A Brief History Of Social Media

by Brett Borders on June 2, 2009

Social media isn’t really “new.” While it has only recently become part of mainstream culture and the business world, people have been using digital media for networking, socializing and information gathering – almost exactly like now – for over 30 years:

The Phone Phreaking Era (1950′s – Early 90′s)

Early phreaks on “phone trip” to tinker with payphones – image: Mark Bernay (@phonetrips)        

Social media didn’t start with computers, it was born on “line” – on the phone. Phone phreaking, or the rogue exploration of the telephone network, started to gain momentum in the 1950′s. Phone phreaks weren’t motivated by fraud, but rather, they were technophiles and information addicts trapped in a telecom monopoly long before Skype or “free nights and weekends” existed. (Calling a friend in another state could rack up a $40/hr charge.)

These early social media explorers built “boxes“… homemade electronic devices that could generate tones allowing them to make free calls and get access to the experimental back end of the telephone system. Phreaks sniffed out telephone company test lines and conference circuits in order to host virtual seminars and discussions.

Apple Co-founders Steve Jobs (left) and Steve Wozniak (right) phreaking with homemade blueboxes – image: woz.org

The first real “blogs” / “podcasts” took place on hacked corporate voice mail systems called “codelines,” where phone phreaks would hack into unused mailboxes and set up shop until they were discovered and kicked out. You’d call a corporate 1-800 number, enter an extension and hear recorded audio broadcasts packed with social greetings and useful phone phreaking content: hacked calling card codes to make free calls, “bridges” (audio conference call lines), and plugs for other codelines. You could leave your comments and information as a voice mail, and the phreak would likely respond to you in his next update.

The first “tweetup” type social media events were 2600 meetings. I fondly remember my first one in 1993… in the back of a Ft. Lauderdale bowling alley… with lots of fast food, stolen Bellsouth telephone equipment and industrial music-influenced fashion.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS’s) – (1979 – 1995)

The first BBS or electronic “Bulletin Board System” was developed and was opened to the public in 1979 by Ward Christensen. The first BBSes were small servers powered by personal computers attached to a telephone modem, where one person at a time could dial in and get access. BBSes had social discussions on message boards, community-contributed file downloads, and online games.

The early BBSes had no colors or graphics, but with the advent of MS-DOS 3.0, a predecessor of HTML called ANSI was used to make colors and underground online artwork.

In the 1980′s, the social media scene had a very edgy, underground flavor. There were some legitimate BBSes that offered “shareware” only, but a fair percentage of them had secret “adult” or pirate software rooms in the back. Many were strictly underground – dedicated exclusively to niches like warez (pirated software), H/P (explicit hacking and phreaking information discussion), Anarchy (articles on fraud, bomb making, drug chemistry), and Virus code for download. “Handles” or online pseudonyms were the norm. Real names were closely guarded and generally only revealed to real-life friends (or in the newspaper story when someone got arrested).

Commercial Online Services (1979 – 2001)

Prodigy offered a clean-shaven, moderated social networking environment in the early 90s

Online services, like Prodigy and Compuserve, were the first large scale corporate attempts to bring an interactive, “social” online experience to the masses. Online services rose to popularity concurrently along with BBSes and catered to a more corporate and mainstream-home-user kind of set. They offered a safe, moderated environment for social networking and discussions.

CompuServe was infamous for the high cost ($6 per hour, plus long-distance telephone adding up to almost $30/hr.) – but it offered the first online chat system called CB simulator in 1980. The first real-life wedding from a couple who met via real-time internet chat happened shortly thereafter and was featured on the Phil Donahue show. Prodigy launched nationwide in 1990, growing quickly in popularity for its color interface and lower cost.

AOL brought the social features on the web into the mainstream.

Later, America Online (AOL) gained critical mass with aggressive CD promotions and direct mail campaigns. AOL also did one of the most epic product placements of all time in the 1998 film “You’ve Got Mail!” starring Tom Hanks – bringing “social” online culture and romance into the Hollywood mainstream.

The Dawn of the Word Wide Web – 1991

The internet existed since the late 1960s, as a network, but the world wide web became publicly available on August 6th, 1991.

The Well was a Bay Area BBS that evolved into an ISP and web community.

At the beginning of the 90s, internet access was available only to those with legitimate with university / government / military connections (and to hackers). But around 1994 or 1995, private internet service providers (ISPs) began to pop up in most major metro areas in the United States. This gave millions of home users the chance to enjoy unfiltered, unlimited online experiences. Usenet was the first center for most of the high-end discussion – but early internet users were extremely outspoken and opinionated by today’s standards. The first online social media etiquette standards were proposed, and called netiquette, as a reactionary to stop the rampant flaming and keep things somewhat civilized.

By the late 90′s internet forums grew in popularity and began replacing Usenet and BBSes as the primary nexus for topical discussions.

IRC, ICQ and Instant Messenger

IRC was a popular way to chat and share links in the 90s

People have been addicted to “tweeting” their real-time status updates (using hash tags (#) and at-signs (@)) for over 20 years. IRC, or Internet Relay Chat, was created in August 1988 by Jarkko Oikarinen. It was notably used to break news on the Soviet coup attempt during the media blackout and keep tabs on the first Gulf War. Many people stayed logged into IRC constantly… using it to share links, files and keep in touch with their global network – they same way Twitter is used today.

ICQ technology raised many important questions, such as: “What R U wearing?”

IRC clients were primarily UNIX-based… but in 1996 four Israeli technologists invented the instant messenger (IM) system for desktop computers called ICQ . This was quickly purchased by AOL and it became a mainstream hit. IM technology helped developed the emotional lexicon of social media, with avatars (expressive images to represent yourself), abbreviations (A/S/L? = age, sex, location?) and emotion icons (or emoticons).

P2P – BitTorrent – and “Social” Media Sharing

The “Summer of Music” in 1999 after Napster’s debut was an exciting time for music consumers.

Napster… a peer-to-peer filesharing application that went live in June 1999, marked an radical shift of distribution power from record companies to the consumer. I’ll never forget the (unprecedented) technological thrill of downloading an album in .MP3, burning it to CD on an external $500 drive, and playing it in my car. Music started to freely flow across the internet at an astonishing pace, stripped of hype and payola… on the merit of real people’s tastes and personal collections. The online music party raged through 1999 and 2000 (just like the tech stocks), until it was declared “illegal” and Napster was forced to filter out all the copyrighted content.

Competing peer-to-peer applications like Limewire took Napster’s place – until BitTorrent technology arrived and provided a robust, centralized way to share files without being blocked. The Swedish website The Pirate Bay became a cult online destination for “social” media distribution.

Social Networking & Social News Websites

The first social networking website was SixDegrees which let people make profiles and connect with friends in 1997. This kind of interactive, social web application style became popularly known as “Web 2.0” and it really gained momentum with Friendster around 2002-3.. followed by MySpace (2004 – 2006) and then Facebook (2007 -> ).

Digg gives people a constant, community-filtered stream of potent & engaging content.

Slashdot got famous for generating tons of traffic and buzz around its editor-picked stories, but the modern social news revolution took off when Digg gained critical mass in late 2006 and sites like StumbleUpon and Reddit followed. Delicious became popular as a way to share bookmarks of static pages.

The Real-Time Statusphere & Location-based Social Web (2008 – ???)

Twitter is a form of communication that people needed, even though they didn’t ask for it.

The big trend on the web is moving away from static “pages” and into real-time stream of status updates on what is hot and happening right now.

Location-based software will unlock the mobile experience to its full potential.

The iPhone was the tipping point for hardware, a functional mobile web browser after a decade of delayed hopes and false promises from other manufacturers. Location-based social networking sites like BrightKite allow people to use their mobile devices to “check in” at public locations and be seen by other network members who are physically close by, and let people to transcend the awkward social taboos against interacting with strangers in public places.

Google is trying to build an indispensable, real-time social web app with Wave.

What’s around the corner? No one can say for sure, but Google’s Wave looks like a promising new tool to bring productivity to real-time social media… allowing people to actively co-create and collaborate on projects, documents and events… not just announce them.


What’s your history with social media? What were the most exciting moments and milestones on your own personal journey?


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  • http://www.getmoneyenergy.com/ MoneyEnergy

    Nice one! Definitely worth the diggs…. and more. Great resource. Will tweet!

  • http://www.brianchappell.com Anonymous

    This was really well put together Brett.

    I still feel like AOL Chat rooms and the AOL IM service are what really helped push mainstream use of todays live web.

  • http://www.10e20.com/ Chris Winfield

    Excellent, excellent post Brett – thoroughly enjoyable :)

  • http://twitter.com/maayanroman maayanroman

    Agreed and agreed. BrianChappell makes a good point – just reading what little you wrote on AOL brought me back to how ubiquitous it was and how much it did to change the game. Interestingly enough, when AOL first came out I was so young that my mom typed for me when I wanted to discuss scooby doo or ace ventura in AOL’s chatrooms (embarassing much?) Those CDs they doled out were a great marketing technique, it just got so diluted after a while when the number of hours reached into the hundreds.

    My personal history went something like this: AOL -> yahoo messenger (I was heavy into yahoo groups and games) -> AIM (because all the kids at school used it and still do) -> Napster -> Limewire -> Bittorrent and somewhat concurrently IRC for online gaming (2 years of high school spent on counter-strike) mixed with forum whoring on my favorite clan site. Thanks for the nostalgia Brett.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Glad to shed a little social media sunshine, thanks for your support!


  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    No doubt AOL had a huge, huge impact. I think a lot of Americans
    discovered the “fun” of social computing through many of their social
    services through those.


  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Thanks a lot, man. Social media has been a fun adventure, for the most
    part. A lot of cool surprises over the years and it’s amazing to think
    of the technologies and
    opportunities that will likely unfold in the years ahead of us!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    That is an amazing story about your mom helping you chat when your
    fingers were too little to type fast! Very cool mom you’ve got!

    And yeah, it did start to lose some impact when the got to 7,250
    hours ;)

  • http://www.musicdownloadsguide.com/blog/free-music-sharing-files Free Music Sharing Files || MusicDownloadsGuide.com

    [...] The History Of Social Media [...]

  • http://reikihelp.com/blog Pamir | Reiki Help Blog

    So well researched & presented Brett, as usual. I’m so glad we’re past AOL! I didn’t enjoy being stuck in a portal. Give me the web…always prefer open systems.

  • http://twitter.com/SpaceyG SpaceyG

    I’ve got this sudden urge to go up in the attic and look for my acoustic couplers and Trash80. Only thing is I’m so batty from social media by now I’m likely never to come back down.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    I prefer open systems, too… Facebook (walled garden with lots of privacy controls) and ITunes (corporate shackleware) are really a tough pill for me to swallow.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Trash80? I’ve never heard that one… but I have heard the Tandy system of computers called “Tardy” (short for “retarded)…

  • http://twitter.com/SpaceyG SpaceyG

    Trash80 was a Tandy! They handed ‘em out in network newsrooms late 80s/90s. They were used in the field to print out scripts, and then fax the hard copy scripts to a NY desk for editorial censorship… IF you could find a fax machine. Hell, I remember loading pages onto one of those drum, whirl-y gig fax machines! I’m gonna shut-up now least people figure out I’m not really 32.

  • http://glennhilton.com Glenn Hilton

    Great post Brett. It’s really amazing when you stop and think of how far we’ve come since we were kids. If you had of told me some of the things we’re doing now, I don’t know if I would have believed it. Looking forward to seeing what the next “wave” of technology will bring :)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    As a young kid, I used to watch this cartoon “Inspector Gadget” and Penny, the girl character, had this magic computer book with video conferencing. It was pure science fiction at the time, but now it’s called Skype and iChat.


  • http://www.seoptimise.com/ Kevin Gibbons

    Superb post, great work!

    I’ve just submitted this on Sphinn too: http://sphinn.com/story/116344

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Thanks for the Sphinn… glad you liked!

  • http://[email protected] VirtualRaven

    I guess my soical media started w/AOL—lol and so I seriously loved You Got Mail w/Meg & Tom…lol that was sooo me. “Welcome, you got mail”—-YAY!


  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuart Foster

    Great resource and fantastic look back at the evolution of an interesting and dynamic form of communication. Learned a lot by reading this post Brett. Thanks!

  • Guest

    Great article, Brett; I could almost hear a dial-up modem in my head while reading about those early ISPs. Phone phreaking and BBS’s were a bit before my time, but it would have been fun to use them because of the role they played in shaping the Internet and social media as we know it today. But who knows, maybe technology is now enough a part of our culture that it will experience the same cycles of nostalgia and rediscovery that music and fashion do.

    Greg @ iGoMogul

  • http://www.micklanders.com/2009/06/03/a-history-of-social-media/ A History of Social Media | Mick Landers

    [...] Social media seems like a relatively new thing, but it’s really only a new term. Social media has actually been around for decades. [...]

  • http://www.newmediapower.com/ Lorenz

    Awesome, it let me know more about the development of social media during the time i haven’t born yet and didn’t get a chance to surf the net.

    I think Google once again wanna lead and own the social media platform/standard by developing Google wave, let’s see what impact it brings.

  • plato-user

    What, not a single PLATO mention?

  • http://keenpath.com/ Mark Mathson


    Great post. This is what the Internet is all about, disseminating great information. Plus I enjoyed, thoroughly the taken back through time with screen clippings and links of old ISPs, BBS. I fondly recall countless hours of idle times spent on IRC, as well as the excitement of dialing into a BBS. It has been a fund ride thus far, and I too look forward to all the opportunities that await and to be a part of it.

    Best regards,

  • http://janetfouts.com Janet Fouts

    Wow, I feel like I’ve been to the way back machine. People laugh when I talk about Twitter having roots in IRC, ( http://janetfouts.com/twitter-ircs-evolved-little-sister/ ) but you clearly show the permutations we’ve been through over the last several years. It’s been a fun ride hasn’t it? Diggin it.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Twitter is definitely molded from IRC… I think. And in some ways IRC offered a better communications experience, but I think what makes Twitter a leap beyond it is the mobile aspect of it (with text messages and devices).

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I think that Phreaking (and a lot of old school hacking) was just people wanting social media before it was commercially available. I know I pretty much lost interest in it, as did most of my hacker friends, as soon as we got legitimate internet access and could buy cheap calling cards.

    Now definitely people still hack and phreak but it’s a different, darker culture… and it’s more hardcore… because the casual people aren’t drawn into by craving for bandwidth and information.

  • http://MugeCerman.soup.io/post/20620292/The-History-Of-Social-Media My soup

    The History Of Social Media”…

    The History Of Social Media…

  • http://Flipjr.com flipjr

    Great layout of the social aspect of the web and its steady progression. I really enjoyed some of the earlier time lines as it brings back fond memories of the early days (for me, per minute dial-up, ICQ and chats).

    I think I’ll tweet this now! haha…

  • http://janetfouts.com Janet Fouts

    I’ve been reminded more than once that IRC is still active, but Twitter ably fills that communication gap for me. It’s also a little easier to believe I’m really speaking to the person they say they are, and conversations continue long after the first question is posted. This is an exciting time. Things are changing fast and I can hardly wait to see what’s around the next corner.

  • http://www.AskJamesHolmes.com/ JamesHolmesOnline

    Brett -

    This was an interesting and entertaining walk through memory lane. It really challenges the mind to imagine where the social space will evolve. Thank you for this excellent post!


  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    Thanks for reminding me why I get online at all sometimes. I think I’d forgotten, until I read this, your gorgeous walk through technology’s history, and how it’s become the fabric of today’s social media blitz in industry and one’s private (or not so private,) world. I hope you’ll not object to my following you now. BTW, I like your writing style:) Have a gorgeous day, Oh and one more thing…I was wondering, in your bit about the phone phreaking…did you run across anything about “Cap’n Crunch” ? Thanks again for putting this up to read:) When I tweeted this, I think I created a new word #techistory (just the one “h” in it,) and notice the hashmark. I intend for it to go viral ;)

  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    Trash80 stood for TRS80 model I Level 2 computing system…I think anyway. And the TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack…I Think. Ah #techistory (coined that word and pasting it on everything now ;) )

  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    AOL was a portal? No wonder I hated it (and that obnoxious little yellow guy insinuating himself on my system)

  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    QUOTE @maayanroman: Those CDs they doled out were a great marketing technique, it just got so diluted after a while when the number of hours reached into the hundreds.

    The only thing greater than those discs were the tins they came in. It’s one thing to get a free coaster each month in your mailbox, but quite a nicer thing to get a lovely new maroon cigarette case for your end table ;)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    It challenges my mind to think how we will evolve (as humans) under the influence of social media… how is it going to cause our brains to work differently, and how the networking will affect natural selection.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Thanks for sharing! I think social media evolves so fast that it always “feels” fresh, even if it’s just
    a incremental upgrade over the gear we had previously.

    Some stuff I found about Cap’n Crunch while researching this:


  • http://eeki.tumblr.com/ anita

    Had no idea about phone phreaking. Informative, thanks!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Nothing quite beats the thrill of getting new personal messages…. it never gets old (unless you happen to get way too many of them!)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Tell us more about PLATO? I hadn’t heard of it but now you’ve got me curious…

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Mark Mathson,

    Even though social media kind of old, it always pops up in new, improved formats and it makes things feel fresh. I spent a lot of time on IRC when I was in high-school and have some crazy stories from on there… I wish I could tell them but I can’t…

    In some ways I kind of miss those days because now it feels like things are more mainstream (there’s corporate businessguys talking about business everywhere, people use their real names) and not like some kind of secret cyber club

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Oh, damn.. paying by the minute was the worst. I always got free LOCAL calls here in the US but when I graduated college I went to Japan in 1999.. thinking it’d be all high-tech.. but in the rural area where I lived it was a total backwater. They charged me like 10 cents a minuite for LOCAL calls..and my internet bill was like $300 a month (i couldn’t resist Napster) … and it was an outrage!

  • http://www.littmannweddings.blogspot.com MarcLittmann

    “(from the year 2029)…Brett, I remember the good old days of Twitter! I was just a young boy when mom and dad used it to stay connected with all the latest happenings. And Brightkite–they could barely live without it! But to me it seems as vintage as the Atari 2600 would to you folks over 40 back in 2009. We folks in 2029 gave up on social media right after it got to the point that no one was actually talking to each other face to face anymore. Heck, no one even talked by phone. And going over to someone’s house for dinner? Out of the question back then once social media started taking the place of real-life human interaction. But our world now is so much better–we actually spend time together rather than tweeting the contents of our lunches and what we thought about the latest American Idol episode. In case you or your readers were wondering, the Lakers end up winning the 2009 NBA Finals in game 7 over the Magic by 4 points in 2 OTs…take that to Vegas, but at least take some friends along with you to celebrate in person and be with one another, and shut off those pesky mobile devices while you are at it!”

    Brett–great piece! Sorry about the comments above–seems there was a tachyon particle burst that took over my DISQUS account and hacked my intended comments. Please disregard everything above claiming to be from the year 2029. And I don’t know anything about a Lakers victory, either…

    marc littmann photography

  • tdanford

    Great trip down memory lane for me! As I think about it, I’d include CB radio and shortwave as “wireless” social networking as well.

  • http://[email protected] VirtualRaven

    Too many??—i say never, it just starts taking me a week to respond! I miss that digital man hailing me for having received one though ;)

  • http://newevolutiondesigns.com/ Tom – New Evolution Designs

    Nice post. I have already forgotten about AOL, but I still know a few people that use AOL email.

  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    I really wish my phone handled the huge (apparently non-optimised) pics of Woz, Jobs and the Cap’n a bit better, since when I found this in my mail, I wanted to devour every link and the great stuff found there. I have, finally, but “scrolling right” just seems like a bad idea all the way ’round :P However, thanks to your awesome research, it was worth every click to get there:) You’re welcome for the tweeting earlier, and thanks for the right on time response enjoyed seeing the Cap’n like Elvis, in his “younger, skinnier” period, as well as his “older, rounder” one:p Now I’m off to jump on eBay, of course;)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    One of my favorite characters from my phone phreaking days was a blind
    guy who lived in south Florida (305) named “The Visionary” – he was an friendly
    fellow with a lot of time on his
    hands, who couldn’t use computers well due to his disability… but
    had mad skills and connections when it came to all things telephone.
    He was a really deep, well developed,
    insightful person .. a guy who you could tell had a lot of insight
    that “normal” people didn’t… I’ve long lost contact with him, but I
    hope he is well and rocking it!

    I was in the 407 crew (now 561) just north of you!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I think the particle that hacked your Disqus account is pretty smart…. The only “reservation” i have about social media is that it’s too consuming and kind of indduiously anti-social… seems to want more and more attention.. but maybe that’s just the way I use it and the fact that I’m involved in it professionally.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    People like my dad still use AOL. I’ve tried to switch him to Gmail but he kicks and screams like a small child! He pays the $19.95 a month, even though we have high speed wireless too… to avoid the pain of learning a new system!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I think they are definitely social tools… but I had to split hairs… I would say that social media really got started with digital… hard drives, voice mail, broadband, mobile… created the complex infrastructure that really interactive (not simple broadcasts) communication systems require…

  • http://benjaminteo.com.au Benjamin Teo

    Ahh the memories of IRC and ICQ, that was the bomb! I still remember using the internet only for these 2 things, sure has come a long way since then.

  • http://keenpath.com/ Mark Mathson


    I can relate to that as I recall the fun close knit community feel in some of the IRC channels I hung out in. Things have changed, big names are glorifying social media. It is however a natural progression of the medium, in a way that while being mainstream, it still offers pockets of small communities.

    I definitely enjoy your blog and you’ve got yourself a subscriber. Keep it up and enjoy the ride.


  • http://steveplunkett.com @steveplunkett

    OMG.. This is THE BEST article i have seen on the history of social media.

  • http://steveplunkett.com @steveplunkett

    One addition… don’t forget about the butt phone… to get one off the back of a Bell Truck was your initiation to some groups..

  • http://searchmarketingwisdom.com alanbleiweiss

    Disqus sucks. The other day it wasn’t being nice at Marketing Pilgrim now here I had to use IE to sign in.

    Anyhow… this is a great article – I was on Prodigy in the early days, then in 1994 started my own Wildcat! BBS on the FidoNet! OMG UUCP for email, ZModem was THEE hottest fast connection…

    AOL – OMG Last fall I FINALLY got my sister to cancel her $19.95 a month payments to AOL because she didn’t know she could use their web site to get to her AOL email over her Comcast connection and had been paying them all along.

  • bebopdesigner

    Bloody hell! This is absolutely brilliant! thanks a million for posting.

  • http://www.alyssonfergison.com Alysson

    This is the best post on the history and evolution of Social Media that I’ve ever seen. It immediately took me back to the hours I spent using services like ICQ, to uninstalling and reinstalling the disaster that was the AOL software from my computer countless times and to the incomparable joy that came with downloading a seemingly endless number of songs…all night long, as I slept, over a 14.4 dial-up connection. ;)

  • http://www.alyssonfergison.com Alysson

    I’m so glad you said that about Disqus. I’ve had the same experience with it the last several times I’ve tried to log in to it to leave comments on several blogs.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo Brett! What an incredible trip down memory lane that just sang to my heart. You hit every step of the turns and travels all the way to the pot of gold of social media as it is today. I have always wondered how many people saw or felt the connection between things as far back as Phreaking and 2600. It truly was the underpinnings of social media. Oh and BBSes…. amazing that I use to be so amazed by them. Seemed like such community and vibrance… alas a world of wonders was waiting around the corner. Now I agree, we’re staring at Google Wave and seeing what the tidal push is going to bring in. We’ve really come a long way in just 1 year, just seems to be speeding up. Thanks for the trip down memory lane, making me smile and making me say, “mmmmhhhhmmm.”

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Glad you dugg this article. Yes, I remember the “butt phone” or the lineman’s test set. I had one that was given to me by a friend, I honestly had no idea where he got it… don’t ask, don’t tell kind of thing.

    Before that we used to make our own “beige boxes” out of phones from Wal-mart… dress up in black and out our for late of amateur explorations!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I will admit that I saw FIDOnet and and heard the buzz about it but never got around to figuring out who to send the mail to… so I stuck with local people. Wildchat was pretty cool… and ZMODEM all he way!

    Yeah, a lot of people became irrationally attached to AOL… infected by it like a virus

    p.s. I think Disqus ROCKS, in general, but it is indeed very frustrating when they have server problems. Thanks for making the effort to leave a comment in the spite of glitches!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    There was nothing better than downloading music in the time when I was some thing you had to go to the mall to buy!

    It’s been a long strange trip and it’s cool that now this kind of stuff.. they we loved and got addicted to.. it now a big part of what we do for a living …. ;)

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Bebop Designer,

    Thanks a lot.. glad you got a kick out of it.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    What a long, strange trip it’s been!

    And like the Grateful Dead also say, in Saint of Circumstance:

    “I sure don’t know what I’m going for… but I’m gonna go for it for sure!”

  • http://robkellas.com/ Rob Johnson

    Wow that was a great article! I’ve looked many places to try and find the history of social media and this is the only place where I have found a legitimate brief history. Great job and I too am glad AOL is no longer main stream!

    Thank you!

  • http://www.johnsantangelo.me johnsantangelo

    Don’t forget about Usenet.

  • http://spdworkshoppe.com SPDworks

    I think it’s quite interesting, the way in which people that have a disability compensate to the point of brilliance for the “missing” sense or faculty:) I’m sure your friend was a wonderful person to have the chance to know:) It’s also interesting to know that you were, at one time, just north of where I am now:) Technology lets us realise that it really IS a very small planet upon which we all live:)

  • http://www.brian-hancock.com/ Brian Hancock

    Great run-down of the history of social media, and I particularly enjoyed some of the screenshots of old BBS services, Prodigy, etc. Not sure about the comparison of phreaking to social media, but great article nonetheless!

  • http://indiasem.com/2009/06/belated-thursday-roundup-for-the-week-of-53109/ Belated Thursday Roundup for the Week of 5/31/09 : india sem

    [...] Gather ’round the campfire, kids! It’s time for a brief history of social media! [...]

  • http://www.acquisitionengine.com Sean McColgan

    I remember the first song I downloaded via napster – Bjork – Big Time Sensuality on a 28k modem….blew my mind! Awesome post Brett :D

  • http://econs.net/blog/2009/06/06/belated-thursday-roundup-for-the-week-of-53109/ Econs.net Blog » Belated Thursday Roundup for the Week of 5/31/09

    [...] Gather ’round the campfire, kids! It’s time for a brief history of social media! [...]

  • http://seopr.co.cc/belated-thursday-roundup-for-the-week-of-53109-2/ Belated Thursday Roundup for the Week of 5/31/09 | Search Engine Optimization Professionals ( SEO )

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  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    As a former phone phreak, I remember it being all about using technology to “get social”.. (the phone is about as social as it gets) .. to connect and interact with tech people outside of my tiny local sphere and share knowledge…. party lines, conferences, audio blogs, meetups, etc… – but that’s just my opinion and I can see how you might see it as a stretch…

    Thanks for your comments!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders



    When Napster came out I was living in Japan.. and we were pretty starved for some Western music and it was great…. I remember throwing a 70′s disco party with my friends and being able to download all the hits.. and it was just great… instant digital nostalga… and everyone was SO IMPRESSED at the collection….

  • http://brandandmarket.com/ Chris Brown

    GREAT post!

    I remember prodigy & compuserve!! And the first time I was on the INTERNET… wow, what a thrill!

    I think it goes back to CB radios, too. ” Breaker Breaker:” “What’s your Handle, Little Darling” “There’s a smokie just before the exit” “10-4 Good buddy” It was the CB Radio social media connection we made on the way down to Florida on Spring Break in 1979 got us a terrific ride on a beautiful sailboat once we got down to Fort Lauderdale.

  • http://www.procommunicator.com procomkelly

    Phone Phreaking was hilarious because the “major” media companies were so slow to react to the tampering with their networks. I remember a phone company tech telling me the secret numbers and codes to punch into the new tone dialing system to get special messages and the phone to ring back to the house.

    I can say I’m so happy that I moved away from AOL. The unstable analog dial-up connections drove me crazy.

    Thanks for putting together a really good chronology. This is great stuff.

  • http://www.olmblog.com/?p=6693 Online Marketing Blog » Blog Archive » Belated Thursday Roundup for the Week of 5/31/09

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  • http://www.liannefarbes.com/blog/2009/06/read-this-favorite-social-media-stores-from-around-the-web/ Lianne Farbes » Blog Archive » Read This: Favorite Social Media Stories From Around The Web..

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  • http://medialdigital.wordpress.com/2009/06/07/linktipps-zum-wochenstart-13/ Linktipps zum Wochenstart (13) « Medial & Digital

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  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I missed the CB boat. I got one at a fleamarket for $5 but never really got in on the action… could pick up talk but few people responded.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Very cool about the ringback number! Down with AOL!

  • http://www.olmblog.com/?p=6722 Online Marketing Blog » Blog Archive » Friday Recap – Smile, It’s Friday Edition

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  • Karen

    This is a wonderful history. I wished I had remembered some of these examples on my own last week when trying to explain Twitter.

  • http://seoroi.com/about-seo-roi/ Gab Goldenberg

    Heh 2600 meetings in June of 1987 … that was a good time for me. I was being born :D (in June of that year, not at a hacker meeting!)

  • http://twitter.com/rycaut Shannon Clark

    a few additional things you missed:

    Gopher – the web BEFORE the web – gopher clients & gopher search services such as Archie & Veronica were how I found & visited my first webpages in the early 90′s (via Lynx a gopher then early web text only client)

    USENET – the biggest and largest (and still limping along) social media environment for a very long time. I was on it before the early 90′s when AOL opened it up and suddenly it was September/October year round (i.e. newbies flooding in not with incoming freshman classes but all the time) – file sharing in the binaries groups, social networking in the social groups (see Alt.Calahans) and discussions of everything you can now find on the web (and even a few things it may still be hard to find anywhere but USENET). Also newsreaders evolved to include very social features to fight the ongoing Troll issues (strn – or scored threaded read news had complex scorefiles which people would trade to share filters & rules to highlight good engaging content and to “killfile” trolls and spams – think a far more manual Askimet and you aren’t far off)

    Muds, Moos & Mucks. Muds literally evolved into Everquest then WOW. Moos & Mucks evolved into Second Life & other open world building games and environments. But the precursors of both go back to the late 80′s early 90′s.

    Private mailing lists – a bit harder to track but there are many very early mailing lists (some of which are still ongoing) which shaped the evolution of social media. Lists such as Nettime (digital art) and the far earlier FutureCulture are two I was a part of for year (still subscribe to and enjoy Nettime)

    Great history – if still missing parts – and social media predates even phone phreaking – I’ve heard of (but haven’t gotten into the history) of pretty hackerish stuff done over telegraph wires as they arose.

    And of course one of the key but oft forgotten (and still vital) communities is that of Ham Radio operators who have been building their own, private networks and connections for now around a century or so with few signs of stopping anytime soon.

  • ugur arcan

    im confused. i thought classmates.com (1995) was created before sixdegrees.com (1997) so how is sixdegrees.com is first? they are both called “social networking service” even though possibly classmates.com was more limited in reach compared to sixdegrees.com but still… hmmm…

  • jb

    Two memories, both from spring 1985:
    Feb- I’m hanging out in an auxilliary computer lab (rows of dumb terminal) at a Univ Calif campus. By then, the populace there was half geeks doing computer stuff, and half folks like me who used the campus computer as their wordprocessor.
    A girl is typing fast, laughing out loud, essentially asking me to ask what’s up. “I’m seducing my old boyfriend by computer” (whatever the relevant chat system was back then). Ala Pina colada Song, a hit five years before: http://bit.ly/ivBqc
    Three minutes later, a guy bursts in, looks for someone, and sees his ex grinning at him. “OH, It’s you!”, with a mix of annoyance and affection.

    Later, during the anti-apartheid movement, my more computer savvy friends talked about the way the internet chat (and maybe bbs and email system) allowed anti-apartheid campus demonstrators to communicate with each other as the campus sit-in movement for divestment spread through the US in April/May 1985. More interesting was the way that they talked with folks in Germany.

  • http://stana2z.wordpress.com stana2z

    Very well written article.
    Will tweet.

  • http://stana2z.wordpress.com/2009/08/07/sense-and-sociability/ Sense and Sociability « Stan A-Z’s Blog

    [...] website) and found some interesting facts.  Here’s a link to an excellent post titled “A Brief History Of Social Media” by Brett Borders, posted on his website, on JUNE 2, 2009.  Now I have contacted Mr. [...]

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  • Anonymous

    Sweet article! It’s neat to see this stuff in a laid out timeline! It’s too bad you don’t have a photo of the original ICQ where you’d type in code to do things like ping people to see how slow the connection was between you. It was so simplistic and colorless.

    And man Napster was such a treat when it came out! Before that you had to use web sites primarily. I did find one actual program (as opposed to a download site) called Abe’s MP3 Finder that I used to use to search for MP3s but it required an FTP server for most downloads so it was a big pain.

    In your history of chat evolution you should mention how java script was revolutionary for the chat world. Before that most chat rooms were post based which required very fast typing and reading to keep up with the conversations. It was insanity! ;)

    I loved learning about the stuff that even predated the internet going public because I didn’t know about it–how cool!!!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    thanks for filling in the missing history! I remember many of those things too… and my dad was a Ham Radio operator… but I had to draw the line somewhere and make it a “brief” history!

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Cool memories… computer lab seductions FTW! I remember chatting with girls from my own university, who I could tell were currently logged in and in the same lab.. but wondering who they were.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    I don’t know where to find an original photo of ICQ. Old school chat was fun.

    Glad you liked this article thanks for your comments!

  • http://www.ninjafiles.net NiNJADMiN

    dude thi look like it took a lot oferrort. also a litle sidenote that dude inthe pink shrit looks like a character in themidnight express..lol

  • Apronelu

    Twitter is fracking retarded and the users are downright moronic

  • Anonymous

    Very thoroughly done!! I started out in the early 90′s chatting real time on a service called Delphi. THis was before windows so it was a black screen and you had to type dos code for everything you said. But it was thrilling to meet people from all over the world.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    it was really thrilling back in those days. It would make me tingle with excitement of all the new possibilities that were opening up.

  • http://directmarketingobservations.com/2009/08/19/social-media-saturation-yes-maturation-no/ Social Media Saturation Yes, Maturation No. « Direct Marketing Observations

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  • Anonymous

    Why doesn’t Globe.com ever get its props!? They were way ahead of their time.

  • http://www.ninjafiles.net NiNJADMiN

    Nice one m8, plenty of info here lol. Awesome! Loks like its well put together and worth the read thru

  • http://plannerreads.com/social-media-is-old/ Planner Reads » Blog Archive » social media is old

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  • http://www.joeabraham.com joeabraham

    Excellent, excellent stuff. I had no idea!
    Thanks for pulling this together. I’ve already tweeted this out but will come back to it for future reference for sure.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Glad you liked it. Social media has been around for a while, but now
    it’s going BIG!

  • http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/10/the-history-and-evolution-of-social-media/ The History and Evolution of Social Media | Webdesigner Depot

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  • http://blog.shufflepeople.com/ vlectronica

    amazing article. really impressed, thanks

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders


    Glad you enjoyed it. What a long, strange trip it’s been!


  • http://www.xanga.com/CarynW CarynW

    So do my parents! Oh, well, in their 70s I guess it’s enough that they’ll get on the Internet at all. My in-laws, in their 80s, have no computer, and no idea about what this “dot-com” thing is.

  • http://www.telephonefaxswitch.net/ telephone_fax_switch

    This is the great blog, I’m reading them for a while, thanks for the new posts!

  • http://blog.rynge.com/2009/11/creative-relationship-marketing-customer-focused-traditional-and-social-media-marketing.html Creative Relationship Marketing – Customer focused traditional and social media marketing

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  • http://www.canucklehead.ca/ Canucklehead

    wow – I went from thinking I was an ‘old dog’ to realizing I’m but a ‘young pup’ simply by reading a single post. Impressive. Seriously though, stay off my immaculate lawn. Seriously.

  • dwinkle

    I first used the internet in 94, with a $3200 laptop (486dx) my aunt brought home from work. It was boring as living hell and akin to meeting God at the same time. There was no search engine besides Lycos and you rarely came up with results. Most pages had links to other sites, and this is how you navigated, one likeminded site to another. Our 14.4k connection (56k wouldn’t exist for years) cost about $10 an hour, as it was charged by the minute…

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  • http://www.netglos.com/ Photographer

    Great collection!

  • FrankB

    Thanks, this is really helpful :)
    Great post Brett.


  • Anonymous

    First of all great job on the article. I knew from the title I would be interested in what you had found and said about the subject of social media. I am reletively a young person still and I am constant facebook and myspace guy so this was intersting to hear how it all got started. I would have to say that the most interesting stroy was about the phone hacking and basically the invention of social networking.

    One of the biggest things that you touched on was how social networking has helped businesses. In recent years we have seen businesses making facebook pages to promote their business and products. It seems like as technology and in this case social networking has evolved from one thing to the next the world of business has taken advantage of it in any way they could and it seems to be paying off.

    -Samuel Carpenter

  • Anonymous

    Your social media history is a bit lacking in the early stuff. You need to read up on the PLATO system.



    Come to the “PLATO @ 50″ conference at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA on June 2-3, 2010 to find out the real story on the early history of social media. This conference celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the PLATO system.

    Typical user experience on PLATO circa 1973-74: you would sit down to a terminal with a flat-panel gas-plasma graphics display, complete with a touch-sensitive screen. Online you would find multiuser chat rooms, instant messaging, email, message forums, the world’s first online newspaper (with content contributed and edited by the community!), incredible multiplayer games including the first dungeon games/MUDs, space battle games, air combat games, sports games, card games, all sorts of stuff. PLATO was an incredible, and addictive to many, online experience that profoundly influenced all who had access to it.

    It is truly the birthplace of social media.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    Wow.. thanks for the information on this… I wasn’t born at the time of PLATO.. but it sounds like a very legit early system!

  • Anonymous

    Here’s a link to the event page on the Computer History Museum site:


  • Anonymous

    Darn, I never knew all this. Honestly, I hadn’t Googled all this before.

    In an absolutely unrelated topic, I’ve written about how Social Media is actually helping organizations connect better with their targets in my latest blog: http://bit.ly/cLwKjZ

  • Charlie Wood

    Wow, we sure have come a long way from hacking into phone lines. It is quite amazing how technology has developed over the years. With how big the social media market is growing, I could see traditional marketing becoming almost oblsolete. There aren’t as many people listening to the radio because they can download tunes from the internet on their I Pod. People aren’t watching as many comercials because of Tivo, and so on. The internet is only growing, and catering to those using it is growing as well. Companys willing to advertise for you and do the developmental work of on-line advertisements will replace the sections on the radio and possibly even commercials on tv.

    It seems that to keep up with the flow of technology, if you aren’t already using a form of social media marketing, you’re already behind. The pace of improving social media paired with the close connection with customers is turning this form of marketing into the marking of now and will only grow from here.

  • http://rlavigne42.wordpress.com/2010/05/17/a-brief-history-of-social-media/ A Brief History Of Social Media « My Thoughts Enclosed…

    [...] A Brief History Of Social Media Jump to Comments Social media isn’t really “new.” While it has only recently become part of mainstream culture and the business world, people have been using digital media for networking, socializing and information gathering – almost exactly like now – for over 30 years via socialmediarockstar.com [...]

  • clement

    Thks for information sir,=)

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    I needed such an information. Thanks a lot for sharing them here. Definitely useful for me. Keep posting more.

  • Todd

    Yup… I still pine for the days of BBSes…

  • Rose Martinez

    worth the read! thanks!

  • http://www.linxonesolutions.com/blog Jason Cercone

    It would appear that Foursquare has unseated BrightKite as the premier location-based network. Perhaps not in overall size (although Foursquare is creeping up), but in popularity. Towards the end of June 2010, they’ve eclipsed 1.7 million users and at one point were gaining 10,000 new users a day! BrightKite is over 2 million presently, but will it last? With Foursquare bringing the social media gaming genre into a real-life scenario and adding to its popularity boom, it seems like only a matter of time until their network surpasses BrightKite.

    My point is, it’s absolutely incredible how far things have progressed. And this post really brings things to light regarding past “social networking” concepts. It’s nice to see the progression of technology and what’s led up to what we’ve accepted as mainstream today. Great stuff! Keep up the great work.

  • http://invisibleinkdigital.com Invisibleinkdigital

    This is a great timeline of the seminal milestones in recent computing history. The fact that Google Wave has been assigned to the scrap heap just goes to show that nobody can truly know the next big thing in social media

  • http://www.topsarge.com Dan Elder

    You forgot CB Radios (Citizen Band), they were early social communities, and they proliferated thanks to CW McCall (his song Convoy) and Burt Reynolds and his Smokey and the Bandit movies. CB Radio’s, along with its earlier cousin Ham Radio’s, were virtual communities of the highest order.

  • http://www.virtualassistantmoms.com Stephanie Watson

    This was so fun to read, it sure brought back memories from the “good old days!”

  • http://www.peoplebrowsr.com PeopleBrowsr

    This is a nice recap. This is my first time hearing about the explorers of the telephone network. PeopleBrowsr also has well done pictorial history. Check it out http://www.slideshare.net/peoplebrowsr/a-brief-cartoon-history-of-social-networking-19302011?from=ss_embed

  • Bill Engage

    Wow! This is a really well done piece. The news media tends to make Social Media sound like a phenomenon that was hatched yesterday and then grew exponentially. No, it evolved as technology evolved and successive waves of tech entered the main stream. When tech reaches mainstream status people adopt it and often find unplanned uses for it.

    Anyway, I digress. Congrats again on a really well done piece!

  • Poop


  • http://www.crossmedia.com.ar Juan Ignacio

    Muy buen artículo, lo traduciré en nuestro sitio al castellano. Un saludo. Juan Ignacio. crossmedia Argentina.

  • http://socialmediarockstar.com Brett Borders

    muchos gracias!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_SUOTQPCIFKTOYDLQQR4XNYX5FI Lee

    Think of regular media as a one-way street where you can read a newspaper or listen to a report on television, but you have very limited ability to give your thoughts on the matter.Social media, on the other hand, is a two-way street that gives you the ability to communicate too.Boston Market Coupons

  • http://twitter.com/Synergi Synergi

    No mention of Powwow.. It was the first voip type program I used back in the late 90′s..plus chat and a good size community at the time..

  • http://twitter.com/sarahrad93 Sarah

    thank you so much for this article!! it was really interesting to read and very handy, as i am writing a paper on the evolution of mass media.  it was cool to reminisce silently to myself about the different innovations over the years! 

  • http://www.facebook.com/cnanayakkara Chaminie Nanayakkara

    I’m a university student , doing main in Mass communication,I’m making an assignment on “evolution of social media” for Evolution of mass media subject at the university, this article is pretty good, handy and nicely done. thank you for sharing :)

  • http://steveplunkett.com @steveplunkett

    time to update this… more since Google Wave. =)

  • http://www.healthinformationtips.net/ health insurance

    Thanks Brett. Really its a nice article. I am waiting for your next.

  • http://www.facebook.com/csulimay Christopher Sulimay

    Nice article Brett! Im researching Social for a presentation to people in the salon industry.. This is helpful in setting some context to the talk. Good stuff!

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