Main Body

Chapter 1 – A Historical Perspective


The history of social media (SM) is not confined to the technical innovations created in the last 15 years or so. In fact, one of this week’s presenters, Tom Standage, claims that SM has been around for 2000 years!

In this chapter, you will find that throughout history, SM has proliferated in various forms and with various audience types: literate gentry, common folk, computer geeks, and others.

While the focus of this course is on present-day trends and concepts of SM, it is important to understand that social interaction through media is not a new experience. The Internet Age is different from past systems because it has offered the lowest entry point for mass communication in human history, on a global scale.

Second, there is a distinction between a social network and social media – they are not interchangeable terms. For example, early forms of online communication through a Bulletin Board Service (BBS), message system, community group, or USENET group were intended as systems for people to connect, interact, and share information. There was no method for monetizing this form of networked participation. MySpace was the first social network system to monetize the data generated by the content and engagement produced by members. Once subsequent social network systems developed business models around the content produced by its members, the term “social media” became a more accurate representation of the systems. Thus, when you hear the expression, “When the service is free, the product is you,” it is referring to users’ attention to media that can be sold to advertisers.

In the first presentation below, Kevin Kelly’s “How Technology Evolves” begins by explaining how technological innovations evolve and assimilate into our culture. He goes so far as to say, “Technology is who we are,” and that today’s interaction is part of a continuing trend of self-organization as an extension of our humanity.

Then we will hear Tom Standage’s presentation which describes SM as a concept that transcends our simple notion of contemporary SM system. Evidently, what we are familiar with today is not that much different than what people did 2000 years ago.

So how did SM find its way to the Internet? Andrew Keen, in “Digital Vertigo:  How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing, and Disorienting Us,” offers an intriguing theory. In the mid-1960s, west coast hippies – known for a community-driven culture – happened to converge in the Silicon Valley area with the pioneers of computer technology companies.

Keen states, .”.. the history of Silicon Valley must be understood in terms of its social values, moral judgments and economic ideas – in the context of what some sociologists would call its ‘ideology’.” (Keen, A., 2012, p. 97). An example of his thesis is found in the Community Memory Project (below) which originated in the San Francisco, CA area.

The Computer History Museum: community memoryThe Community Memory Project: 1973, Berkeley and San Francisco, California. Excerpts from flyers:

“COMMUNITY MEMORY is the name we give to this experimental information service. It is an attempt to harness the power of the computer in the service of the community. We hope to do this by providing a sort of super bulletin board where people can post notices of all sorts and can find the notices posted by others rapidly.”

“… a tool for collective thinking, planning, organizing, fantasizing, and decision-making.”

“By being open and interactive, Community Memory seeks to present an alternative to broadcast media such as TV. The nightly national TV news – both commentary and commercials – gives people the ‘word’ from on high, telling us ‘that’s the way it is.’ Community Memory is different. It makes room for the exchange of people-to-people information, recognizing and legitimizing the ability of people to decide for themselves what information they want.”

From the library resource: “The Community Memory Project: An Introduction,” 1982, Community Memory records, Lot X3090.2005, Box 12, Folder 20, Catalog 102734414, Computer.

Other primary resources: “Community Memory” catalog search.

We will also review how The Well emerged as the prototypical networked SM platform for our age, how it was envisioned by its creators, and how its members’ lives were changed. This media is offered as primary testimony by The Well’s developers who describe their philosophy and motives in creating the first virtual asynchronous (not realtime) online community.

Key Terms

Disruptive – In the context of this course, we will define “disruptive” as the ability to displace or marginalize an existing tradition, process, or model. The causes of disruption often involve technologies, but sometimes involve an innovation in process. The effect of a disruption is a change in the structure of social, political, economic, personal, or interpersonal traditions.

What should you be focusing on?

Your objectives in this module are:

  • Trace how present-day social media fits in the historical continuum of social communication.
  • Identify the motives for creating social communication.

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In this chapter’s readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. SM is a technology that was created within the context of many other technologies.
  2. SM, as we know it today, is not the first form of SM – there is a long historical trail of SM systems and technologies that precede what we see today, each with their respective disruptive influence.
  3. Online SM, as we know it today, was inspired by its first creators within a particular social and political context that influenced the rationale for its existence.

    Required     Video: Kevin Kelly’s “How Technology Evolves” presentation (19:41)

Kevin Kelly begins the story by describing the historical motive for change through the human invention of technologies. However, Kelly’s presentation is not about SM.

This presentation will help us to step back and view SM as a technology: one that is embedded among other contemporary technologies and built upon prior needs and technologies.

Kelly:  “The question that I came up with was this: what does technology want? And by that, I don’t mean, does it want chocolate or vanilla? I mean, what are its inherent trends and biases? What are its tendencies over time?”

What to look for as you watch:

  • Consider that SM is just a point on an existing continuum spanning ALL technological inventions created by humans for some purpose or another. This may help you to get a sense of how SM fits into a historical narrative of ongoing technological innovation.
  • Consider how Kelly proposes the need to be engaged with technologies rather than fearing them. What are the steps we should take to discover their usefulness?
  • Identify the connection between “what technology wants” and the larger question of why SM was invented.
Video Kevin Kelly
Kelly, Kevin. (2005, February). How Technology Evolves [ Video file ]. Retrieved from
connectConnect to Kevin Kelly @kevin2kelly – Website:

    Required     Video: Tom Standage – “Lessons from Ancient Social Media” presentation (16:00)

We leap from a broad conversation about technology, what propels it, and how we manage it, to a narrower story about SM as a concept.

Standage claims that SM isn’t new at all – it is simply an extension of other forms of communication going back 2000+ years. The critical proposition in this presentation is about how each step in the evolution of social communication carried with it a disruptive shock to the balance of life and society at that time.

What to look for as you watch:

  • Consider why people throughout history have been trying to communicate through media.
  • How have these forms of SM been disruptive? To whom or what?
tom standage
Standage, Tom [TEDx Talks]. (2013, August 19). Lessons from ancient social media | Tom Standage | TEDxOxbridge [ Video file ]. Retrieved from
connectConnect to Tom Standage@tomstandage – Website:

    Required     Videos: The WELL – Hippies in Cyberspace (20:00)

The following short videos describe the historical background of The WELL, the first online network-based social media platform in a form similar to what we recognize today.

What’s particularly valuable about these presentations is that they are primary testimony from the individuals who were involved from The WELL’s inception.

One of the speakers, Howard Rheingold, is a prominent author on the subject of digital culture. In the video, he refers to “The Farm” and “living on a bus.” These are details related to a time in the late 1960s when groups of hippies formed farm-based communes. One group pooled their money to buy a fleet of old buses, drove them to a plot of land in Tennessee and parked them in an arrangement to form a new community.

These kinds of alternative social relationships, he claims, inspired the communitarian culture found in SM.

What to look for as you watch:

  • What were the underlying social ideals that motivated the creation of The WELL?
  • How are the early principles of communitarianism reflected in the modern concept of an “online community?”
howard rheingold

Rheingold, Howard [nibiuploader]. (2009, August 22). Howard Rheingold on early days of the WELL [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

Rheingold, Howard [Susan Hedin]. (2009, August 24). Early days of the WELL [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

connectConnect to Howard Rheingold @hrheingold – Website:


In your online research for this topic DO NOT CITE THE ARTICLES BELOW. They are inaccurate and not suitable for use in our studies.

DO NOT CITE THIS ARTICLE:  “Complete History of Social Media: Then And Now“, May 8, 2013 by Drew Hendricks.

DO NOT CITE THIS ARTICLE: “The History of Social Media: Social Networking Evolution!” by the History Cooperative.

Optional: The History of the Commodore 64

Check out this brief section about modems in the history of the Commodore 64 home computer system. Go to the part at 28:37 where it describes the introduction of a modem to access some of the online social platforms at that time. The Quantum Link system operated from 1985 – 1995.

Optional: Video Documentary – “The History of the the Bulletin Board System (BBS)”

If there was an infinite amount of time available for this topic, this documentary would be assigned watching. The History of the BBS is told by the original creators of the systems that were used to interact over primitive Internet connections. BBS are the earliest forms of electronic network social media.


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