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Social Networks, from the 80s to the 00s

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Written by Brian McConnell

As Facebook enjoys its moment in the sun, we should take a moment to step back and look at the history of computers and social communication. Some historical perspective is in order, both to assess the real value of social networks as businesses, and to anticipate how they are likely to evolve in the future. [digg=]

I’ve been using the Internet since 1988, and have been using various commercial online services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and GEnie since I had my first computer. A lot of things that could be described as social networks have come and gone in that time.

Bulletin Boards

People have been using computers for social communication since the very beginning of the personal computer industry. Long before the Internet became accessible to the general public, people were hosting BBS systems, many of them focused on an interest group or local community. One particularly prescient invention was FidoNet, a network for BBSes that allowed systems to transfer data (messages, files, etc.) in bucket-brigade fashion to sites around the world. It grew to, at one point, cover much of the world, and was an entirely community-based effort.

Since not everyone had a computer , the communities that emerged in the BBS world largely revolved around computers in some way. Some BBSes focused on DIY computer projects, others on games, and more than a few were devoted to pirating commercial software.

Online Services

Commercial online services reached their peak in the 1990s, first as destinations in of themselves, and later as a way to access the Internet. These services provided access to a broad range of services that are now mirrored on the web. News, travel reservations, shopping and social hubs were all part of the package; much of what we see today on the web existed in some form on these sites. Social communication was one of the big draws for online services, as a major source of their revenue was derived from billing for usage on a per-minute basis. AOL in particular recognized this and allowed users to create communities about just about any topic.

Just as online services were reaching their peak, the web became accessible to ordinary users, turning the Internet into a mainstream phenomenon. Online services, in turn, gradually morphed from destinations to a means of accessing the Internet.

Throughout this period, the population of computer users expanded rapidly. AOL, for all of its faults, deserves a lot of credit for introducing millions of people to the Internet. As the user community grew, online services began to build communities around more diverse interest groups, most having nothing to do with computers. The community focus shifted from computers to people who happened to use computers to do something.

Web 1.0

From the mid-90s to 2000, there was an explosion of activity as companies rushed to reproduce existing online services on the web. There were many social services created during this period, notably GeoCities and One thing the web did was to eliminate the walled garden problem that plagued AOL and their brethren. This promoted the development of niche communities, such as PlanetOut/, that may have otherwise been stifled by corporate censorship in controlled environments. While none of these services advertised themselves as a social network per se, they had many of the same characteristics.


Friendster deserves special mention because it was the first popular web site that contained all of the features we expect from social networks today — especially the notion of using a social graph to track relationships. But was an unfortunate example of being too early in a developing market. Everything I have seen since Friendster is highly influenced by it, and generally offers the same basic features, just in a different package.

The Future

While I think commercial social networks will continue to be popular, it is dangerous to project future growth from past trends. There are several important trends already underway that, while they are good for social networking as a whole, will undermine proprietary commercial services.

Commercial social networks today are a lot like online services in the mid-90s — they’re popular because they make something easier to do (maintain a social graph, keep track of friends, search for new people). It was not that long ago when getting online was difficult for novice users. Large businesses (EarthLink, Netcom, AOL) were built around making the Internet easy to use. They became superfluous as broadband became standard and devices with built-in Net access were shipped.

I think the same thing is likely to happen to social networks, so let’s look at what a social network really does, and think about how that can be implemented on the open web.


Social networks make it easy for people to create profiles using standard templates. This makes sense, but this is really no different than a web page. I like what Chris Messina and co. are doing with their distributed social networking project, which uses blogs as a basic building block, and microformats to embed metadata in pages. Separating profiles from other functions, like search and discovery, makes a lot of sense because then you can have one page or site that is visible via many different search tools.

Search (and the Social Graph)

The social graph is a function that can easily be added to search engines. Once web sites, blogs, etc. are tagged to indicate that they are profiles, search engines can crawl them to pick up metadata, links to friends, etc. Search engines are already good at indexing the web, so adding a vertical search for people and social information is not a daunting task. Expect the search engines to add social/people search features. While the conventional wisdom holds that this task will naturally fall to Google, I think this is an area where AOL or Yahoo could score an unexpected win, as both companies are much more people- and community-focused.


One of the reasons Facebook is so addictive is because it is a convenient way to track the status of friends. This, too, is something that can be moved onto the open web. Anyone who wants to can publish updates, events, etc. via standard formats like RSS and iCal. Anyone who wants to monitor their friend’s updates can do so, via a feed reader, or via custom applications that have yet to be built. If this becomes standard practice, there will be many opportunities for software developers to create new and better ways to track and display this information.

Follow The Money

To many, social networking is a winner-takes-all market. But I don’t think that’s the case. With the three pieces above, you can recreate what any social network does using open standards and the web. At the moment, this requires more effort, so people use commercial services, but in the long run, open standards usually win.

I would bet on a company like WordPress or perhaps Tumblr to come out with a simple tool that makes publishing profiles and updates easy, and that is designed with social search in mind. Maybe this will be an open-source tool, maybe it will be a commercial service supported by monthly fees or advertising. My guess is that many companies will get into this category, and that — just as there is diversity among blogging and personal publishing tools — there will not be one clear winner. Blog authoring and hosting companies are logical entrants, as they already do the majority of what’s needed for an open social network.

Search will be an important component of this, and I would expect that Google and other search vendors will play a dominant role here. There should also be opportunities for companies that specialize in people and social search. They’ll make money, as they already do, by mixing targeted ads with their social search tools.

The good news for users is that this will be an open market, an ecosystem, with no lock in. Users will be able to choose among many profile and update publishing tools. They’ll also be able to use whatever search tool they prefer. Most importantly, users (a.k.a. publishers) will own their data, and will be able to control how it is presented to the outside world.

The bad news for social networking companies is that this is not a winner-takes-all market, with winner-takes-all valuations. Blog authoring tools are a good comparison. This is certainly not a bad business to be in, but it is not a get-rich-quick business, either. The barriers to entry will also disappear as the network effect of having a large user community becomes irrelevant when every participant is equally searchable via multiple services. I also think that the general paranoia about big companies using personal data inappropriately will be an incentive for people to switch to other tools that provide more control over the use and presentation of their data.

If I had to pick a category to start a company in, I’d pick authoring tools. There’s real long-term value there, as people tend to pick a publishing tool and stick with it — and they’ll more for higher-end tools. If I were Facebook, I’d be thinking about how to participate in this trend — in other words, deal with change before it deals with you.

87 Responses to “Social Networks, from the 80s to the 00s”

  1. “One thing the web did was to eliminate the walled garden problem that plagued AOL and their brethren.”

    I wouldn’t say that the “walled-garden” situation was a problem that “plagued” anyone. Back in the early 1980s, we were a little frustrated on occasion that all our friends weren’t on the same online service. Files that existed on one service were eventually carried to the others, and the services offered were pretty much the same.

    Rather than feeling plagued by a problem, each service’s users were pretty smug about their choice, and regarded others as inferior.

    (“Walled garden” isn’t quite the right metaphor, in any event–through it has a nice ring to it. It was more like “separate universes.” I mean, you can climb over a wall to get into the garden. Skipping across universes is another matter entirely. You could go in a legitimate entrance portal, or hack your way through the wormholes of network connections. But, I digress…)

    So, isolated from other online services as they were, no one felt plagued. They just felt that those on other services had made bad decisions. Yes, we all hoped for email interconnects, and the DASnet mail ferry was a neat patch at the time. Even better was when CompuServe and MCI Mail linked, and then you get to other services … and eventually you could do Internet mail from commercial online services (beginning in 1988, on DELPHI).
    –Mike On the Way to the Web

  2. I see that someone has already talked about Plato, which was a nice experiment.

    It would appear that the first social networks were informal groups of ARPAnet users. The earliest wide-open social networks (open to everyone who had a microcomputer and modem) formed in CompuServe’s SIGs (later Forums), beginning with the AVSIG. The Source followed. Both in 1979.

    SIGs and fora on DELPHI, Playnet, Q-Link, and all the many other online services hosted social networking groups. In the end, I think that social networking is another example of things being reinvited and renamed. Just like cloud computing, which we were doing in 1983 on an open level, and in the mid-1950s on a more private level. (See the new book, On the Way to the Web.)

  3. The site for those who love the Italy that you won’t experience on the tour-bus itinerary.

    A social network dedicated to those who appreciate Italy the regional, the seasonal; hidden nooks, funky festivals, the restaurant where the owner is your host, chef and sommelier; the Barista who…..

    Well, you get our idea.

    What’s yours?


  4. I was sysop with my 300 baud rate model back in the late 1980’s — while many of these networks were devoted to computers, there were also many that were emergency oriented (firemen/police would use them), there were a fair number of disability rights and information BBS, in part, inspired by Project Enable, and of course, community bbs and even some devoted to religion. Also, lots of college kids ran bbs – I first learned about BBS from some colleagues at MIT, etc — they were focused on computers, but also just social space – sort of a very primitive myspace.

  5. Clearly it’s possible to embed relationship management tools into Web applications and commercial software. But that won’t obviate or replace the Facebook or LinkedIn platforms, which do much more than that. There is plenty of headroom for horizontal media & large networks. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in learning more about the differences between how people use social networks to manage personal and professional relationships, the editors of Found| READ in conjunction with My Global Career invite you to participate in the groundbreaking study called State of Social Networking 2008. To complete the survey, please go to

  6. Nice post, Brian; I hope your prediction about the authoring tool is right — I’d certainly use it. I also like the your recognizing of the value of social networks to marginalized communities; the more detailed discussion of the recent history of social network sites (1997-2006) in boyd and Ellison’s “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”* includes AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, Mi Gente, and (in a different dimension)

    Steve, great perspective on PLATO. Thanks!

    Jerome, fascinating point about CARINET. The US-centricity of a lot of the coverage of these issues means that some of the most interesting prototypes vanish from history …

    Something I mentioned in my post on this at Tales from the Net** is that the lack of understanding of Facebook several of the commenters show here is mirrored in the Economist’s debate.*** If you think of Facebook as ”a waste of time” or “clean and friendly bulletin board”, you’re missing large dimensions of its value to a lot of people. Try spending significant amounts of time there, or some less-privacy-invasive site, for a few months learning how to use it — and getting advice from the people who have grown up there — before judging it. Or don’t; but in that case, don’t fool yourself that you understand it.


  7. The important point in the piece is decoupling search and discovery from profiles. This does not necessarily mean all of the components need to be free or open. My guess is most people will prefer to use one of several commercial options. Ditto with search, many will use Google, others will use some yet to be built social network search tool. Some will build and host their own systems. So I think it is inevitable that the category will evolve in much the way the web did.

    About VoIP and social networks, the idea has been out there for a while. Several companies tried this in the 90s, CUCME is one I remember in particular. Paltalk has also been doing a lot in this area. Going back to ‘old times’ there were phone chat rooms. Not VoIP, but similar idea.

    Sorry if I overlooked some services, there are a lot and I had to keep this piece short. Nor am I throwing mud all over Facebook. While I don’t understand their valuation, it is certainly useful for its main audience.

  8. While there are more than enough definitions of “social networks” to fit any agenda, situation, or context needed, I was curious if there were any particular reasons why eBay was left out of this. In terms of size and value creation for both eBay and it’s users, is there anyone out there that comes remotely close?

  9. On the history – Just for the historical record, CARINET (Caribbean Implementation Network) created with in Partnership for Productivity International in 1982/83 using Murry Turoff’s EISE softward linking about 30 developing countries and introductged x.25 and concepts of social networking to many countires in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. But the record seems to be wiped clean of its exsistence.

  10. Good post.

    Still too much hype around Social Networking. The irrational exhuberance is back for Social network sites.

    No interworking among social networks make them a closed world, and many people maintain several users in several sites. OpenID might resolve it.

    On the other side, when people get use to blogs and RSS, why do you need a closed platform?

  11. I think Social Networking is The new revolution of the young writers to come out and spread their Imaginative ideas and promote their individualism using blog.
    I noticed that bloogers follow the thread and become a life and guide to everyone what is your thought of a certain topic.

    Thats how i feel! maybe iam wrong or maybe not.

  12. CatpoWer

    I see a big future for OpenID as users want to own their online profile and are fed up with social sites claiming their user data.

    Based on OpenID a whole new network of separate social services can start to flourish.

  13. Great post! With Facebook making headlines everywhere from Time magazine to The Today Show, it is difficult to remember that online social networking is only ten years old. It is amazing how much the genre has changed our lives in that short time. After the integration of the functions of Open Social and OpenID there is much more to look forward to. Lets hope things move much quicker than anticipated.

    Parul Bindra – Web 2.0 Blog