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


Location Based Services: Are they useful or just a fad?

Location Based Services are in rage now; developers want to get into it and users just want to line up for the release of the next LBS/geolocation app. But the question is, are they any useful? If Foursqaure’s plateaued out usage is any indication, people expect a lot more from their location based services app than just the ability to shout out “Hey, I am here”. Considering, most of the competition in the social networking space will play out on the mobile front, it would do developers well to find out exactly what users expect from such a service.

White Horse’s survey on Geolocation apps “Lost in Geolocation: Mobile Survey Report” tries to answer this and more. The firm surveyed 437 smartphone owners in the survey of which 56% said they knew about these services and 39% said they used them. Facebook Places with 42% usage came first, followed by a distant Google Latitude (27%) and Foursquare (25%).

The huge usage number for Facebook Places can be explained by the fact that it comes bundled with the Facebook mobile app and therefore adoption is just a click away. Probably the same can be said about Google Latitude which is there in the Google Maps mobile app.

So what kind of services matter to users?

As is evident from the survey, making social connected, staying connected with friends and getting referrals of various places from friends are the most important functions expected of a social networking site. “Achieving activity milestones in a game” like Foursquare’s check-ins are only in the minds of 4% of respondents. No wonder than, that Foursqaure usage is dwindling. Similarly, ‘discounts’ are only preferred by 8% of users, a figure Groupon and Gowalla wannabes must take note of.

Barriers to adoption of Location Based Services

Privacy concerns and no perceived value are the top most reasons preventing adoption of Location Based Services.

The third reason ‘Redundant to how I already connect’ ought to be of particular interest to innovators. By learning more about how users connect with each other, and finding ways to seamlessly integrate Location Based Services into these habits, this 19% of users could be brought into the realm of Location Based Services. Network externalities, with growing usage, should ensure that people will start deriving and perceiving benefits out of these apps very soon. Privacy concerns are a more serious matter; considering that people store a lot of personal data on their phones, a compromised app could be a disaster of huge proportions. This is were app makers, mobile OS developers like Apple and Google, as well as mobile app makets need to work together to ensure that apps that go into a user’s mobile are completely secured and well tested. Besides, the fear of inadvertently letting complete strangers know your location is a prevailing fear among many.

Users of dedicated Location Based Services are more influential than those using non dedicated services like Places and Latitude

As is evident from the chart above, users of Foursquare are influential and opinion makers in their circles as far as social networking apps go, which shouldn’t come as a surprise. So any new LBS service, would have to get these early adopters (the ones using Foursquare) rather than the ones using Facebook places, build a compelling value proposition for these early adopters and then think of moving on to regular users and skeptics.

The report provides the following conclusions and recommendations

  • Most brands with promising location-based content are better off building than buying in.
  • Help consumers use geolocation for new social purposes, not just communications.
  • Build a social media presence before moving into geolocation.
  • Address privacy concerns directly and transparently.
  • Develop a brand-appropriate geolocation experience based on the model of dedicated geolocation services like Foursquare. But pay close attention to what Facebook Places is doing.

8 Quirky Social Networking sites

Orkut is on life support, FB is in, Twitter is sweet and short and Google+ in the new place to be on the Internet. The avalanche of information and updates that these social networks throw at you can be overwhelming and, lets face it, largely pointless. Do you really want to know if your buddy from school is going through a breakup, or if that guy who met at that conference 2 years back has a cold or the address of the place where Salman Khan orders his butter chicken from?

Nevertheless, some of us have needs that are clearly not satisfied by any of these social networking sites which is why niche, and rather quirky, as you will soon realize, sites have sprung up to fill the void. So read on

1. IntellectConnect.com : It is for those Sheldon Coopers among us and calls itself “web’s #1 place for artsy and curious people”. If you are one of those who loves differential equations, genetic algorithms or have read and understood the General and Special Theories of Relativity or you can differentiate a Raphael from a Bellini and are looking for a like minded individual, this is the social network for you.

2. Redkaraoke.com : Its a site that lets you unleash the singer (or wailer) within you. Log on to this site, select a song and you can karaoke on it. Not just that, it even allows you to record and share your songs and listen to others (remember to keep your pointer on the mute button just in case). All you need is a microphone.

3. MatchADream.com : Its a site where you can discuss your dreams with other members and waste countless hours discussing and deciphering the meaning behind those dreams.

4. LineforHeaven.com : I am pretty sure some of our Indian godmen as well as Pastor Ted Haggard would not be happy about this because this site eats into their clientele. You can confess your sins, talk about your temptations, take up and promote causes, bless others and even play holy to god games. Various activities on the site earn you Karma points (yes its THAT simple to earn Karma) which lets you reserve a spot in heaven when the reaper comes for your soul. Spots are awarded every Sunday, so convenient, is it not?

5. Eons.com : Its a site for “boomers” or old people. Its pretty much like Facebook in features – you have a profile and you can share photos and videos and play games. Its throws in a ‘longevity’ calculator that allows you to calculate how long you will live and offers health advice to prolong your life. Mental note: Must put a reminder to visit this when (and if) I am 50.

6. VampireFreaks.com :Twilight has done for Vampires what Che Guevara bikinis did for Communism. For reasons beyond the fathomable a lot of teenage girls now want to have a blood sucking vampire as a boyfriend. So if you are one of those teenage girls or just into the whole ‘vampire thing’ or have a love for all things gothic, this is where you should be. Instead of groups, you can join ‘cults’ (like ‘Twilight”) and even chat. The site also has a good deal of info on top metal bands like Black Sabbath, Cradle of Filth etc.

7. StachePassions.com : A site for people with a fetish for mustaches. Mustaches are grouped by the style like ‘Walrus’ or ‘Pencil’ or by experience levels like ‘newbie’ and ‘expert’. Some of our actors down south can certainly gain a lot of fan following on this site.

8. Garbo: This isn’t a social networking site, or even a site at all.It was announced with much fanfare by Randy Hallet (twitter.com/garbotweets) and was supposed to be an anti social networking site.  Named after the 1930s film star turned recluse, Garbo was supposed to allow users to quietly de-friend everyone in their Linked-In, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Digg, and other social networks without anyone noticing. New friend requests sent on any of these existing services would have been greeted with a one-line response: “I want to be left alone.” Alas, this never saw the light of the day.

Let me know, if you find any other such quirky social networking sites. I will add it to this list and you will get due credits for the same.