History of Online Social Networks

History of Online Social Networks

The earliest social networking services available on the Internet were Usenet groups and bulletin boards established by like-minded communities to communicate about specific topics. As these early Internet users were computer programmers and enthusiasts, they often focused on technology and computer science, as well as topics of interest to them, such as role-playing games. A common feature of these sites was the chat room, a dedicated web space that let people type messages to each other and receive responses in real time. Because they were seen as being for "techies," or people with great interest in and knowledge of technology, the early social networking sites were not very popular with the mainstream population.

The social networking site is distinguished from the earlier, simpler community messaging sites by the ways it makes a user's network visible to others. Some of the earliest services to perform this function were Classmates, which attempted to reconnect people who had attended school together, and Six Degrees of Separation, which allowed people to list their friends for others to view. Another early networking site to use the friends list was LiveJournal, which also allowed users to post blogs for others to read.

Many of these early networking sites are still active, while others, such as Six Degrees of Separation, did not fare well in the market despite having millions of registered users. By 2003, the list of services had grown to include such popular services as Friendster, LinkedIn and MySpace. When Friendster announced in 2003 that it would begin charging user fees to use the website, many users left to join newer, non-fee-charging services, such as MySpace. Friendster had also been suffering from technical problems due to a surge in new users as it became more popular. This rapid decline is something most web-based businesses must worry about.

With the enormous popularity of social networking websites has come enormous growth. In May 2006, Nielsen//Netratings reported that the top ten networking sites had collectively grown at a rate of 47 percent from the previous year.

MySpace is one of the most popular social networking websites, in part because of its widespread adoption by teenagers, a user base that several earlier sites failed to attract. Between its launch in 2003 and 2007, the number of new members joining daily had grown to 230,000. Facebook, expanding from its 2004 launch as an exclusive networking service for Harvard University, is expected to compete with MySpace in popularity and membership.

As has been the case throughout the technology world, once a website becomes popular, it attracts the attention of larger companies seeking to purchase it. In May 2005, MySpace was purchased by News Corporation for nearly $600 million. In 2003, Google unsuccessfully attempted to purchase Friendster (it launched Orkut instead, and, in 2007, OpenSocial). Microsoft Corporation purchased shares in Facebook for $240 million in 2007.

Such popularity also brings negative attention. Cases involving the stalking of minors, bullying and privacy issues have become part of the public debate over social networking. Several minors have been lured into relationships with sexual predators they met online, forcing MySpace and other services to adopt age requirements and other safety measures. Other notable cases involve the use of social networking websites to investigate the claims or attitudes of job and college applicants. Copyright infringement cases have also arisen as a result of the use of music and video clips on personal profiles.

The definition of social networking has widened since the 1990s. Many services offer networking in the non-traditional sense. For example, YouTube, which is a video streaming website, allows users to form groups dedicated to certain topics or themes, and registered users may also communicate through the website by sharing videos or posting messages. Digg allows users to share news stories or other items of interest, vote on them and make comments about posts. Last.fm encourages users to share their favorite music with users by creating playlists that can be viewed by others; recommendations are then made for music the user may also like. Many of these same features are available on traditional networking sites as well. Another extremely popular form of networking involves massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), such as World of Warcraft and Second Life, where users/players meet and interact in real time.

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