The history of social media

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines social media as:

“Forms of electronic communication (such as social networking and microblogging websites) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages and other content (such as videos)” .

While services like YouTube and Facebook automatically come to mind, you can trace the origins of social media back to the late 1970s.

In this article, you will find a brief overview of the history of social media, from the early pioneers of electronic communication to the social media platforms that dominate the internet today.

Notice board systems

Randy Suess and Ward Christensen introduced the computerized amateur scoreboard system in 1978.

Although originally designed to help inventors network with other computer club members in Chicago and generate content for their club’s newsletter, it eventually grew to support 300 to 600 users.

CBBS still exists today as a forum with posts dating back to 2000.

As modems increased in speed, bulletin board systems became more popular with computer users. Using the BBS telnet guide, you can travel back in time and view over 1,000 message board systems.

For those looking for modernized versions of bulletin board systems, try Wikipedia’s list of Internet forums.

Internet relay chat, instant messaging and chat rooms

As an extension of the BBS systems, Jarkko Oikarinen implemented the first Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client and server in 1988. It would allow users to chat with each other in real time.

This would lay the foundation for instant messaging services like mIRC and ICQ, which still exist today.

While ICQ has continued to update its interface to match today, mIRC has had the same website since 2008.

In 1992 America Online (AOL) became available to the public. In 1995, the 3 million users of America Online could interact through e-mail, forums and chat rooms.

Celebrities like Michael Jackson used America Online chat rooms to host one of the first Ask Me Anything (AMA) sessions with over 25,000 participants.

AOL released a free, standalone version of its instant messaging service in 1997, which connected its users until it last went offline in 2017.

In 1999, Tencent launched QQ, an instant messaging service.

This service still exists today, as well as the Qzone social network (launched in 2015), which has 574 million users.

The first social networks

In 1997, the first social networking sites were launched: Bolt and Six Degrees.

Dan Pelson designed Bolt as a platform for 15-20 year olds to use for email, voicemail, voice chat, chat rooms and instant messaging. 11 years later, Bolt announced in its forums that it would close its doors.

Six Degrees founder Andrew Weinreich, sometimes called the father of social media, created his platform to help people connect with people they didn’t (yet) know.

He also filed the first social networking patent for:

“A networked database containing a plurality of records for different individuals in which the individuals are connected to each other in the database by defined relationships.”

The platform still exists today, although it doesn’t seem to have changed since 2017.

The birth of social blogging

In 1998, Open Diary became the first online diary platform to bring together columnists, allowing them to share their thoughts and comment on the thoughts of others. Writers still use the site today to share their personal stories.

A year later, in 1999, LiveJournal would enter the arena of social blogging.

In addition to sharing ideas and building community through commenting, LiveJournal offered the opportunity to befriend like-minded people, further enhancing the social appeal of blogging.

From social gatherings to social games

Friendster, launched in 2002, was described as:

“…an online community that connects people through networks of friends to hang out or make new friends.”

Its founder, Jonathan Abrams, has filed several patents, including methods for connecting users based on their relationships, managing connections and inducing content downloads in a social network.

From 2010 until its end in 2015, Friendster moved from a network to connect friends to a “…social gaming destination of choice”.

It allowed people to connect, play games and share their progress.

The Rise of Today’s Most Popular Social Platforms

The early 2000s saw the launch of many of the top social networks still popular today.


Launched in 2003, LinkedIn created a social networking space for professionals to strengthen their network connections for better career opportunities.

It allows people to connect with business acquaintances and alumni, find jobs, and recommend professional services.

Today, the network has over 830 million members worldwide.

My space

Shortly after LinkedIn, Myspace would launch in August 2003.

It was a space for friends, where you could create personalized profiles, highlight favorite best friends, meet friends of friends, post blogs, share photos, post in forums, join groups, discover music and play games.

In 2013, Myspace rebranded itself as a music portal to connect people with their favorite artists and is a music-focused social network.


2004 saw the launch of Facebook (first known as Thefacebook). Created by Mark Zuckerberg to connect with fellow Harvard students, Facebook’s popularity has skyrocketed. By the end of 2004, it had more than one million users.

Since then, it has become the second largest social network, with 3 billion users worldwide.


In 2004, Flickr became the first social photo-sharing network.

As of 2019, the network has over 100 million accounts and still considers itself the “…best online photo management and sharing app in the world”.


In 2005, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman launched Reddit as a place where users could share content, discuss topics of interest, and vote for the most popular stories.

Reddit has since grown a base of over 430 million users, 100,000 communities, and 13 billion posts and comments.


In 2006 Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone and Noah Glass started Twitter.

The idea behind their network was simple: allow users to send short messages of up to 140 characters to friends and acquaintances.

Now Twitter’s 436 million user base can tweet with up to 280 characters with pictures and video.


Tumblr, founded in 2007 by David Karp, allows users to post blogs, follow other bloggers and comment on interesting content.

The community, now managed by CEO Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, has over 472 million users and 550 million blogs.

Sina Weibo

Launched in 2009, Sina Weibo is China’s answer to Twitter. The microblogging service currently has 582 million users.


Ben Silbermann, Evan Sharp and Paul Sciarra founded Pinterest in 2010.

The self-proclaimed visual discovery engine lets users tag images as pins to create a virtual vision board full of ideas. The network is home to over 433 million users and 200 billion pins.


2010 also saw the launch of Instagram by founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger.

The photo and video sharing service, acquired by Facebook in 2012, has grown to 1.4 billion users and expanded its functionality to include live video streaming and shoppable posts.


Former Facebook employees Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever started Quora in 2010.

The Q&A social network aimed to bring together people with questions and experts in specific fields to provide answers.

It is home to 300 million users, including former presidents and popular celebrities.


In 2011, Stanford University students Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown and Bobby Murphy created Snapchat.

Although initially considered a “terrible idea” by fellow students in a product design class, this network would eventually become one of the top social networks for teens and home to over 347 million users.


Nikolai and Pavel Durov founded Telegram in 2013. The social app focuses on providing secure instant messaging and voice calls.

It currently has over 700 million users.


Gaming enthusiasts Jason Citron and Stan Vishnevskiy founded Discord as a voice, video, and text communication service in 2015.

Since its inception, it has evolved from focusing on the gaming community to providing spaces for any interested community looking for a place to belong.

Discord is now home to over 150 million users and 19 million servers with 4 billion chats.


TikTok (or Douyin in China) launched internationally in 2017 after being acquired by ByteDance and merged into

Recognized as the leading destination for mobile short video, it has over 1 billion users and is the most downloaded application in the world.


Paul Davison and Rohan Seth founded Clubhouse in 2020 as a social network for hosting voice chat rooms.

While it started out by invitation only, it is now open to the public and available to Apple and Android users. As of February 2021, it had 10 million weekly active users.

Honorable Mentions

Unfortunately, not all social networks have achieved long-term success. In this section, you’ll find some notable names in social media history that have come, made their mark, and faded as the sun went down.


Around the time Facebook and Flickr entered the social landscape, Google launched its first social network in 2004 – Orkut. It had 300 million members at its peak until its closure in 2014.


Another Google social product, Google+, was launched in 2011. Although it is integrated with other Google products, including YouTube, and has over 500 million “identity” users, it eventually was closed in 2019.


In 2012, Colin Kroll, Rus Yusupov and Dominik Hofmann launched a unique social video network, Vine. It allowed users to share short videos on a loop. Twitter acquired the platform in 2013 but eventually shut it down in 2019.


Live video service Periscope launched in 2015 after being acquired by Twitter. Twitter eventually integrated live streaming into its network, shutting down Periscope as a standalone app in 2021.

More resources:

Featured image: RoBird/Shutterstock

Comments are closed.