What Were the First Social Networking Sites? Earliest Roots and a General History

Discussions about social media are typically focused on the most popular websites at that particular time, so today we analyze Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and most recently, Pinterest.

But in order to gain a deeper understanding of how these sites operate and allow for social interaction, it is necessary to take a step back. This post will investigate the roots of social networking and the first technologies that paved the way for what we today consider to be social networks.

The idea that computers could facilitate social interactions among people was an early one, and a mission that in fact predated the World Wide Web by decades.

One of the first technologies relevant to the discussion is ARPANET, the first operational packet switching network that was developed in the late 1960s. This new data communication method went on to form the basis of what we today know as the global internet. All social interactions we have with other people online is thanks to ARPANET, which was originally a project funded by the US Department of Defense.

In the following years, a number of online services build on these core networking principles, such as bulletin board services which date back to 1978. That same year, a popular book called The Network Nation put forth a compelling argument about the potential for computer-mediated communication. Authors and said that computers shrink “time and distance barriers among people, and between people and information, to near zero.”

The next big social network was a worldwide discussion system known as Usenet, established in 1980. The service was basically an early version of internet forums, and allowed users to read and post messages to one or more categories, known as newsgroups. A distributed network of servers stored messages and sent them to one another.

In 1985, a new online social network known as The WELL was launched, and it went on to become a huge success. The Well was initially a dial-up bulletin board system, then became one of the original dial-up ISPs in the early 1990s. Its evolution to keep up with trends in technology reminds us of modern-day sites such as Facebook, which have unveiled many big changes in order to stay relevant and offer new features to users.

By the late 1990s, the WELL offered a variety of features to enable discussion and conversation, and is said to be the birthplace of the “virtual community.” Discussions on The WELL inspired a number of authors to write books, and the network was a major online meeting place for Grateful Dead fans in its early years. In 1998, the website’s about page featured the following text to introduce visitors to the community:

The WELL is a cluster of electronic villages that live on the Internet, with denizens from all over the globe. A discussion on the great eateries of Paris might include playful banter from people typing to one another from San Jose, Tokyo, Boston, Seattle… and the Left Bank. More than just another “site” or “home page,” The WELL has a sense of place that is palpable.

The WELL is still active today, with a community of about 4,000 users, and is owned by the Salon Media Group.

Another important point to keep in mind is the fact that in the early years, most “social networking” services served a much smaller, niche audience and required a lot of technical know-how, especially before the World Wide Web became a reality for the public.

Continue reading part 2 of this series, to read about the first social networking sites that more closely resemble those of today. There are more than a couple tales of meteoric rises followed by horrible collapses!

Part 2: History of the First Social Networks: TheGlobe, SixDegrees and Friendster


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  1. often people forget that forums and message boards are just as critical to social media as twitter and facebook. Although they have lost popularity, there are tons of them out there and are more useful today than ever before as a place to engage people directly. sadly, most people who do use them only see them as backlinks and so they ruin their reputations rather than building them.

    • Hi James,
      I definitely agree. Forums are still a great way to connect with like-minded people interested in a particular topic. They’re also where beginners often go to ask questions, so it’s a great opportunity to build your authority by helping them out. But you do see too many people joining just to promote their site or build a bunch of profile links.

  2. Very good research. I didn’t know about any of these. For me and I think, for many of us, social networking is something that happened in 2000s onward. Had no idea about WELL and APRANET.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chitra. Social networking does seem like a phenomenon characteristic of the 2000s and the “Web 2.0” craze, but it’s interesting to go back and examine earlier technologies that in many ways served the same purposes. The epic collapses of some of the first sites are very entertaining as well!

  3. really the web was intended to be a social atmosphere all along. and it has become more and more so as the technology is developed to do that.

    • Andrew Walsh says:

      Agreed, James! A lot of things that are said to be unique to blogging and the Web 2.0 revolution were also being said back in the 90s. But it’s interesting to see the influence of emerging web technologies.

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