The evolution of social media: A timeline of how it started and where it’s heading
Social media has become so integral to the daily lives of urbanites today that it’s hard to imagine a day without it—let alone a week. As much as some of us may take the occasional "social media detox" or attempt to avoid it altogether, there’s no denying its growth and influence on modern lifestyles.
From young to old, individuals to businesses, social media platforms are no longer confined to—even if they may be dominated by—certain demographics. For most of us, it’s a source of information, a means to social connection, a space for individual expression, or even a call to activism; while for others, it may be their bread and butter.
Now when referring to social media platforms, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and most recently, TikTok often come top of mind. But these platforms wouldn’t be where they are if the pioneers of the industry hadn’t first paved the way. And no, we’re not referring to Friendster. (Care to guess before scrolling on?)
Ahead, we explore how social media started, how it has evolved over the years, and what to expect in the future.
If you guessed SixDegrees earlier, you’re spot on. Founded in 1997 by Andrew Weinreich, SixDegrees is widely attributed as the first successful predecessor to modern-day social networking sites. It was named after the six degrees of separation concept and adopted the “social-circles network model”, much like Facebook. This meant that users could send messages and post bulletin board items to people in their first, second, and third degrees, while checking their connection to other users on the site. There were about 3.5 million registered members before it shut down in the year 2000.
Before Facebook came along, Friendster was arguably the most popular social networking site. Fun fact: though originally based in California, Friendster was later headquartered right here in Kuala Lumpur! Created by Peter Chin, Jonathan Abrams, and Dave Lee in 2002, the site allows users to share videos, photos, messages, and comments with other members via profiles (friends) and networks. It was also used for dating, gaming, and discovering new events. Sadly, it was suspended in 2015 following “the evolving landscape” in the “challenging industry” (read: Facebook) as well as a lack of engagement within the community.
MySpace took over Friendster as the largest social networking site in the world from 2005 to 2008. It was founded by a group of employees from the Internet marketing firm eUniverse, which held contests to see who could sign up the most users—a key to its rapid growth. Unlike Friendster, Myspace enabled users to customise public profiles, embed video and music, and instantly message other users. Despite its gradual decline in popularity after 2008, the website is still alive today, though it has transitioned from a social networking site into a curated music and entertainment site.
Known as the social media platform for professionals, LinkedIn offers users a place to share their resume and work experience to connect with businesses and like-minded users. It’s now common for employers to scout for talents and for users to search for jobs through LinkedIn, with over 740 million members on the platform. The platform also offers skills training, publishing tools, polls, stories, as well as additional features for paid premium accounts.
Since it launched in 2004, Facebook has climbed the ranks to become the largest social media giant to date. What started as a Harvard-only club quickly gained traction to now boast over 2.5 billion monthly active users. Initially, Facebook users were limited to sharing texts and multimedia on their feed or via messaging (now known as Facebook Messenger). Then came the Like button, as well as additional features and tools for advertising and businesses, such as Facebook Pages, Facebook Business Manager, and Facebook Marketplace. However, the platform may be facing challenges ahead as more younger users drop out in favour of newer generation platforms including Instagram and TikTok (see 2010 onwards).
YouTube went live in 2005 and remains the undisputed king of online video until today. While it may be considered a social media platform thanks to features like comments, polls, and community posts, it's more widely regarded as a video sharing platform. Many use the platform purely to watch videos and/or share them on other sites like Facebook, rather than "socialising" or interacting with other users.
Founded by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, and Biz Stone in 2006, Twitter (originally named Twttr) is a microblogging social media platform that allows users to post and interact with messages called “tweets”. Dorsey initially envisioned the platform as a text message-based tool for sending updates between friends, but it naturally turned into “the SMS of the Internet”—aka an outlet for headlines and bite-sized content. One Twitter user by the name of Chris Messina went on to invent the now-omnipresent hashtag back in 2007, birthing the concept of tagging that’s used across multiple platforms (and oddly, daily conversations) today. #genius
After Facebook and YouTube, Instagram is the third most popular social network (excluding messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger) with 1.28 billion active monthly users. It launched as a mobile photo-sharing social media platform in 2010, allowing users to share only square photos with optional filters on their profiles. It hit one million users within two months, and was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for $1 billion.
As challengers like Snapchat and TikTok came into the picture, Instagram began rolling out features such as Video, Stories, Carousel, IGTV, Reels, and Shops to stay competitive. With plans to introduce new ad types every year, it is becoming an increasingly popular platform for following and connecting with brands and influencers.
Stanford University students Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown launched Snapchat in 2011, introducing the concept of serial photos and/or videos, known as “stories”. It also popularised filters beginning 2015, causing users to go crazy for animal ears and rainbow puke. In 2016, it rebranded to Snap Inc, the parent company of Snapchat and Spectacles, a pair of smart glasses designed for augmented reality. Despite growing competition, the platform has managed to maintain steady growth by introducing new features such as short-form Shows and Spotlight. As of 2021, it records over 500 million active monthly users.
Frequently dubbed the social media app for Gen Zs, TikTok is the fastest growing social media app ever since 2020. It started as a ByteDance-owned Chinese app called Douyin, before the company decided to explore the international market. By the next year, TikTok was launched in most markets outside of China, but it only blew up worldwide after merging with another Chinese-owned social media platform, Musical.ly, in 2018. The platform allows users to create short videos with music in the background, which can be slowed down, sped up, or edited with captions and filters. It soon became associated with viral lip synch and dance videos, but has since evolved to cover a diverse variety of content, from beauty and travel to fitness and Covid-19.
Clubhouse is the latest social media platform to join the club (see what we did there). Debuting for iOS only in 2020 in the midst of global lockdowns, Clubhouse is an invitation-only audio-based social media app that allows users to communicate in voice chat rooms where they can host or join discussions with people around the globe, or chat with friends in private. It drew waves of users after celebrities and entrepreneurs like Oprah Winfrey, Drake, and Elon Musk voiced their approval of the app, especially in the first quarter of 2021. Ironically, by the time it became available for Android around May this year, downloads and interest seem to be tapering off. Nevertheless, existing users are reportedly still using the app, with about 10 million active users weekly.
Whichever social media platform(s) you’re currently using, the rapid changes we’ve seen over the past two decades show that they will only continue to evolve. With e-commerce, virtual reality, augmented reality, and digital marketing also maturing in tandem, it’s likely we’ll see more developments in those areas in the near future.
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