A Brief History of Social Media: ARPANET to TikTok

Social media has evolved dramatically from its early internet origins in the 1960s with ARPANET, to the highly interactive platforms of today. The 1990s introduced the first true social media sites like SixDegrees and Bolt, but it was MySpace and Facebook, launched in the early 2000s, that truly defined the modern era of social networking. Facebook, in particular, has flourished and boasts billions of users. As most people know, social media is a fundamental part of modern life, influencing culture, business, and politics globally. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok engage billions, driving new cultural trends and marketing strategies. They’re also used as weapons of disinformation and possible covert information gathering (TikTok), as the visibility provided by social media also presents risks, potentially impacting personal and professional reputations negatively. As technologies like AI continue to advance, the influence and scope of social media are expected to evolve, transforming how we interact digitally.The platforms and apps that many of us spend hours on each day checking statuses and sharing photos have only been around for roughly 15 years in their current recognizable form.However, the origins of social networking trace back decades earlier.Here is a brief look at the rapid evolution of social media into one of the most influential communication and cultural forces of the 21st century:Social media timeline from 1969 to today. Includes social media origins from thej 1970's through Twitter (X), Facebook, TikTok and more.

Seeds Planted with the Early Internet (1960s-1970s)

It’s impossible to discuss social media without first understanding the internet’s origins from which it sprang. While Twitter and TikTok seem cutting-edge, the groundwork was laid back in the 1960s. Here are some key developments:

  • 1969: ARPANET, the earliest packet-switched network and precursor to the internet, is launched. Connecting multiple universities, it initially allowed basic communications between connected computer terminals.
  • Early 1970s: Building on ARPANET, networks like UseNet, ARPANET, and Telenet begin connecting more universities and organizations. The basics of email communication take shape during this time period as well.
  • 1978: Against the rules of the network, Gary Thuerk of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) sent out the first mass email to approximately 400 potential clients via the ARPANET.

While radically innovative compared to previous eras, early internet users still lacked the connectivity and means to interact with each other online the way modern social media allows. The pieces were not yet in place for social networking as we now know it.

First True Social Media Sites Emerge (Late 1990s)

Things began shifting from static, text-based internet pages to interactive platforms centered around users. Advances in web technology ultimately allowed the first recognizable social networking sites to develop:

  • 1997: SixDegrees becomes the first social networking site where users can create profiles and friends lists while exploring friends-of-friends networks. It lasted from 1997 to 2000.
  • 1997: Bolt launches as a limited social network for teens aged 15-20, allowing profile creation and friends lists. It offered all kinds of content that included daily horoscopes, chat rooms, message boards, photo albums, browser games, and more. Bolt folds by 1998.

Early sites showed the potential of social networks but lacked the massive reach for long-term viability.

MySpace and Facebook Define the Era (2003-2008)

The social media world radically transformed between 2003-2008 thanks to two sites that introduced prolific features that all networks today possess:

2003-2008: MySpace Leads the Way

  • 2003: MySpace opened to the public and eventually became the largest social media site, surpassing 1 million monthly active users faster than any site prior.
  • At its peak in April 2008, Myspace and Facebook reached 115 million monthly visitors.
  • Celebrities and musicians embraced the platform. User customization led to pages with unique skins, backgrounds, music players, and layouts that fostered MySpace’s trendy reputation.
  • In July 2005, Myspace was acquired by News Corporation for $580 million.
  • From 2005 to 2009, Myspace was the largest social networking site in the world.

2004 and Beyond: Facebook Overtakes MySpace

  • 2004: Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launches Facebook as a classmate directory. It eventually expands via workplaces, schools, and geographic regions.
  • 2006: Facebook opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address.
  • 2011: Facebook became the second-most accessed website in the U.S., behind Google. Facebook reached one trillion page views in June 2011, making it the most visited website tracked by DoubleClick.
  • 2022: Facebook boasts 2.95 billion global monthly users with dozens of features facilitating messaging, commerce, groups, live video, gaming and more.

Facebook’s relentless expansion left all competing services in the dust. Combined with other platforms in its family, like Instagram, it has become one of history’s most influential technology products.

Present Day: Social Media’s Societal Saturation (2010 and Beyond)

Social media began as a curiosity but is now a pillar of 21st-century life thanks to the smartphone age. Networks have unprecedented user bases and importance:

  • YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok count users in the hundreds of millions to billions. Video sharing, messaging, advertising, and consuming short-form content are now daily habits worldwide.
  • New cultural phenomena like selfies, viral memes, and social media influencers emerge from these networks and circulate globally.
  • 76% of American consumers purchased a product after seeing a brand’s social post.
  • Social issues are now sparked or amplified using hashtags and calls to action on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. For better or worse, social media is inexorably tied to societal narratives.

Social Media as a Reputation Builder or Destroyer

A reputation management blog would be remiss not to discuss social media’s influential and risky impacts on personal and professional reputations. Social platforms grant regular people immense visibility – for better or worse. A single viral tweet or Instagram photo can turn an ordinary citizen into a globally recognized figure practically overnight. This instant exposure can improve reputations and lead to lucrative opportunities. Consider social media success stories:

  • Unknown school teacher goes viral on TikTok through fun math lesson videos, gains a huge following, and secures lucrative sponsorship deals.
  • Small business owners share behind-the-scenes Instagram stories and build authentic community and loyalty, leading to store traffic spikes.

However, increased visibility through social media can damage reputations more easily than ever. Platforms are rife with misinformation, excessive drama, call-out culture, unflattering photos saved forever on the internet, and more. For example:

  • Teen posts an insensitive tweet from years prior, which resurfaces. Cancel culture descends, and the person is forced to issue an apology and be branded “problematic.”
  • Disgruntled customer shares scathing, public negative reviews of a local store. The owner struggles to reassure the community while risking revenue declines.

In conclusion, social media platforms make ordinary people traceable global brands – amplifying personalities and messages for better or worse. Anyone with access to the internet must weigh the risks versus rewards of increased visibility, guarding their reputations vigilantly. One viral moment can create immense opportunity while subjecting you to permanent character redefinition from friends or foes alike.

Final Thoughts

In about 15 years, social networks have risen from dorm room experiments to omnipresent platforms rivaling any in history by size and impact. They facilitated seismic shifts in communication styles, business promotion, marketing, politics, and beyond. While pioneers like MySpace have vanished, Facebook and relatives like Instagram or WhatsApp now seem poised to continue dominating thanks to their billions-strong user bases. Competitors like Snapchat and TikTok nip at their heels while aspiring to similar ubiquitous reach. With new technologies like AI, VR, and the metaverse rising, our virtual social existences will only grow more advanced, immersive, and critical to real-world relationships. The modern social networking giants hope to remain relevant amidst the next generation of the internet still being built. But if the rapid evolution of the past 15 years taught us anything, it’s that no platform, no matter how dominant, is immune to disruption from hungry upstarts looking to guide the way we digitally interact next.

About the author

Brianne Schaer is a Writer and Editor for Reputation X, an award-winning online reputation management services agency based in California. Brianne has more than seven years of experience creating powerful stories, how-to documentation, SEO articles, and Wikipedia content for brands and individuals. When she’s not battling AI content bots, she is cruising around town in her Karmann Ghia. You can see more of her articles here and here.

Tags: Social Media Marketing.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Get in touch with our team and we’ll take the first steps toward making you look better online.

Talk with Us