1,000 hours and opened up the mid-1990’s to more than a passing fad.

     Kids and adults alike were given the keys to things like Chat Rooms, where you could meet people from all over the world. Granted many of us created wacky screen names for inside the rooms, or for AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), ICQ, and others. Research for school or pleasure became instantly easier with the advent of the search engine. Before Google became the big boss there were others like Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Excite, and Yahoo!

     As research and communication got easier a new outlet for people in the internet age came about and that was social media. It began as a cross between a biography, a bedroom wall, and a school locker. These sites were a way to express individuality while also coming together with like-minded individuals.

    The first true social media site as we’d know them today was born in 1997. It was Six Founded by New Yorker Andrew Weinreich it was the originator when it came to social media. Profiles, friends lists, school affiliations, these were all rolled into one with Six Degrees. The name was a play on the six degrees of separation theory of Frigyes Karinthy in 1929. Weinreich even received the first patent for social media.

     The idea was groundbreaking. The only problem was the timing. In 1997 the Internet was not nearly as widely available as in 2020. Simple things by today’s standards like uploading photos was more difficult as digital cameras were not as common. Ironically more than a million people signed up on Six Degrees yet many of those profiles would remain inactive as some were likely created through free AOL trials that went by the wayside. Six Degrees was sold to YouthStream Media Networks in 1999 for $125 million and closed in 2000. It has been relaunched since but nowhere near the numbers it had before.

The Six Degrees Login Screen (

     After the birth of social media and the demise of Six Degrees the landscape was ripe for a new leader. That came in 2002 with the creation of Friendster. It was intended to be only a dating site but its popularity soared with things like ‘status updates’ and connecting with ‘friends of friends of friends.’ Launching in March 2002 and created by Jonathan Abrams and Peter Chin it took the Six Degrees concept to the next level. It was this site that was my own personal introduction to social media. The swell of new profiles caused major problems for the site performance-wise and that made its reign as the top social media site very brief. These problems were the reason I and many others migrated to what most remember as the first giant of social media: MySpace.

     Coming into existence in August 2003 MySpace was different in that it had public profiles, or at least profile pictures, differing from Friendster being private for registered users, albeit safer in the same vein. MySpacers fondly remember creating a profile and immediately having Tom as their friend. I think I kept him as a friend for a while but I’m sure many deleted him quick like that free album U2 put on your iTunes in 2014. Tom (Anderson) was one of the creators of the site that included music capabilities for your profile as well as band pages. This site was a monster. In 2007 the site was valued at $12 billion.

     In 2005 MySpace had 25 million users. Known as ‘A Place for Friends’ MySpace having public profiles did allow you the ability to check out anyone you wanted to which some certainly did in a nefarious way. Although the site’s parent company being sold to News Corp in 2005 did not immediately start a downward trend it definitely made the site feel more corporate than social. Problems with sketchy people prowling MySpace coupled with an increase in corporate policies from News Corp spelled the end of its reign.

     In April 2008 a new #1 social media site was crowned. Facebook had originally been launched by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004 and began a slow, steady climb to the top. I remember joining in 2007 and any status updates would be ‘so-and-so is...’ Now when my Facebook memories come up from 2007 and 2008 they are just choppy bits of thoughts. For example a memory from August 2007 just said ‘done.’ Very important stuff I was sharing.

The current and former kings of social media.

     As MySpace faded other sites came along including YouTube and LinkedIn which was the first business networking site that launched in May 2003. Facebook has been the king for over a decade with everyone from ages 8-80 seemingly having a profile(it has more than 1.6 billion users in 2020). How much longer will it remain at the top? I remember when I thought MySpace would be the trendsetter forever and it still remains online today but in a completely different setting.

     Will a new kid on the block like TikTok, Vero, Caffeine, or another yet unknown become the next big thing? What was your introduction to the Internet and Social Media? Did any of you have a Six Degrees account? What’s your favorite platform? Mine honestly is Instagram as I love photography. In the future I will definitely do another article focusing solely on those early Internet days!

Helpful Links:


My first eBook in 10 years, In Their Footsteps, featuring the interesting stories of Cape Cod's history, is on sale at

View my previous blog posts: In My Footsteps: Talkin' 'bout My Generation

In Their Footsteps: Cape Cod History - Brad's Soda Shoppe

Photo Prints available here: Smug

Be sure to check out my website: Christopher

No comments: