In this past decade, social networking sites have connected nearly a billion users

Food riot shook the Egyptian textile manufacturing center of El Mahalla El Kubra in the spring of 2008, and a 29-year-old University of California, Berkeley graduate journalism student, Jams Buck, was covering and photographing them. In the early evening of April 10, police detained him. While sitting in his cell with his cell phone, Buck surreptitiously tapped out Arrested.


That single urgent word leapt through the two-year-old texting service, Twitter. Buck’s Twitter followers, who knew where he was and what he was doing, immediately alerted the US authorities. Within a few hours, he was free. While he’s not sure how much to credit Twitter with his quick release, the surrounding publicity pushed Twitter, along with other social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, into the mass-market consciousness.


First discovered and dominated by socially conscious kids, social networking sites are now meccas for computer and cell phone users of all ages. But now their influence reaches far beyond mere personal updates. Increased communications capabilities often make it more difficult for totalitarianism to survive, and social networking has become the most elastic of all communications tills. Exhibit A: the difficulty the theocratic Iranian government has in stifling messages among opposition movements.


In less than a decade, thousands of such sites have attracted nearly a billion worldwide users. But one site and one innovation triggered this explosive- and addictive- social phenomenon.


Decentralized Communications

In many ways, social networking is the culmination of the very idea of the Internet. The vision of making social connections online started during a blizzard in Chicago in the winter of 1978, when several snowbound computer hobbyists created the first bulletin board system, which enabled users to dial into a computerized message board. A year later, a Columbus, Ohio-based time-sharing network, CompuServe, started a service available to consumers during evening downtime. As home PCs multiplied, companies such as Prodigy and America Online were formed, concentrating primarily upon e-mail services.


In 1985 the virtual community concept was born with the WELL (Whole Earth’Lectronic Link) in San Francisco. Ten years later, a small Beverly Hills Web hosting company created GeoCities, which enabled users to create their own personal Web pages.


Interests and Invitations

In 2002 software engineer Jonathan Abrams came up with the idea of using software to connect people of similar interests. He created a Web-based system for users to easily create their own home pages and invite people they knew to join. Abrams’s system of automatically linking interests and user invitations was so original that is was awarded US patent four years later. Abrams founded Friendster, the first modern social networking site, in March 2003. In less than eight months, with no public relations or marketing efforts, Friendster’s “viral” concept attracted more than 2 million subscribers. The idea of “friending” soon became a full-blown craze.


But Friendster fell victim to its own success, its system overburdened by the unexpected traffic. While Abrams’s system could be patented, the idea behind it couldn’t, and a clogged Friendster soon faced competition from faster and better-designed sites. By the end of 2004, MySpace, which was launched by Friendster users in August 2003, had surpassed its predecessor’s user base and soon became the Web’s leading social networking site.


MySpace itself soon faced competition from Facebook, designed by Harvard sophomore Mark Zuckerberg and lauched in February 2004. Facebook currently boasts more than 350 million active users worldwide and nearly 400 million unique visitors per month.


The evolution of 3G cell phone networks and the popularity of cell phone texting led to the launch of Twitter in July 2006. New users could type and broadcast 140-character messages, or tweets, over their cell phones to their own linked subscriber list, or followers. Twitter’s headlong success dwarfed even MySpace’s and Facebook’s. In Jun 2008, just after James Buck’s highly publicized usage, it still had fewer than 3 million monthly unique visitors worldwide; a year later, these had reached nearly 45 million, more than half via cell phone. New cell phone products soon emerged that made it easy to access Facebook, MySpace, and other Web-based social networking services.


These sites have created a virtual global public square, shattering geographic boundaries; its ease of connecting, reconnecting, and keeping connected with family, coworkers, and friends has attracted nearly a billion user worldwide. This new world lags only behind search engines as the primary Web destinations. Could social networking help democratize the world?

Source: American Heritage’s Intention and Technology (The magazine of Innovation)