Social media and social networking represent a new paradigm in how we interact with each other online. And it occurs to me that there are plenty of people who don’t really know what it’s all about. So here is my subjective, partial, and opinionated of what these things are; where they came from; and how to interpret many of the things that you see when you dip your toe in the water.
FIRST: THE HISTORY
In the beginning, God created the computer. No, wait, that’s not right. Restarting: In the 1940′s, scientists created the first modern computer, which I think was called “BILLYGOAT” or something. In the 1960′s, computer scientists started hooking computers together under the aegis of a Defense Department initiative called DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). They called this collection of connected computers a “network”, and called this specific network the DARPANET. Pacifists invaded, removed the “D” from the beginning, and came up with ARPANET. This morphed into the Internet we know today, which is at its heart nothing more than a bunch (like 1,000,000,000) of computers and other devices connected to each other.
Using these primitive DARPANET and then ARPANET networks, the bearded, bespectacled geeks were able to communicate with each other using e-mail, which was like normal e-mail, only faster and with more funny characters. Sometime in 1972, the first spam e-mail for erectile dysfunction was sent, by a Swiss researcher trying to play a trick on a colleague in Göttingen. He was not amused.
Pretty quickly, a system called USENET was developed, which was like a bulletin board where people posted missives on programming languages, politics, and poop jokes. USENET was set up in a hierarchy, and groups were given incomprehensible names like alt.rec.games.uk.larp.weekenders. But using this system, the geeks were able to have this massive, worldwide, never-ending communication on any topic they chose.
USENET was really the first social-networking phenomena.
Cue the 1990′s. In the early part of the decade, Tim Berners-Lee, who is apparently the second smartest man ever (after Stephen Hawking), created a new computer-communication protocol called HTTP, which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol. On top of this protocol, he built this thing called the World Wide Web, or WWW, which allowed a special computer program called a “browser” to show human-readable information, and allow you to easily allow you to link to other information. These bits of information, called “pages” (think pages in a book), were authored by anybody who had access to a computer connected to the Internet.
I first accessed the WWW in late 1993, using a browser called Mosaic, which was written by (among other people), Marc Andreesen at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Marc became a billionaire co-founder of Netscape, a member of the Trilateral commission, and a celebrity dancer on “Dancing With The Stars”. (I made up at least one of those statements).
The early social interactions on the WWW were usually graphical interfaces into the much older USENET systems, or new things called “bulletin boards” or “forums”, which were like USENET for the masses. I think the first forum post may have been a rant about the boy-band Menudo. I’m not sure.
At some point in the next year or two, the Java programming language infected the internet with pieces of code called “applets”, and we’re still trying to disinfect ourselves.
In the mid-1990s, consumer companies got into the internet in a big way. Amazon, EBay, Yahoo, and probably a bunch of others I’m forgetting started their online presence. Interactions among customers was still pretty limited. For example, early Amazon did not allow customers to rate books and write reviews. But pretty quickly, companies found that if they involved their customers in the discussion, they got better results, more time spent on the site, and happier customers. This was really the birth of the “social web”.
By the late 1990′s, almost everybody had an e-mail address – a way to send and receive mail across the internet – and many of us used additional means of connecting with each other, such as instant messaging (real-time chat) and even our own personal pages, which we called “home pages”. Remember Geocities? Yeah, neither do I, but a lot of really bad home pages found their way there in the mid-to-late 1990′s.
In the late 1990′s, every Wall Street analyst alive was screaming BUY! BUY! BUY! about any company who came out with an IPO and has some connection to the internet. So of course, in 2000 we had a huge market correction, and many stock-option holders worth millions on paper all of a sudden became worth about zero.
A brief aside: what’s the difference between social media and social networking? Social media in my mind is about sharing audio, video, pictures, and other creative artifacts with your network of friends (and, perhaps the public); social networking allows you to connect and communicate with others using internet-based tools and platforms.
It’s my sense that the trend is to leave behind the term “social networking” and refer to both categories of stuff as “social media”. This is fine; the language and terminology is evolving so rapidly that in a few years we may call it something else.
SECOND: SOCIAL MEDIA BLOSSOMS
This last decade saw social media blossom as its own phenomenon. Photo sharing sites like Flickr appeared. Video sharing sites like YouTube launched and served up crap like William Hung singing “She Bangs”. Audio-sharing sites let people steal music with relative impunity. We communicated as before, with e-mail and instant messaging, but early attempts to build platforms that let us curate our network of friends and peers appeared: MySpace. Friendster. LinkedIn. In 2005 or so Facebook launched and became an unstoppable force, to the point where now it serves up like 25% of the page views in the known universe.
Skype became mainstream and people all over the world can phone each other for free, or, if they are attractive, engage in video chat.
Blogging became mainstream and blogging platforms like Blogger, WordPress, and Movable Type had their moment in the sun. Initially confined to the technocrats, blogging tools like these allowed your mom to post notes about the most recent family trip to Poughkeepsie, and thus the “mommy blogger” was born, a market segment that earns billions a year in the form of Tide and Crest sample packages. Dave Winer milked RSS (a way to aggregate lots of blog posts together into a single usable feed) into guru status.
In 2007 Twitter came out, and all of a sudden the social media universe went fucking HAYWIRE. We could now communicate in near-real-time with anybody, and tell them what kind of sandwich we were eating. The 140-character limit on tweets (which is what the short messages are called) meant that we didn’t have to think about what we were writing; we just spewed it out. For exhibitionists (like me), this was a great thing. For grammar police, well, they’re still under heavy sedation.
The success of Twitter meant that clones were not far behind, but none of caught on. Remember identi.ca? Remember Plurk? I think a company called Yammer won some TechCrunch award a couple years ago for a “corporate Twitter platform”, but I haven’t heard much.
In the late part of the last decade, mobile took off with the advent of the iPhone, which meant that all of these wonderful social-media tools and platforms we had on our computer were now with us wherever we went. Usage exploded. Google (with the Android platform) and Microsoft (with the Windows Mobile platform) are competing with Apple to capture market share among mobile-phone users.
THIRD: SOCIAL MEDIA TERMINOLOGY
As a social-media novice, you’re going to run into a lot of terms that are unfamiliar and which may be confusing. Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean you’re stupid (necessarily); it means that social media has its own lingo, like the military, accounting, or porn. Here’s a partial list of stuff I can think of off the top of my head that might be valuable:
Friend: This is someone with whom you have a reciprocal relationship, jointly agreed on. “We’re Facebook friends” means that both you and the other person have agreed to be in each other’s friend list and have special access to each other’s profiles and shared items.
Connection: Like a friend, but used more in a professional sense, such as on LinkedIn.
Follower: This is a one-way relationship in which I can follow you, but you don’t necessarily follow me. This is common on Twitter, where a billion people will follow Ashton Kutcher even though he doesn’t know you and doesn’t give two shits about you.
Follower Count: This is the number of people that follow your Twitter stream. Some people obssess about the ratio of how many people they follow vs. how many people follow them. This metric is a proxy for penis length and is not worth discussing. Note: I have a long good ratio.
OH: This is short for “Overheard”, and people will preface tweets or Facebook posts with “OH” when they hear something funny and want to pass it along.
RT: This stands for “Retweet”, and is used when I want to share something you’ve posted with my own followers. It’s a mark of respect, and some douchey social-media gurus think their entire self-worth is described by how many retweets they get a day.
TMI: An acronym for “Too Much Information”, and is used when you feel like someone has overshared; such as describing the characteristics of their cold sore, or the consistency of their bowel movements.
DM: An acryonym for “direct message”, this is a private message shared between two people. Sometimes you’ll hear people say “DM me” or “D me” if they’re asking for a private message. Since Twitter used the shorter “d” for a direct-message command, you have a group of people used to the “dm” command to send hilarious direct messages to their entire follower list, and the site dmfail.com was born.
@: if you’re referring to someone else on twitter, you preface their Twitter username with an “@” character, so they will see the post and be included in the conversation. Sometimes you’ll hear the phrase “at me”, which means you’re asking someone to send you a public message on Twitter.
URL Shorteners: because the Twitter only allows 140 characters, there are a million services that take a long URL link and shorten it into a few characters, leaving you more room to describe your ham sandwich. Bit.ly is probably the most famous, but choose your own poison.
Social Media Douchebag: This is a special type of person who turns everyone off with (a) their transparent attempts to inflate their follower counts (b) attempts to convince people of their expertise, even if not warranted, (c) their endless inside-baseball terminology and anecdotes, or (d) starfucking celebrity references. You do not want to be a social media douchebag.
Community Manager: this is a person whose role is to interact with the community online and sort of act as a liaison between the internet and the company. It’s sort of like a junior marketing position, but an increasingly important position, as the conversation about a company can turn nasty and amped very quickly. A good community manager is attentive and inclusive and very, very high-energy.
Likes: Both Facebook and Twitter allow you to like (sometimes referred to as “favorite” certain posts or pages that strike you as worthy for whatever reason. Different people have different criteria for liking something.
I’ll close this post with a few observations:
Google, the juggernaut of the internet, barely comes in for a mention in this condensed review of the social-media landscape. That’s partly because Google’s main revenue source is advertisements, and as long as you’re on the internet, you’re probably making Google money, whether it’s searching,blogging, Tweeting, or Facebooking.
I’ve made no mention of the privacy concerns surrounding social media. That’s partly because I don’t particularly care about privacy, and also partly because there are no pictures of me frenching a fraternity brother after the Spring Kegger. Extant. I should add “extant”.
I’ve focused a lot on Facebook and Twitter as the behemoths of the social-media landscape, but there are a million ways to connect online and lots of interesting things going on. If you’re endlessly curious about people and don’t mind new technology, social media is a great place for you.
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