Here, we’ve compiled some of the most pivotal “moments” in social media’s history. From the very first social networking site (invented in the 1990s), to recent changes to networks with billions of users.
So sit back, relax, and join us while we look back at what once was the future.
The 29 most important moments in the history of social media
1. The first social media site is born (1997)
On one of the first true social media sites, SixDegrees.com, you could set up a profile page, create lists of connections, and send messages within networks.
The site amassed around one million users before it was bought out for $125 million …and shuttered in 2000, though it later made a modest comeback and still subsists today.
2. Are you? Hot or Not (2000)
Who can forget Hot or Not ( AmIHotorNot.com )—the site that invited users to submit photos of themselves so others could rate their attractiveness. The site is rumored to have influenced the creators of Facebook and YouTube—and nurtured millions of insecurities.
After being sold off a few times, its new owners tried to revive it as a “game” in 2014.
3. Friendster (2002)
Then along came everyone’s BFF: Friendster.
Launched in 2002, Friendster was originally going to be a dating site that would help set up people with friends in common. You could create a profile, include “status updates” and reveal your mood. Messaging “friends of friends of friends” was also a thing.
Unfortunately, the site’s spike in popularity in 2003 caught the company by surprise and took a toll on its servers, impacting users, who increasingly looked to connect elsewhere.
4. Myspace: “a place for friends” (2003)
In droves, frustrated Friendsters said “sorry it’s not me, it’s you” and pulled up stakes for Myspace , the Friendster rival that quickly became the go-to site for millions of hip teens. Its customizable public profiles (which often featured music, videos and badly shot, half-nude selfies) were visible to anyone, and were a welcome contrast to Friendster’s private profiles which were available only to registered users.
2005 marked the apex of Myspace. The site had 25 million users and was the fifth popular site in the United States when it sold to NewsCorp that year. And that was the start of its decline from ultra-trendy to ultra-tacky.
5. Gaining traction (2003-2005)
In 2003, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facemash, described as Harvard University’s answer to Hot or Not. “The Facebook” followed in 2004. Registering its one millionth user that same year, the site dropped the “the” to became just “Facebook” in 2005, after the “Facebook.com” domain was purchased for $200,000.
Around the same time, a tidal wave of other social media sites swept ashore:
LinkedIn emerged, targeting the business community. Photosharing sites like Photobucket and Flickr, social bookmarking site del.ici.ous and the now ubiquitous blogging platform, WordPress also came into existence.
YouTube also launched in 2005. Anyone remember “Me at the zoo”—the very first YouTube video of that man and the weirdly watchable elephants? It now has 56 million views.
News-aggregator-cum-snark factory, Reddit arrived that year too.
6. Twitter hatches (2006)
Despite its 2004 birth date, 2006 was arguably the year Facebook truly took flight: it opened registration to everyone and went from an exclusive Harvard-only club to a global network.
Twttr, the site that eventually became known as Twitter also took flight in 2006.
The first tweet ever, posted by co-founder @Jack Dorsey on March 21, 2006, read: “just setting up my twttr.” So glad they changed the name, because “twttr” scks!
Dorsey originally envisioned twttr as a text message-based tool for sending updates between friends. Apparently in the early stages of its development the twttr team racked up some steep SMS bills. TechCrunch reported twttr’s first users were sending breaking life updates like: “Cleaning my apartment” and “Hungry”. (My, how times have(n’t) changed!)
7. LinkedIn “in the Black” (2006)
In sharp contrast to other networks, LinkedIn—once known as “Myspace for adults”—was the first to offer users paid premium packages. Its Jobs and Subscriptions area, the site’s first premium business line, helped bring in revenue in the early days.
In 2006, just three years post-launch (and three years before Facebook!), LinkedIn turned a profit for the first time.
“As far as we’re concerned, a year of profitability is but a ‘taste’ of the success we aspire to achieve at LinkedIn,” said social media manager Mario Sundar, in a blog post lauding LinkedIn’s first year “in the black.”
The site’s profitability would be a recurring theme in the stampede towards IPO—both LinkedIn, and numerous copycats.
8. YouTube makes partners (2007)
Through YouTube’s elephantine beginnings, buzz grew: it gathered nearly eight million daily views between its May 2005 beta its official launch in December 2005. Then, things escalated quickly: ahead of its acquisition by Google in the fall of 2006, the site grew to 100 million videos being watched by 20 million dedicated users.
In May 2007, YouTube introduced its partnership program, which has been key for the site. The initiative is what it sounds like: a partnership between YouTube and its popular content creators. YouTube provides the platform and creators provide the content. Profits from advertising on creators’ channels are then shared between the two parties. And that’s how Lonelygirl15 and your favorite YouTubers got their start.
9. Tumblr and the age of the microblog (2007)
In 2007 the social network described as “Twitter meets YouTube and WordPress” came a-tumblin’ along. 17-year-old David Karp launched Tumblr from his bedroom in his mother’s New York apartment. The site allowed users to curate pictures, videos and text and “reblog” their friends on their “tumblelogs.”
Soon after, the term micro-blogging became widely used to describe both Twitter and Tumblr, which both allowed users to “exchange small elements of content such as short sentences, individual images, or video links.”
10. The hashtag arrives (2007)
The strict 140-character limit for tweets set Twitter apart from rivals, including Facebook and Tumblr. But Twitter’s significance in the digital age was really defined by the hashtag, a symbol that has helped political organizers and average citizens mobilize, promote, and create awareness for critical (and not so critical) social issues.
Hashtags have also helped plant the seeds that sprouted movements such as #Occupy, #BlackLivesMatter, and #MeToo.
Also, timesucks like #SundayFunday, #YOLO and #Susanalbumparty.
As the story goes, during the summer of 2007, one of Twitter’s early adopters, Chris Messina, proposed the hashtag (inspired from his early days on internet relay chats) for organizing tweets. It wasn’t until a couple of months later, that the #SanDiegoFire hashtag was sparked to aggregate tweets and updates about the California wildfires.
Still, Twitter didn’t fully embrace the hashtag until 2009, realizing that it was more than just a useful way to group content, but a unique vernacular for expressing ideas and emotions online too. It invigorated the platform, and brought new users.
11. Welcome Weibo (2009)
While we’re on the topic of micro-blogging, we would be remiss not to mention China’s Sina Weibo, or simply Weibo. A Facebook and Twitter hybrid, the site launched in 2009—the same year Facebook and Twitter were banned in the country. Along with Qzone and QQ, Weibo remains one of the most popular social networks in China, with 340 million active monthly users.
12. Back to the land with FarmVille (2009)
Back over on the other side of the ocean, 2009 was the year your mom, granddad and Aunt Jenny joined Facebook and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop inviting you to join the new family pastime, FarmVille. Like you didn’t have enough chores to do IRL, wiling the day away on virtual animal husbandry added to the list.
The addictive social game eventually made TIME magazine’s list of the world’s worst inventions. (Of course, that didn’t stop Zynga from creating spinoffs like PetVille, FishVille and FarmVille 2 among others. PassVille.)
13. When your FourSquare “check in” ousted your FarmVille update (2009)
2009 also showed users how to acquire important-sounding-yet-meaningless titles from their daily travels. Location-based app Foursquare was one of the first that allowed users to “check in,” while sharing recommendations all about their favourite neighbourhoods and cities with friends and family …and earn virtual mayorships while they were at it.
14. Grindr revolutionizes the hookup (2009)
Tinder comes to mind as the app that changed online dating culture when it appeared in 2012. But Grindr, on the scene in 2009, was the first geosocial networking app for dating geared towards gay and bisexual men, helping them meet other men nearby. For better or worse, it revolutionized hookup culture for gay men, and paved the way for many others like Scruff, Jack’d, Hornet, Chappy, and Growlr (for bears).
15. Unicode adopts the emoji (2010)
There can be little doubt that digital culture changed in 1999 when the emoji first appeared on Japanese mobile photos, thanks to Shigetaka Kurita. Their popularity quickly ???? (uh, took off).
By the mid-2000s, emoji started appearing internationally on Apple and Google platforms.
Realizing writing online without access to a thumbs up emoji was nearly impossible, Unicode adopted the emoji in 2010. The move was the beginning of emojis being legitimized as a language. So essential was the “Face with Tears” (a.k.a. the laugh-cry emoji) that it was actually adopted as a word by the Oxford Dictionary in 2015.
And each country has their own favorite: for Americans it’s skulls, Canadians love the smiling pile of poo (WTF, Canada?), and for the French? Of course it’s the heart.
16. Introducing Instagram (2010)
Can you remember the pre-filter days of photo-sharing—back when there wasn’t the option to add the Gingham filter to make everything look “vintage”?
We have Instagram’s founders to thank for our inability to go a day without posting a filtered pic with polaroid corners to our highly curated feeds. On July 16, 2010, one of the first Instagram photos to be published by co-founder Mike Krieger (@mikeyk) was an uncaptioned, heavily filtered shot of a marina.
The shot definitely set the tone for the billion users around the globe the today post upwards of 95 million shots a day (according to 2016 figures).
17. Pinterest has us pining to pin (2010)
Though it first went live in closed beta in 2010, it wasn’t until 2011 that “pinning” would become a favourite new hobby (and verb) for domestic gods and goddesses. Social bookmarking site Pinterest was once called “digital crack for women” and gave women’s lifestyle magazines and blogs a new raison d’etre.
A 2012 report about the site found that home, arts and crafts, and fashion were the most popular categories on Pinterest. That’s still true in 2018.
Recent stats show two million people post pins every day, and there are one billion pins living on the site!
18. #Jan25 Tahrir Square uprising (2011)
Jan. 25, 2011 was a fateful day for hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets, gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest 30 years of dictatorship under Hosni Mubarak. The uprising eventually forced Mubarak to step down—just as similar protests had ousted Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali days earlier.
Similar actions, which came collectively to be known as the “Arab Spring,” swept countries across the Middle East and North Africa, and were credited with bringing down governments and bringing about positive change for local populations. Reports found that social media networks were critical tools for organizers in mobilizing, publicizing and shaping opinion.
Popular hashtags on Twitter (#Egypt, #Jan25, #Libya, #Bahrain and #protest) were tweeted millions of times during the first three months of 2011. Facebook usage grew across the region, doubling in some countries.
Government attempts to block access to Facebook and Twitter were briefly successful, but quickly spurred activists to find other creative ways to organize, inspiring onlookers the world over.
19. Snapchat’s disappearing act (2011)
Launching almost exactly a year after Instagram, soon-to-be rival “Picaboo” launched …and then quickly rebranded to Snapchat following a lawsuit by a photobook company with the same name. (Probably for the best.)
The app’s early success tapped into the ephemeral nature of life’s moments, allowing users to post content that would vanish after 24 hours. (Not to mention giving us all the ability to puke rainbows.)
The disappearing snaps appealed to the teen demographic the app first attracted. Snapchat was also the perfect alternative for teens to find their friends—and flee family on Facebook.
20. Google Plus wants in on the party (2011)
2011 was also the year Google attempted to roll out another answer to Facebook and Twitter—following previous failed attempts like Google Buzz and Orkut. Google+ or Google Plus began with an invitation-only system in 2011. That summer, new users got access to 150 invitations they could send out before the site’s official opening in September. Demand was so high that Google eventually had to suspend them.
Google Plus differentiated itself from Facebook with its “circles” for organizing friends and acquaintances that could be done easily without having to send a friend request.
By the end of 2011, Google Plus was fully integrated into related services like Gmail and Google Hangout. Unfortunately, timing of the social network’s launch following Facebook and Twitter meant that the social network struggled to accrue the staggering usage numbers its competitors had. (Clearly there are some parties you just don’t want to be late to.)
21. Facebook celebrates one billion (2012)
Just eight years after launching in Mark Zuckerberg’s Harvard dorm room, Facebook announced its user base had reached a significant milestone—and now shared a population nearly the size of India.
“If you’re reading this: thank you for giving me and my little team the honor of serving you. Helping a billion people connect is amazing, humbling and by far the thing I am most proud of in my life,” Zuckerberg said.
Looking back, now that Facebook has two billion users and three other billion-user platforms—WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram—his quote sounds all the more quaint.
22. Year of the selfie (2014)
Twitter proclaimed 2014 as the “Year of the Selfie” following Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscar photo. You know the one. Or, you should. Because that selfie has been retweeted more than three million times—setting a Twitter record and winning Twitter’s award for “Golden tweet” of the year.
— Ellen DeGeneres (@TheEllenShow) March 3, 2014
The debate about who invented the selfie has yet to be resolved. Paris Hilton said she did in 2006. Others say it was actually a guy named Robert Cornelius in 1839. (He wasn’t available for comment.)
23. Meerkat, Periscope: the streaming wars begin (2015)
Meerkat was the first app to start the live streaming craze (RIP). Then, Twitter developed Periscope and won the first streaming wars (there’s another one coming, I’m sure).
Periscope became everyone’s favorite, easy-to-use app for streaming and watching live events. Getting showered with “hearts” anytime you hit the record button was pretty much all the incentive anyone needed to try it out. It was so popular that Apple awarded the app the iOS app of the year in 2015.
Three years on, the video app is rumoured to be struggling. But it’s also integrated with the Twitter mobile app, so there are still ways to become a Periscope celeb.
24. Facebook LIVE (2016)
Facebook was slow to slide into the live stream game, first rolling out live streaming features on its platform in 2016. But the company has worked to ensure its success in the space with extra resources and partnerships with mainstream media like Buzzfeed, the Guardian and the New York Times.
Special attention from Zuckerberg and its massive user base have also ensured its dominance.
25. Instagram launches Stories (2016)
Taking a page from Snapchat’s playbook, Instagram introduced “Stories” allowing users to post photo and video sequences that disappear within 24 hours (although they can now be saved and archived). Filters, stickers, polls, hashtags, and highlights to enhance Stories have succeeded in making the app even more addictive, as if that was even possible.
26. The U.S. election and social media’s fake news crisis (2016)
You could argue that 2016 was a no good very bad year for social media—and by extension democracy.
It was the year a sophisticated information warfare was waged using “troll factories” on social media used to spread disinformation—including false claims and conspiracy theories—during the U.S. presidential election. Mainstream influencers like journalists, pundits and politicians—even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump—were found to be spreading content that bots had shared online.
Facebook has since revealed that 126 million Americans were exposed to content by Russian agents during the election.
In 2018, Facebook, Twitter, and Google representatives appeared before the U.S. Congress to testify as part of ongoing investigations into Russia’s attempts to influence the elections.
27. Twitter doubles the character limit (2017)
In an effort to attract more users, Twitter doubled its signature character limit from 140 to 280 characters. The move was widely panned by more than a few users (and had critics hoping Trump wouldn’t find out).
Of course, it was @Jack who tweeted out the first super-sized tweet:
This is a small change, but a big move for us. 140 was an arbitrary choice based on the 160 character SMS limit. Proud of how thoughtful the team has been in solving a real problem people have when trying to tweet. And at the same time maintaining our brevity, speed, and essence! https://t.co/TuHj51MsTu
— jack (@jack) September 26, 2017
The major change along with the introduction of “threads” (aka Twitterstorms) now means tweets that will make you go WTF are increasingly unavoidable as everyone makes the most of their 280 characters.
28. Cambridge Analytica and #DeleteFacebook (2018)
In early 2018, it was revealed that Facebook allowed a researcher from Cambridge Analytica—who had worked on Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—to harvest data from 50 million users without their consent. A campaign to #DeleteFacebook swept the internet as users protested by deleting their profiles on the site en masse. Despite this, Facebook’s user numbers continue to climb.
Facing mounting pressure to address data privacy, Zuckerberg participated in five days of hearings before the U.S. Congress.
29. Instagram launches IGTV app (2018)
If you thought Boomerang was the only video app Instagram had up its sleeve you would be wrong. Instagram is now ready to compete with YouTube: the company increased its one-minute video limit to one-hour and launched a whole new app, IGTV, dedicated to long-form video.
Up next 2019
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