Social Media is Older Than You Think It Is. Much Older.

Social media is not as new as people think it is.

It’s not even as new as the new date you just thought of after you saw that last sentence.

Social media, or at least its very beginnings, is almost as old as I am. (Give or take 10 years.)

The very first place for people to communicate online was on the bulletin board systems (BBSes), which were created in the late 1970s, and allowed people to dial in on their 300 baud modems. They were usually only for the hobbyists and geeks who wanted to talk about things that interested them, usually computers. Since long-distance charges applied for out-of-town groups, most users were from their particular city. And user gatherings (this was before we called them “meetups”) were a regular event, where people had the chance to meet those they had been chatting with online the night before.

In 1980, the Usenet — a collection of BBS-type discussion groups — was created and used widely in academia. There, people could visit a group, post articles and messages, and other people would reply to them. While Usenet was originally started to be discussion groups for researchers and computer users, people started creating groups for their other interests. Back in 1990, I joined a soccer discussion group on Usenet, and had “friends” from England, Scotland, Australia, Italy, and Germany. We would discuss our favorite soccer teams, and the 1990 World Cup, which had just finished before I joined. There were groups for political viewpoints, philosophical thought, favorite TV shows, and various sports. I connected with people from all around the world, but especially in the US.

"You've got mail!"

Four years later, I took the plunge and joined AOL, downloading the first software in 90 minutes over my wicked fast 14.4K modem. (I had to choose between it, Compuserve, Prodigy, eWorld, and a host of other online communities.) AOL was the first major attempt at offering an online community to people outside the university setting. This was like Usenet on steroids, because there was a more graphical interface to AOL, and it looked nice. There were also more consumer groups, geared toward those non-computer users. I belonged to groups for writers, home brew makers, cooks, and fans of Celtic music. Since AOL had local and long distance access numbers, our friends were from out of town, and meetups were unlikely (and frequently warned against).

A lot of people outgrew AOL, once they learned they could explore outside the walled community with a web browser and an Internet Service Provider. We consumed the web for information, we emailed each other funny websites we found, and we shared graphics by breaking up ASCII files and emailing them, reassembling them in word processor file, and then converting them with a text-to-graphic converter. But we didn’t have community, unless we returned to AOL or joined an email listserv.

It wasn’t until groups like Friendster, Myspace, and Facebook took advantage of the Internet’s increasing speed and the web browsers that did all that assembling and converting for us, making it easier to connect with our friends, and even telling us where they lived. Twitter boiled communication down to its barest essence, letting us share information in text-sized bits. And LinkedIn played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with our professional networks, letting us see who we were connected to, and how far we were from each other.

The point is this: social media is older than Facebook (2004). Way older. To truly understand the history — and age — of social media, you need to talk to the computer geeks who were online in the late 1970s and early 1980s, participating in the different BBSes and Usenet groups that dotted the online landscape.

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency in Indianapolis, IN. He co-authored three social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (2nd ed., 2012; Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.

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