Social, Software

A Brief History of Social Networks

No, I don’t mean a brief history of Old Boy Networks, The Family or other more outlandish and exotic pre-digital era networks.

You see, as I was doing my due diligence for my crazy new venture, I jotted down some notes on the history of digital social networks leading up to the Facebook era and I thought why not share them with you here.

Most of the following is based on to the level of theft in no small part, verbatim quotations from the book “The Facebook Effect” by David Kirkpatric (@davidkirkpatric) and some tidbits from Wikipedia, Google and my own faulty memory.

And, yes – it is heavily biased towards the US and Europe since I did not have much good source material on say, e.g. Chinese, Korean and Japanese social networks. Feel free to fill me in.

I highly recommend the book if you are interested in a different (albeit rosier) perspective of the story behind Mark Zuckerberg‘s (@finkd) Facebook than the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich and the film version “The Social Network” by David Fincher. Preview the book in Google Books, buy the paper version at Amazon, or as a eBook from the Kindle store or as an audiobook from Audible.

I claim Fair Use, as in the “Please don’t sue. That wouldn’t be fair.” kind. The following content is meant for educational purposes only . If you want to use or republish, please make sure to credit and attribute David Kirkpatric and Wikipedia. Commercial (re)use would probably be bad for your karma.

Here we go – A Brief History of Social Networks:


J. C. R. Licklider

J. C. R. Licklider Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

JCR Licklider & Robert W. Taylor write the essay “The Computer as a communication device” and predicts;

“you will not send a letter or a telegram – you will simply identify the people who’s files should be linked to yours”


Community Memory terminal

The first Community Memory terminal, an ASR-33 teletype, at Leopold’s Records, Berkeley, CA, 1973. Source: Community Memory Project Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5

Community Memory started. A notable precursor to the public Bulletin Board System.

From Wikipedia:

Community Memory was the first public computerized bulletin board system. Established in 1973 in Berkeley, California, it used an SDS 940 timesharing system in San Francisco connected via a 110 baud link to a teletype at a record store in Berkeley to let users enter and retrieve messages.

While initially conceived as an information and resource sharing network linking a variety of counter-cultural economic, educational, and social organizations with each other and the public, Community Memory was soon generalized to be an information flea market . Once the system became available, the users demonstrated that it was a general communications medium that could be used for art, literature, journalism, commerce, and social chatter.


Monochrome BBS - A more recent modern BBS

Monochrome BBS – A more recent modern BBS

The first BBS is launched. (BTW, if you were a part of the BBS scene or want to learn more about it, check out this acclaimed and extensive documentary.)

From Wikipedia:

The first public dial-up Bulletin Board System (BBS) was developed by Ward Christensen (@WardXmodem). According to an early interview, while he was snowed in during the Great Blizzard of 1978 in Chicago, Christensen along with fellow hobbyist Randy Suess, began preliminary work on the Computerized Bulletin Board System, or CBBS. CBBS went online on February 16, 1978


Diagram of usenet, Author: Benjamin D. Esham License: Public Domain

Diagram of usenet, Author: Benjamin D. Esham License: Public Domain

Usenet enables members to post to groups dedicated to specific topics. (Check out the highly interesting book “Netizens” for much more on the history and impact of Usenet and the Internet.)

From Wikipedia:

Usenet is a worldwide distributed Internet discussion system. It developed from the general purpose UUCP architecture of the same name.

Duke University graduate students Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea in 1979 and it was established in 1980. Users read and post messages (called articles or posts, and collectively termed news) to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. Usenet resembles a bulletin board system (BBS) in many respects, and is the precursor to the various Internet forums that are widely used today. Usenet can be superficially regarded as a hybrid between email and web forums. Discussions are threaded, with modern news reader software, as with web forums and BBSes, though posts are stored on the server sequentially.


Minitel built in 1982 Author: Tieum License:  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Minitel built in 1982 Author: Tieum License: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The French postal service is the first to bring the concepts of commenting in online groups and chartrooms to a mass consumer audience with the launch of the national online service, Minitel

A side note, from Wikipedia:

The German “Bildschirmtext” (BTX) is almost as old as Minitel and technically very similar, but it was largely unsuccessful because consumers had to buy expensive decoders to use it. The German postal service held a monopoly on the decoders that prevented competition and lower prices. Few people bought the boxes, so there was little incentive for companies to post content, which in turn did nothing to further box sales. When the monopoly was loosened, it was too late because PC-based online services had started to appear.


America Online logo from 1991 to 2006

AOL logo 1991 to 2006 Source: License: Fair Use

America Online starts (albeit under another name; Quantum Computer Services, Inc.)

The WELL logo

The WELL (The Whole World ELectronic Link) launches in San Francisco by Stuart Brand, Larry Brilliant (@larrybrilliant) et al.


Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold (@hrheingold) – a big user of the WELL – publishes an essay in which he coins the term “virtual community” to describe this new experience.


Screenshot of Prodigy

IBM and Sears launches commercial online service called Prodigy.

Anonymous users, pseudonyms were the norm on these online services.

screenshot of IRCII


IRC was created by Jarkko Oikarinen in August 1988 to replace a program called MUT (MultiUser Talk) on a BBS called OuluBox in Finland. (Check out “The Book of IRC” for the ultimate guide to IRC).

1991 – 1994

The World Wide Web sees the light of day in 1991 created by Tim Berners-Lee (@timberners_lee) and Robert Cailliau (

From Wikipedia:

The World Wide Web, abbreviated as WWW and commonly known as the Web, is a system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed via the Internet. With a web browser, one can viewweb pages that may contain text, images, videos, and other multimedia and navigate between them via hyperlinks.

cuseeme logo

CU-SeeMe logo

CU-SeeMe, an Internet videoconferencing client originally written by Tim Dorcey of the Information Technology department at Cornell University launches for Mac in 1992.

Tripod LogoGeoCities Logo

In the early days of the World Wide Web the notion of an online community advanced a little further, enabling users to set up a personal homepage that could in some cases link to pages created by other members.with services like Tripod started in 1992 with two Williams College classmates, Bo Peabody (@bopeabody) and Brett Hershey, along with Dick Sabot, an economics professor at the school, founded in 1994 by Cornell students Stephan Paternot (@stephanpaternot) and Todd Krizelman and GeoCities originally founded by David Bohnett (@dcbohnett) and John Rezner in late 1994.

Check out David Carlson’s Online Timeline for more information about the world coming online 1990 – 1994.


Match Com Screenshot screenshot anno 2008 started by Gary Kremen as a proof of concept for Electric Classifieds which aimed to provide classified advertising systems for newspapers launches, filled with personal information for a highly specific purpose. Logo created by by Randy Conrads launches to help people identified by their real names to find and communicate with former school friends.

The first Internet Forums (or Message Boards) start to emerge.


PlanetAll logo
PlanetAll a social networking, calendaring, and address book site launches in November 1996. It was founded by a group of Harvard Business School and MIT graduates including Warren Adams. (A big thanks to James Currier for pointing out that I had missed PlanetAll!).

From Wikipedia:

PlanetAll was possibly the first social networking site on the Internet. The site had more than 100,000 groups, organized around real-world counterparts such as academic institutions and employers. When the user entered the name of his or her university, the service would list the user’s classmates who were also members of the service. Users could exchange authorization to access the each others’ contacts. Many sites at the time offered web-based address books and calendars, but combined the two: when a user entered travel plans into the calendar, the service would cross-reference the destination with the address book, as well as the user’s contacts’ travel plans; the site would then notify users when they would cross paths with their contacts.


Reid Hoffmann

Reid Hoffman dating service founded by Reid Hoffman (@quixotic)(Hoffman worked at Apple on eWorld, but perhaps better known for founding LinkedIn and as an Angel Investor).

Sixdegrees Logo founded by Andrew Weinreich launches, takes social networks further. A breakthrough in use of real names. The first Rolodex in the cloud. Invitation only. At the time revolutionary. “Network me” feature for matching you with users that met your quality criteria. Failed due to operating costs, licensing costs, development and maintenance costs and users only having dialup Internet at the time (e.g. the service lacked photos due to bandwidth concerns). Bought out for 120 million. Shut down in late 2000. Weinreich was granted a broad reaching social network patent.

1999 logo

asianavenue logo

Ethnic focused networks Black Planet founded by Omar Wasow (@owasow) and Asian Avenue co-founded by Benjamin Sun, Peter Chen, Grace Chang, Michael Montero, and Calvin Wong launches with limited social networking functions.

The daily jolt (R.I.P. April 6, 2010) launches as a campus bulletin board for 12 Schools.

tickle logo launched originally as, with quizzes and tests for both entertainment and self-discovery, by James Currier and Rick Marini. Warren Adams of PlanetAll is an investor. logo

Swedish teen community Lunar Storm (R.I.P. August 8th 2010) launches

Ordinary people begins using email. Again, using addresses that typically would not correspond to their real names.

Address books of emails maintained on and within the services. Members did not identify real-life friends or establish regular communication pathways with them. Later in the decade, Instant Messaging (IM) services like ICQ, PowWow and Ubique to hold the same way. People used pseudonyms for themselves, not their real names.


On August 4, 1998, announces that it has agreed to acquire PlanetAll. Under terms of the agreement, acquired 100 percent of PlanetAll in exchange for 800,000 shares.

2000 shuts down on July 2, 2000, telling PlanetAll members, “We are pleased to announce that we have completed the integration of the key e-commerce related features of into our main site at… Although will be going away, you’ll still be able to enjoy some of the tools that help you keep in touch with like-minded folks.”

2001 – 2002 : Social Networking bug hits Silicon Valley and SF


cyworld logo

Cyworld (huge in Korea) adds social networking capabilities

Plaxo logoPlaxo launches by Napster co-founder Sean Parker (FB profile)(and later The Facebook CEO) and two Stanford engineering students, Todd Masonis and Cameron Ring. Has a viral concept; One user leads to more users – It has a Network Effect.

“Network Effect” as explained by Wikipedia (excerpt):

In economics and business, a network effect (also called network externality) is the effect that one user of a good or service has on thevalue of that product to other people. When network effect is present, the value of a product or service increases as more people use it.

The classic example is the telephone. The more people own telephones, the more valuable the telephone is to each owner. This creates a positive externality because a user may purchase their phone without intending to create value for other users, but does so in any case.Online social networks work in the same way, with sites like Twitter and Facebook being more useful the more users join.

The expression “network effect” is applied most commonly to positive network externalities as in the case of the telephone. Negative network externalities can also occur, where more users make a product less valuable, but are more commonly referred to as “congestion” (as in traffic congestion or network congestion).

Network congestion tends to occur when a network node or link is carrying more data than it can handle, slowing down process times. Now, it may not sound serious but in fact, it is. So serious that it could cause something like Packet Loss, which means that any critical information that you are trying to send doesn’t reach its intended destination – this site has more information. With potential effects like this, learning how to prevent events like network congestion, and packet loss from happening will be very important to your network, as well as your online activities.

That being said, over time, positive network effects can create a bandwagon effect as the network becomes more valuable and more people join, in a positive feedback loop.

Ryze launches by Adrian Scott (@adrianscottcom). Explicitly business-only.


friendster logo

Friendster launches March 22nd by Jonathan Abrams (@ABRAMS), Peter Chin and Dave Lee. It gambles to lure users away from Uses real names and photos on profiles. You could search for friends near locations. Invitation only, befriend if you liked the photo. Cracked the code of the modern social network, defined basic structure. Problems; “Fakesters” – People with fake names, fake photos. Plagued by engineering misjudgments; did not scale, had major outages, performance issues. Mark Pincus (@markpinc)(later founder of Zynga) and Reid Hoffman (@quixotic) are investors.

Club Nexus launches by Stanford students Orkut Buyukkokten (@orkut) and Eytan Adar. Meant to connect Stanford students only. Complicated, too many features. (Bonus material: An analysis of Club Nexus by the founders.)

InCircle launches by Club Nexus founders. Alumni only.

Orkut logo

Orkut Buyukkokten (@orkut) leaves for google. Programs a new social network prototype. Pitches it to google. launches.

CourseMatch and Facemash are created by Mark Zuckerberg (@finkd) while at Harvard.

Harvard Connection is founded by the Winkelvoss twins Cameron Winkelvoss and Tyler Winkelvoss with Divya Narendra and some help from Mark Zuckerberg.


linkedin logo

LinkedIn founded by Reid Hoffman (@quixotic). logo founded by Mark Pincus (@markpinc). A social network around specific interests. Burning Man, Alt Sex and connecting turned out to be what the users are more interested in instead of buying and selling things.

Patent by‘s Weinreich put up for sale, Reid Hoffman (@quixotic) and Mark Pincus (@markpinc) buy the patent for $70.000 in front of highest bidder Yahoo!.

myspace logo

MySpace founded by Tom Anderson (@myspacetom) and Chris Dewolfe in frustration of Friendster’s failures and wanted to appeal to the fakesters. Hustled bands, artists and fans in Los Angeles to join. Music + Sex + Anonymity + Chaos seemed to be the recipe. free usable services by students for students launched at UC Irwine Alumni.

House System launched at Harvard to buy and sell books, review courses. It invited students to upload their photos.

WesMatch at Williams College.

GaleStation at Yale. A dating site.

CUCommunity (or CampusNetwork, at Columbia University.

hi5 logo

Hi5 created by Ramu Yalamanchi (@ryalaman), big in Spanish speaking countries.


Screenshot of The Facebook login page

The Facebook launches. Limited to elite universities offering a stark contrast of an experience of that of MySpace

From the CrunchBase profile:

When Tagged launched in 2004 as a teen-only social network, security was a top priority. In October 2006 the site made a drastic change and went from being under-18 only, to allowing users of any age to join. This change has helped user registration skyrocket. In fact, Tagged was adding more users per day than MySpace in May of 2007.


YouTube logo

YouTube founded by former PayPal employees Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim

Check out David Carlson’s Online Timeline for more information about the world coming online 2000 – 2004.


twitter logo

twitter launches in July 2006 by Jack Dorsey (@jack), although the founding story behind it is controversial.

YouTube sold to Google in November for $1.65 billion.


Dana Boyd & Nichole Ellison write in a paper:

“The salient features of a true social network”: “A service where a user can construct a public or semi-public profile, articulate a list of other users which whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. You establish your position in a complex network of relationships. And your profile positions you in the context of these relationships. Usely in order to discover otherwise hidden points of common interest or connection.”

twitter reaches it’s tipping point at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. During the event Twitter usage increased from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000. strangely occupied by nearly over 50% Brazilians and 20% Indians.


Amazon is awarded a social networking system patent based on its previous acquisition of PlanetAll.

twitter has over 190 million users.

Facebook launches Graph API, Open Graph protocol, an improved Facebook Connect and Social plugins, has over 500 million active users. Mark Zuckerberg is Time’s “Man of the Year”.

Microsoft and Google still haven’t got a real answer to social networks.

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What is your take? Something missing? Tell me what you think in the comments below.