History of Online Social Networking

Social networks like Facebook and Google+ aren’t anything new. They have evolved from other older forms of social networking. So lets take a look down memory lane at the precursors of the Facebooks, Twitters and Google+es of today.

It all began with Usenets

Usenet systems were first conceived of in 1979 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis. Usenets let users post articles or posts (referred to as “news”) to newsgroups and could be called the forefather of Google Groups which borrows a lot of functionality from Usenet

Usenets have no centralized server or dedicated administrator, setting them apart from most BBSs and forums. Usenets are mostly responsible for the development of newsreader clients, which are the precursor to RSS feed readers so commonly used to follow blogs and news sites today.

Usenets, like most social networks of that time, were a favourite hangout of geeks, programmers and hackers. Linus Torvalds first post about Linux on comp.os.minix is still the stuff of tech folklore

And then there were Bulletin Board Systems

The first BBSs came online in the late 70s. They were usually hosted on personal computers and users had to dial in to access a BBS. Only one person at a time could gain access to the BBS because only one connection could be made to the host modem at a time (just like a telephone call).

BBS were a favourite tool for hackers and phreakers to share information, code etc. BBS were one of the first to allow user to ‘dial in’ (like logging in) to a site and get information.

Online Services

After BBSs came “online services” like CompuServe and Prodigy. These were the first real “corporate” attempts at accessing the Internet.

CompuServe was the first company to incorporate a chat program into their service. Prodigy was responsible for making online service more affordable (CompuServe had been prohibitively expensive for many, with charges of $6/hour plug long-distance fees that often made the service run $30/hour or more).

GEnie was an early online service created by a General Electric subsidiary (GEIS) in 1985. It ran through 1999 and was one of the earliest services available. It was a text-based service, and considered the first viable commercial competition to CompuServe. The service was created to make use of idle time-sharing mainframes after normal U.S. business hours. GEnie offered games, shopping, mail, and forums (called RoundTables). There was even a print magazine associated with the service at one time.

AOL started as an online service too and made great strides at making the Internet more universally accessible in the U.S.

Not many in India would know or have even used any of these services as we got internet only in the early 90s

IRC, ICQ, and Instant Messaging

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was developed in 1988 and used for file sharing, link sharing and otherwise keeping in touch.

It was really the father of instant messaging as we know it today. IRC, being a geek toy, was mostly UNIX-based though, limiting access to most people. Even to this day, hackers prefer IRC to most other forms of communication. Most open source projects maintain their own IRC channels for communication among developers.

ICQ was developed in the mid-90s and was the first instant messaging program for PCs. It was at least partly responsible for the adoption of avatars, abbreviations (LOL, BRB) and emoticons. Other IM clients soon followed.


Forums were and still are a popular form of communication and played a huge role in the evolution of social networking sites. Software like phpBB and vBulletin allowed just about any site to host its own forum and engage users in discussions. In many ways, they were the grand children of BBS, only this time they were faster and more user friendly.


This was based on the ‘Chain-links’ and six degrees of separation concept by Frigyes Karinthy.SixDegrees was launched in 1997 and was the first modern social network. It allowed users to create a profile and to become friends with other users.

While the site is no longer functional, at one time it was actually quite popular and had around a million members at its peak.In 2000 it was purchased for $125 million and in 2001 it was shut down.


LiveJournal started in 1999 and was a social network built around constantly-updated blogs (or weblogs). LiveJournal encouraged its users to follow one another and to create groups and otherwise interact. It was really the precursor to the live updates we see in social networks currently


The grand daddy of Farmville on FB, MMORPG allowed players situated continents apart to play online game by assuming roles and interact socially through the game allowing players to create an entire online persona. World of Warcraft is perhaps the most popular MMORPG and there were others like Raganrok, which my brother used to play a lot. It was different from online FPS and racing games n that it allowed you to create online personalities and interact socially rather than go on a fragging rampage or just outrun the other players. Second Life took this concept much further but hasn’t been very successful.

And then there came along Friendster, Hi5, MySpace, LinkedIn, Orkut, Facebook and the rest.

Google+ is the newest social networking site and you can read my review of Google+ here


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