Social Media in the 1990s

by Brett Borders on May 19, 2011

The world has changed shockingly fast in the past decade. Technology that was standard just 10 or 20 years back seems like it was from another century.

1. Before YouTube… there was “America’s Funniest Home Videos”

This 90′s television smash-hit, based on a Japanese show, kicked off user-generated video content in America. People submitted home videos of babies with nail guns, dogs on fire, and grandmas falling down, in hopes of winning a weekly cash prize.

2. Before Twitter… there was IRC.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a UNIX-based system of chat servers that was introduced in late 1988. A series of networks and thousands of channels allowed people to “tweet” about various topics, share cool links, and offer technical support. Twitter now offers a somewhat similar experience with a more user-friendly interface and mobile support.

3. Before blogs… there were ‘zines.

If you wanted to delve in the world of personal publishing in the early 90′s, it was pretty spendy. Desktop publishing with Adobe Pagemaker required investing big bucks into a high-end Mac and a state-of-the-art laser printer. Most young people stuck to cutting and pasting scraps onto blank paper and then xeroxing the final product.

4. Before podcasts… there were codelines.

image credit: Killbox

In the 90′s, when digital voice mail was a cutting-edge corporate technology, there was a vibrant voice mail hacking scene. Phone phreaks from all over the United States would sequentially “scan” 1-800 exchanges for voice mail boxes (VMBs) and use default passwords to take over employees’ (unused) voice mail boxes. They would record long informational greeting messages, known as “codelines.” Codelines began with music and “shouts out” to other phone phreaks and then segued into first-generation “podcasts” packed with underground content: freshly hacked calling cards and credit cards, conference calls PINs, and global outdial passwords.

5. Before blogrolls and comments… there were web rings and guest books.


Sites on similar subjects used link out to each other in a promotional circle jerk called a “web ring.” Guestbooks used to be the hot way to leave comments, until bots were developed to harvest the e-mail addresses for the the worst kinds of spam imaginable.

6. Before Facebook… there was the 20th annual high school reunion.

image credit: Alan Light

You’d have to wait in 20 year increments – and buy a plane ticket – to catch up with many of your old friends or see their photo albums. Seriously.

7. Before Skype… there were k0dez and bridges.

Before VOIP and cell phone plans, it was rather expensive to make a long distance call. In some cases you’d pay over a dollar a minute (!) to “reach out and touch someone.” The early-adopters (a.k.a. “phone phreaks”) used home computer software to hack out calling card codes (“k0dez”) to keep in touch. For teleconferencing, phreaks would hack out corporate phone systems’ conferencing nodes, called “bridges.” Epic rap sessions and knowledge downloads would go on for weeks… until the corporate host got a massive phone bill, found out, and shut it down. Check out these awesome vintage recordings.

8. Before eBay… there was the pawn shop.

image credit:Duien

Same questionable items, high fees and unsavory characters – but in an actual, real-life retail location!

9. Before the iPhone… there was the PayPhone.

Before technology allowed people to yak loudly on cellphones in restaurants, they had to go out to the payphone.

image credit:Aaroynx

And if they wanted to make a long distance call, they’d need an entire roll of quarters. The 90′s equivalent of an “unlimited calling plan” was a toll-fraud device called a red box. redbox.jpg Red boxes were modified Radio Shack touch-tone dialers that made the same sound a Bell payphone made when a quarter was inserted. By the end of the decade, Radio Shack had discontinued the device and Bell had upgraded to digital equipment. Thankfully, cellphones were becoming affordable, mainstream communications devices by then.

10. Before BitTorrent… there was Columbia House Records.

image credit:joe madonna

Before DRM and iTunes – people downloaded music from Napster and burned it on a $569 external CD-R drive. Non-technical people who wanted free tracks got tempted by magazine ads that promised “Get 8 CD’s for Just One Penny!” and they were unwittingly signed up for recurring CD subscriptions. Then they got slapped with a huge bill afterwards – the old-school equivalent of an RIAA settlement.

11. Before Craigslist personals… there was the men’s room wall.

Local newspapers would only publish “vanilla” dating ads. So, how did geeks and other shy people manage to hook up? The restroom wall, of course! Gay guys would post phone numbers and set meeting times for man-to-man encounters. Straight dudes would post the numbers of their ex’s and innocent girls they wanted to harass.

12. Before Digg… there was your local newspaper’s “Top Stories of the Year” issue.

You used to have to wait until December to find out hottest story of the year. And the news stories were picked by crusty old editors. Now there’s an infinite stream of high-quality, uncensored content and entertainment – all just a mouse click away.

Isn’t it great to be living in the 21st century?

Note: This article originally appeared on in February, 2008 and it made the Digg home page.

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  • Cora Bullock

    Technology has really advanced. All of these made me remember how simple things were during the 90s. I remember that the IRC is still alive, although most of the internet dwellers are not using it anymore. One thing I also remember from the 90s is that pagers/beepers were a big hit, because you’ll hear it wherever you go. Although it is not used by normal people anymore, it’s still being used by most big restaurants today, which is really convenient for them.

  • Brett Borders

    I remember pagers too. My dad was of the last people on earth to still use them – he held out into the 2000′s! 

  • Urvin Thusu

    I relate it as one of the finest posts displaying comparative analysis.

  • Brett Borders

    Thanks so much! – Brett

  • Brett Borders

    Thanks Urvin… technology has changed but it basically does the same thing we always wanted even before it existed.

  • john doe

    I still use IRC, quite extensively.  There exist vibrant communities on it, and IRC is the best place to get books, TV shows, anime, or just discuss things in real-time.  A lot of interesting things happen in certain +i, SSL-enabled channels, too…

    Twitter is infinitely less useful than IRC.

  • Brett Borders

    That’s cool… I remember a lot of underground action that went on there too.
    What are the most popular servers and nets on IRC these days I should check out?

  • web design company

    Very informative and i
    was laughing to read these historical truth and feeling that nowadays
    we are very fast and technically educated and doing social interaction
    in seconds wow however, your post is very informative and i was unaware that what things we use before these stunning social media sources.

  • zend framework team

    In-spite of it that i pent many hours on social media sites like twitter, facebook, linkedin and google + on daily basis, but before read your post i was unaware about this era of social media. Your post is very informative and i got great knowledge regarding the background of social media. 

  • zend framework team

    In-spite of it that i pent many hours on social media sites like twitter, facebook, linkedin and google + on daily basis, but before read your post i was unaware about this era of social media. Your post is very informative and i got great knowledge regarding the background of social media. 

  • Ritesh Singhania

    it was really funny post . i enjoyed with iit

  • Anonymous

    Enjoyed reading your post.  You brought back the things that were literally forgotten by many people due to our new trending technology..:)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing this post.  You brought back history and the things that people literally forgot because of the latest technology.

  • Adam W Young

    I’m very confused as to how you could miss the most obvious thing of all: BBS / Bulletin Board Systems.
    They were around for a long time, straggling through much of the 90s too.

    On a BBS, people played games together, traded files, chatted with one another in real time and private messaging.. it really was an early version of nearly everything people do on the net today, minus much of the ubiquitous corporate marketing.

  • Haklu

    Ahhh.. Those days were simpler..By the way, good post.