What is Social Media? The Rise of the Connected World

By now, most of us know about social media, even if we don’t use it. But what is it exactly? We’ll look at the origins of life before Facebook and the meteoric rise to what social media has become today and why it is gaining more popularity.

Defining what social media is can be challenging and as there are varied opinions about how it should be classed, particularly as it has grown into what we know today.

Humble beginnings

Social media networking quite possibly has roots in 1837 with the advent of the electric telegraph, connecting two railway station rooms at Euston and Camden Town, yet experts stay divided about whether it should be included under the social media tag.

Some say that social media is about connecting a network of people, in which case, the telegraph would be part of it. The majority says that is too broad a description and that social media is about ‘websites and applications that enable users to create and share content or to participate in social networking’. This includes sharing ideas, information, messages and videos, which quite obviously wouldn’t include the telegraph.

Regardless of where the telegraph sits, it is certainly a stepping stone to what we have today.

Fast forward to the 1960s and 70s

In 1960, The University of Illinois developed PLATO ((Programmed Logic For Automatic Teaching Operations). Many things we use today, such as forums, chat rooms, email and instant messaging system concepts, were developed on PLATO and even some multiplayer online games into the 1980s. PLATO’s Talkomatic was one of, if not, the earliest chat rooms. Plato ran for over forty years until the last system shut down in 2006.

ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was first seen in 1967 and was developed to help people access computers and as a better way to communicate for the military. This involved linking computers that were at Pentagon-funded research institutions via a telephone line.

ARPANET, aside from creating a connected network of computers, also created computer graphics, including flight simulation and others.

An article named ‘The Computer As A Communication Device’ published in 1968, in a journal named Science and Technology, gave a very bold statement. “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face-to-face”.

The world now had their first indication about networked computing and eventually, ARPANET evolved into the internet as we know it- a global system of interconnected networks. (Not to be confused with the World Wide Web which came later).

By 1971, the first email had been sent by Ray Tomlinson, a computer engineer, to himself as a test. The email was born!

By 1979, the Usenet platform was built by two graduate students from Duke University. It was intended for academics to exchange files and messages with colleagues through a network. This method soon spread and was soon being used by people posting news on various subjects. Usenet is significant in history because it gave rise to what we know today. It started the use of many terms we still use such as SPAM, FAQ, and emoticons (today’s emojis) became popular through use on Usenet. Usenet is still going to this day.

The World Wide Web

In 1989, a British scientist called Sir Tim Berners-Lee laid out his vision for The World Wide Web. His boss at the time had thought it merely ‘vague but exciting’ and, during September 1990, allowed Tim the time to do more work on it.

Within a month, Tim had written the three technologies we still see today:

  • HTML- HyperText Markup Language; for writing code and building web pages
  • URI/URL- Uniform Resource Identifier/Locator; a unique address for each web page
  • HTTP- Hypertext Transfer Protocol; used to send and retrieve web pages

Berners-Lee very soon realised that it should be made available to everyone and for no fee and stated

“Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

In April 1993, the decision to make it free for everyone was announced and the world was changing.

Social Media Sites

By May 2020, a survey called the Digital2020, held by wearesocial.com says that there are currently 3.8 billion social media users. This has been magnified during the Covid-19 pandemic, as more people turn to technology to stay connected.

Six Degrees is widely touted as the first social media networking site, launched in 1997. It had many of what we use today such as a profile and friends list. At its height, 3.5 million people were using Six Degrees. The site was shut down in 2001.

Friends Reunited was visualised by husband and wife, Steve and Julie Pankhurst and friend Jason Porter in 1999 and became reality in 2000. It was the first social media site in Britain to gain recognition and importance. The aim of the online social networking site was to reconnect friends from places such as school, university, workplaces and the like. There was also a sister site Genes Reunited, whereby users could combine family trees and identify common ancestry.

ITV bought Friends Reunited in 2005 for £120 million. Even then, employers were using the site to screen potential applicants for vacancies in their company, as they continue to do today. In 2007, UK traffic growth was at a lowly 1.2%, compared to Facebook’s 2393% growth. After losing almost 50% of users by 2008, Friends Reunited dropped the annual subscription fee of £7.50 per annum, but to no avail.

Brightsolid bought Friends Reunited, with the sale completed in March 2010, for £5 million; a fraction of what ITV paid in 2005. In 2013, Brightsolid was rebranded and Friends Reunited was no longer considered necessary and in 2016, the site closed its doors after 16 years.

Friendster launched in 2003, also allowing users to sign up with an email address, develop a friend list, and share videos, photos and messages. In 2011, Friendster was redesigned, as an online gaming platform and reached over 115 million people users. The services were suspended in 2015 due to the ‘evolving landscape in our challenging industry’.

LinkedIn was also launched in 2003. Aiming to serve the professional business community. Employers and job seekers alike post job vacancies and C.V.s.etc.In December 2016, Microsoft acquired LinkedIn and by May 2020, the company boasted of having over 690 million users in over 200 countries. LinkedIn is still going strong today.

MySpace. 2003 was a busy year for social media, with another launch, called MySpace. This site proved tremendously popular and had the largest number of users over other social networking sites between 2005 and 2008. MySpace has been through a handful of acquisitions, the highest being $580 million paid by News Corp in 2005. Many believe that its $900 million advertising deal with Google was the beginning of MySpace’s decline; users felt overwhelmed with adverts and found it increasingly difficult to use. Although the site has fallen out of favour, compared to other competitors, it still runs today.

Facebook soon followed on the heels of others. Launched in 2004, Facebook was initially for students of Harvard and soon spread to other student faculties. By 2006, the platform was made available to anyone over the age of 13 years old, friends and family alike. By 2008, Facebook had earned the title for being the ‘Most Visited Website In The World’.

By 2012, the social media site had over a billion users. The same year, Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion and in 2014 bought WhatsApp for $16 billion.

It is still one of the most popular social media platforms, ever-evolving with the times and highly accessible to all ages. According to Omnicore, the statistics in 2020 show Facebook as having 2.5 billion active monthly users.

Fun fact- the Facebook ‘like’ button has been pressed 1.13 trillion times!

YouTube began its online video streaming service in 2005, was bought by Google in 2006 (for $1.65 billion) and is still hugely popular to date. The platform allows anyone to upload, share and view videos, from music to ‘How To…’ videos. The majority of what you can view on YouTube is free but it also offers subscription-based channels such as ad-free music and film rentals.

Twitter announced its arrival in 2006. Twitter was unique in that you could connect with celebrities, and others, sending a message (a ‘tweet’) consisting of 140 characters. This policy was changed in 2017, when the character allowance doubled for most, excepting China, Korea and Japan. There are 330 million active monthly users and Twitter is currently valued at $24.6 billion, say Omnicore.

WhatsApp began in 2009, founded by 2 ex-Yahoo employees. WhatsApp is a cross-platform app, that allows users to send messages, voice recordings, make video calls, share images and so much more.In February 2014, WhatsApp was bought by Facebook for $19.3 billion. One of the biggest appeals of WhatsApp is that it is free for everyone and you can do so much with it.

Instagram hit us in 2011 and has certainly contributed to the rise in selfies! Initially, Instagram focused on photo and video sharing, with photos being restricted to a square frame, which changed in 2015. Instagram grew extremely popular very quickly, reaching over a million users in two months. This social media platform is now well known for its influencers. Omnicore’s stats show that 89% of people believe that Instagram is the most important social media channel for influencer advertising and that Instagram has over 1 billion active users every month!

Snapchat arrived on our smartphones in 2011 too. Snapchat differed from the other social media platforms in that you could share a picture knowing it would soon disappear. The app has since evolved and now allows ‘stories’ to be shown for 24 hours. With filters, effects and text, Snapchat soon became another firm favourite, particularly with the younger generation.

TikTok was started in September 2016 and is a video sharing and viewing platform. Videos can be from a few seconds up to sixty seconds, and generally involve music and dance crazes. These videos can have added filters and be sped up or slowed down. Within three years of launching, TikTok had 800 million active users!

Why is social media so popular?

They are free and very accessible and easy to use, particularly with the launch of mobile apps.

Humans naturally have an instinctive need to connect and be part of a ‘community’, and this has been the case for thousands of years. Social media provides this without even having to leave your house!

Social media allows many to have a ‘voice’ where they may not usually, outside of that realm. This is especially true for people that don’t have access to freedom of speech in their country.

It allows people to collectively stand up for what they believe in, creating a larger ‘voice’.

Many use it to catch up on worldwide and local news.Others like it for the entertaining content (such as memes) on there, knowing that sharing may brighten someone’s day.

Some simply like the attention that comments on a selfie will bring!

It’s a fantastic way of staying in touch with friends and family far and wide- even more crucial at this time during the Coronavirus pandemic. Seeing loved ones’ photos when you can’t be there is a great feeling!

Social media is an excellent tool for tracing people that you have lost contact with over the years. Many friendships (and relationships) have been rekindled because of this.

It can allow a degree of anonymity if you have queries that you feel you can’t ask those you love. There are many groups on these platforms that can answer a question or help someone realise that how they feel is ‘normal’. Such groups can be extremely informative.

They are a great way to meet new people; social media has opened the door for thousands of people, who can’t socialise in what we class as a ‘traditional’ way, whether due to physical or mental difficulties.

Finding people with the same interests as you has never been easier- there is a group for everything, from cute kittens to photos of badly stuffed animals to rating someone’s meal! On a more serious note, there are many groups dedicated to helping people with health issues too, in any form. There is a wealth of knowledge out there from people that suffer the same.

There is a social media platform for just about everyone, young or old and no matter where you live. Snapchat and TikTok are more popular with the younger generations, whereas Facebook and Twitter suit all ages, as does WhatsApp.

One last thing to note, with the advent of global sharing, fake news is bigger than it has ever been. These pieces of news can leave users with an incorrect fact, which once shared, can snowball. Videos and photos are easily doctored to look like something or someone else, this is known as a deepfake. It’s very easy to believe some of these convincing stories but they can have dire effects on individuals, businesses, and even governments.

Fact check everything you read, and don’t share it if you’re not sure! Even if you share it once but remove it after ten minutes, one more person in that time could have shared it to ten others, and those ten people to a further ten- you see where this can lead.

Social media can, and is now, being used for more than it was ever intended. We are more honest on our social media than on a loan application so lenders are now starting to look at your social media profiles as part of their assessments. Notty social credit score uses the same algorithms as lenders to assess your social media creditworthiness.