What is social media anyway?

Technology might change and forms of communication might shift but, at its heart, social media is based on basic human impulses of sharing. Social media platforms are a space — most often extremely public — set up to share. Sharing interests. Sharing insights. Sharing questions to get answers or more interesting questions. Sharing to make friends and meet collaborators. Sharing to be a good citizen. Sharing to raise one’s profile in a group. Technical ability will always be secondary to social abilities and the beautiful impulse to share.

The internet was always social: even before it had pages to access via web browsers (like Firefox or Internet Explorer). Groups had synchronous communications via chat rooms on IRC servers and asynchronous communications via newsgroups on Usenet.

Web pages to access via browsers and interconnected with hyperlinks date back to Christmas 1990 (only!) when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a British computer scientist working for CERN near Geneva in Switzerland, invented the web. His invention spread over the whole internet during the first half of the 1990s.

Not long after, the first blogs started appearing. “Blog” is the contraction of the words “web” and “log”. These publications are defined by their format: a series of entries in ante-chronological order. They were varied in their styles, tone and lengths. Early bloggers chronicled their discoveries on the still relatively young world wide web, they shared insights about their interests, some were diarists or journalists… People started pouring their passions in this format.

In the early days, blogging required knowledge of code and web servers. In 1999, easier to use services such as LiveJournal and Blogger.com launched. Using these services, running a blog got easier. In the following years, there was an explosion in the number of blogs. By 2004, blogs became mainstream.

Most bloggers are read by few people. Social media is, among other things, characterized by smaller readership / viewership. Mass circulation and audience metrics aren’t the point. As you may know, mass media and their pretences of objectivity are recent (and crumbling) historical phenomena. Early in the eighteenth century, opinionated publications like The Spectator (1711) and Tatler (1709) circulated in small numbers and flourished. People read and debated them in coffee shops. They wrote and published in agreement or disagreement. Vigorous debate and fecund struggles shook the public square. In many respects, early social media was a return to these days. Bloggers knew each other and published articles in reaction to other articles frequently.

In 1999, Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger wrote the Cluetrain Manifesto. The Manifesto is a series of 95 theses insisting that the web enables global conversations between people in which the polished/cold language of organisations feel foreign. It says organisations will have to adjust and join these conversations with a genuine human voice or risk becoming irrelevant.

What the Cluetrain Manifesto observed and prophesied did happen. Online conversations influence people in big decisions such as choosing a university and a degree; or for whom to vote in elections; as well as in purchasing decisions such as choosing a refrigerator. We are more suspicious than ever when we face messages in traditional one-way channels. We base purchasing decisions more on our peers’ recommendations and on online searches.

Although blogging remains a great way to disseminate longer forms of writing, the quicker and more spontaneous sharing started happening more and more on the various social media sites which have emerged. Let us resume our little historical overview.

Social networks as we know them today with interconnected user profiles started in the late 1990s. We could go through the evolution of Friendster, the rise of MySpace, etc. It would stoke my nostalgia but it would not give you much value. If the subject interests you, there are many resources out there. Any history that I might offer would also centre around the US and/or Europe. In other regions of the world, other social networks held dominion. Suffice it to say there were many options and rapid evolution.

The most popular ones today — around here — are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  That’s where the party happens and everyone meets.

  • Facebook is 1.71 billion monthly active users (June 30, 2016) and 14,495 employees (June 2016)
  • Twitter is 313 million active users (June 2016) and 3,860 (June 2016)
  • LinkedIn is 106 million active users (March 2016) and 9,732 employees (March 2016). Figures come from Wikipedia.