Of the many incredible innovations that have impacted our lives over the past few decades, one in particular stands out to me as an example of how technology can change the way we relate to each other on a fundamental level – social networking. Whether you take an optimistic or pessimistic view of this evolution, the change is undeniable. Technology and social networking have given us the ability to connect with friends or strangers (both near and far) for business or for recreation, all at the touch of a button.
The story of innovation behind social networking and the internet is a complex one, full of give and take. At times, social networking drove the development of the online experience, at other times it struggled to keep up with technological advances. This is a look at the innovators who changed our lives by connecting us (and our data) online.
Social Networking’s Early Stages
Social networking is an essential part of the fabric of the internet itself. While many young people may remember MySpace as the harbinger of social networks as we know them today, the internet’s earliest days were driven by the desire to connect people to each other. As is typical, the US Military pioneered the technology that would later become “the internet.” ARPANET, a 1960s Defense Department project, was designed to connect universities for information-sharing. Around the same time, an early form of the internet known as CompuServe began to take off, providing many of the features we still connect for today, including email communication, stock market updates, and weather forecasting.
In the 1990s, AOL became a major player as personal computers found their way into homes across America, introducing now-standard features such as member profiles, “buddy lists,” and real-time chatting, and providing a glimpse of what social networking would soon become.
Fledgling Social Networking Sites
Because of the symbiotic nature of social networking and the early internet, it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that innovators began to see the potential in the rapid advancement of online connection. While file-sharing was an essential part of early services like ARPANET, niche peer-to-peer file-sharing services came into their own with the introduction of Napster in 1999. Its founders (including Sean Parker, who would go on to play a pivotal role at Facebook) saw the potential in connecting users based on their shared passions.
At the same time, early social networking sites Friendster and MySpace emerged, giving users a place to curate a full-fledged online identity and connect with like-minded people across the world. For the first time, people began to see their “online life” as an expansion of their in-person social and professional lives. This phenomenon found its ultimate expression in the virtual reality platform Second Life, which allows users the ability to create a personal avatar (whether true to life or entirely imaginary) and interact with others in a collaboratively-created virtual environment.
The Birth of Social Media
The early 2000s saw the success of early social networking sites translate into massive worldwide connectivity, largely due to the success of Facebook. The story of Facebook’s development has become a legendary cultural touchpoint, and its evolution from a university-specific to worldwide social networking monolith is well-documented. Facebook’s growth triggered a major change in the way we use the internet; in addition to social networking, these sites now provide a significant portion of our exposure to news and information; we now live in the era of social media.
The true innovation of Mark Zuckerberg et al. lies not in social networking itself but in how the company has leveraged its user’s data in increasingly complex ways to grow and provide value to both users themselves and third party companies that are thirsty for information.
Big Data: the Future of Social Media?
We live in a society in which online social networking and information sharing, aided by smartphones and wireless internet access, are deeply and irrevocably imbedded. With options including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Tumblr, Spotify, Foursquare, Pinterest, and more, almost everyone has created an online identity of one kind or another. Facebook alone now counts over 1.7 Billion active users per month.
Perhaps the most influential result of our social media obsession? Big data, “extremely large data sets that… reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions.” Big data allows those with access to keep their fingers on the pulse of user’s news preferences, political leanings, brand allegiance, entertainment preferences, and more, all based on information that we readily provide through social networks.
What does this mean for innovators today? The success of social media clearly demonstrates that today’s consumers demand a personal, customized, shareable experience. In exchange, they will gladly provide information about their consumer preferences, habits, motivations, and more. Products that both make use of the data that is available and harvest more information from users are poised to make a big splash in our social networking-saturated market.