My recent messing with various networking sites has made me wonder what’s really improved in internet-based communication in the last twenty years or so. Email was 1965, bulletin board systems were 1978, 1988 was IRC, and the internet forum was 1996. Later incarnations of internet forums had private messages, member photos, and mechanisms to indicate “friends”. They allowed members to indicate location, sex, age, and other interests. They also typically allowed searching by member name. However, people commonly used pseudonyms, making it unlikely that a friend could be found online. Support for the space as a character varied, and underscore and period characters were popular replacements, making it almost impossible to find any real life friends by querying for their name, unless either their first or last name was rare and included in the username; however, forums were also frequently hacked, leading some user to use their real identity only for crucial services where their password could be considered safe. Web access was not yet sufficiently abundant for trolling to have made a significant impact, so people simply cherished their own the anonymity that allowed them to discuss otherwise sensitive topics such as relationships and sexual health and preferences, and respected each others’.
Popular forums that I can remember from their heyday would have between 200,000 and 500,000 members. Forum culture also emphasised online friendships over real ones. At the time, adult users would be online for a maximum of two hours a day, and real friendships used traditional communications platforms, such as telephone and real meetings, partly because market penetration of internet access was low.
These forums did not typically have redundancy built into the system, so if too many members signed on at one time, they would become slow and eventually unavailable. Often, such problems could be resolved by adding more RAM to the system, which was quite an expensive component at the time. Multiprocessor support was still limited, and since many forums were administered by amateurs, explicit cluster architectures were rare. Different commercial forum softwares competed on features, further limiting the number of users possible on a single system for administrators following the upgrade ladder.
As internet access became more common, however, there was potential for people to find their friends online, including lost friends, which gave rise to sites such as Classmates.com and Friends Reunited. This kind of networking site was still fairly focused on telling people about yourself, rather than interacting online, or sharing media. Meanwhile, Google was displacing Altavista as the popular search engine of the day, and it was possible to search for photos and, on Altavista, audio clips. Another change around that time was an exponential growth of spam mail, making it desirable to replace email with a system where one chose the members to receive email from; ISPs hesitated to take effective action against this, such as checking whether the originating host data was false. The growing utility of the web also brought more computers into people’s homes, increasing numbers of which were laptops. Some people now owned more than one computer, meaning that data needed to be synchronised between machines.
A simple way of doing this was transferring your services, such as address books, to the web, so they could be accessible everywhere. This was also the only option for the growing number of people who frequented internet cafes. Windows had been a standard platform for many years, in large part due to the demise of early competitors of MS-DOS, and of Apple losing focus under John Sculley, but competition came around 2002 through the Knoppix initative that allowed users to experiment with Linux without affecting their data, and the resurgence of the Macintosh. Some web services had previously allowed synching personal data to smaller computers such as Palms, but this tie came under threat from an increasing move away from both Palm and Microsoft Outlook. Palm’s hope that personal data could be exchanged through infra-red connections between devices on the go never flourished. Having more than one computer, and possibly more than one operating system added to the push of data onto web services – other platforms had begun to prove more ephemeral (remember that the popular platforms of the early days, Hotmail and Yahoo, both survived the internet bubble).
While the principal capabilities haven’t hugely changed from the days of BBS – we still share images and games, with the more recent addition of digital photographs, music, and videos – we can identify several factors that have led to the rise of social networks. First among these is the ability of systems to handle a large number of users, and, in particular, perform searches on very large databases in real time. This, combined with the higher penetration of web access, made it a real prospect to unite all people on one system for the first time. Second is an increased focus on usability, and the ability to display more information at once on a typical display. The final factor, one that has been crucial in bringing us facebook et al., has been the focus on a group of users that had easy access to the internet, with unlimited bandwidth, was interested in networking with similarly elite peers from around the world, and was young and attractive and therefore likely to draw other users in at a later time – college students! It also may or may not be true that Facebook and its immediate predecessors – houseSYSTEM and ConnectU – were the first to display portrait pictures rather than just names as search results, which may in fact be the only small piece of innovation in this much-celebrated renaissance of social networking.