Updated January 25, 2023
We tend to think of Facebook, or maybe Myspace, as launching “social media” into the mainstream.
And from there the social network was a fully formed concept that we’ve all used for the last couple of decades to stay in touch with friends and make new connections.
To swim in the feed of content. Every day.
In reality, we owe the modern social network to several small innovations along the way, going back to the mid 1990s.
Myspace and Facebook did a lot to define the modern social network.
But what social platforms look like today was a huge collaboration. Competition among many social platforms has been the key.
The last few years have been full of negative stories for social networks: privacy stories, political stories, mental health stories.
The future of social networks needs to be filled with innovations that help us combat bad actors and bad habits. Reduce abuse, fake news, spam.
And we see the beginnings of that. Facebook and Twitter are both committed to “platform health” and creating more positive discussions in a a way we’ve never quite seen. It’s not enough yet, but it’s a start.
I look forward to seeing which social networks lead these platform health innovations for the future of social media.
But it has me thinking. How did we get here? I recently wrote about a few suggestions for Snapchat to help them snap our of their user growth plateau. And most of those suggestions are for Snapchat to simply start incorporating some basic social network discovery and sharing features.
The core features of the modern social network came in the form of innovations in the past 20 years. Let’s outline each of these innovations below in chronological order.
1997 – Profiles and Friends (Six Degrees)
Six Degrees, named for the famous Kevin Bacon connection theory, as the original social network as we would think of them today. They were the first to have profile pages and the ability for profile to connect with one another, aka “Friends.”
1999 – Updates, Followers, Groups (Livejournal)
With LiveJournal we see the beginning of what would ultimately become “the feed” of content. LiveJournal was an early blogging platform with a social layer. Users could post updates and express themselves, allowing their connections to keep up with them.
LiveJournal also allowed for different types of connections for the first time. Both asynchronous following (where I can follow you with you having to confirm or follow me back) and groups.
2002 – Friend Discoverability, Profile Comments (Friendster)
Friendster was the first to allow profile comments and made it easier to find and connect with more people.
2003 – Profile Privacy (Hi5)
We won’t see many privacy innovations on this list, but Hi5 was the first to allow you to have a public profile or restrict your profile only to your friends.
2003 – First Business Social Network (LinkedIn)
You might not realize it but LinkedIn is the oldest modern social network. Founded before Myspace even.
2003 – Scale (MySpace)
MySpace did not bring a lot of new features that I would call innovations. They had the Top 8 friends list. A music focus. And maybe went a bit too bar in letting users customize their profiles.
Most of what they did is perfect the concept of a social network to the extent that it took off and went mainstream for the first time. They launched in 2003 and were sold to NewsCorp in 2006. Later in 2006 they became the most popular website in the world at the time, with 75 million+ unique visitors each month.
2004 – The Wall (Facebook)
When Facebook launched, many of their innovations were not apart of their original success. The Wall, a profile with updates from you, from your activity, and from your friends, was the life blood of the platform. It was an evolution of posts and comments from past social networks and the pre-cursor to the modern feed most modern social networks thrive on.
2005 – Upvotes (Reddit/Digg)
Digg and Reddit both launched as news aggregators. Reddit slowly turned into more of a social network and discussion platform, and still is today. From the beginning, one of the big contributions from both platforms to social media was their upvote and downvote buttons. The original “engagement” click, sending a signal back to an algorithm about what content was popular. This predated the Facebook Like by several years.
2006 – Microblogging (Twitter)
They brought us the 140 characters that we all love and hate. And of course, it’s now 280 characters. Plus links, photos, video, live video, Medium posts, etc. But still, microblogging gave us mobile access to social media for the first time. You could text to and from 40404 and access most of the features of the site. It was very advanced at the time.
I remember live Tweeting a Barack Obama rally in 2007. Without Twitter there was no way to share or cover that event live. There was no iPhone yet.
2006 – The Feed (Twitter)
Facebook launched the News Feed in late 2006, but Twitter was there first. Twitter really launched the original social media feed of content. They had a public content and a feed of content from all the friends you followed on the site. It was so successful, that Facebook quickly followed suit. Every social network today has some type of content feed. It’s strange to think that we ever had social media without it.
2006 – @ Replies/Tags (Twitter)
The @ symbol was used before Twitter to signify that you were speaking to a person, but Twitter was the first social network to perfect it as an official feature. This organic innovation from Twitter users is the first step of what lead Twitter to become a platform focused on discussion, rather than just stand alone “eating lunch” status updates.
2007 – Social Ads (Facebook)
Myspace and Facebook both had ads before this. But when Facebook launched their ad platform as a stand alone product in 2007, it cemented their dominance. It made them into the ad giant they are today and has forever changed the advertising industry (and privacy).
2007 – Hashtags (Twitter)
As with many of the innovations on Twitter, users first started using hashtags organically to tag group discussions or events. Hashtags are now used on almost every major social network (Snapchat and Reddit are still holding out for some reason).
2007 – Retweet (Twitter)
Once again, Twitter users innovated, looking for a way to reshare and amplify content. First with “Retweet” and then the shorter “RT”. It took until 2009 for Twitter to make the Retweet button an official feature on the platform. Even today some users prefer to type out RT.
2009 – Like Button (Facebook)
The famous Facebook thumbs up launched in 2009 and never looked back. Likes, favorites, and reactions have become increasingly important to social algorithms and increasingly complex.
2010 – Mobile Social Network (Instagram)
In 2010, Instagram launched on iOS as the first mobile only social network. Since their success, all social networks have been primarily if not exclusively access on smart phones.
2011 – Ephemeral Content (Snapchat)
When Snapchat originally launched as a privacy focused messaging app, we had our first privacy innovation in social media since Hi5. This time limit on content would carry over to their Stories innovation as well.
2013 – Stories (Snapchat)
Snapchat Stories were the biggest innovation to how we use social networks since the feed first started with Twitter. Still today, stories are driving tons of growth and new content trends across the industry.
2013 – Short Video (Vine)
Vine launched short video editing from smartphones. Even though Instagram overtook Vine and Twitter would eventually acquire and shutter the product, some of the biggest trends in social media today, from stories to IGTV to TikTok, can be traced back to what Vine started.
2015 – Live Video (Meerkat)
Meerkat had a short but influential run. They created the live video trend from mobile. They made live vertical video mainstream.
2015/2016 – Short-form Video (TikTok/Musical.ly)
There is a lot to consider when it comes to innovation from TikTok. But I think the most important innovation to look at is that TikTok has become the first real social network that is focused on short-form video. And no, YouTube does not count. Maybe Vine, but alas, Vine never survived.
We may very well look back and see TikTok’s algorithm-first approach as very impactful in the social landscape. TikTok users do not need to create a profile or ever like/follow. TikTok uses their video-watching activity and psychographics (what they like and how they feel) to customize the content in their feed.
This also creates a business case for TikTok.
The biggest innovation remains a true vertical video social network with a clean user experience for discoverability, profiles, following, sharing, commenting, and groups.
Excited to see where we go next.
What did I miss? Let me know if the comments.