In recent years a good deal has been written and said about social networking websites. For those of you who don't know what a social networking website is, it is essentially any website which is meant to facilitate interaction between its users. Many, if not most,social networking websites include blogs and messaging, and some even have their own email and chat. Perhaps the most famous example of a social networking website is MySpace.
Of course, it is hard to tell what the first social networking website actually was. As originally conceived, the web hosting service GeoCities was organised into "neighbourhoods" into which users would place their various web sites. Each user had his or her own profile. And GeoCities also offered chat, bulletin boards, email, and other community related features. In some respects, this isn't much different from the social networking websites of today. GeoCities came about in 1995, but has since done away with the neighbourhood setup and most all of the community features.
It must also be pointed out that Yahoo has had profiles nearly as long as GeoCities has been around. In one's Yahoo Profile one gives his or her Yahoo ID, his or her real name (if he or she chooses to), his or her occupation, his or her hobbies, et. al. The Yahoo profile was in many ways the ancestor of the profiles used by MySpace, Facebook, and other social networking sites.
Of course, one could always consider the online dating services to be among the earliest social networking sites. Indeed, Matchmaker.com's roots go all the way back to 1983, starting out as a bulletin board system. It was then among the first online dating services on the Web. Rival Match.Com was founded in 1994 and went live as an online beta in 1995. FriendFinder was founded in 1996. I must confess that I have no experience with online dating websites, but, from those who do, I know that they generally include rofiles, messaging, and other features generally found in social networking sites. Quite simply, online dating services can be considered highly specialised social networking websites.
Indeed, the earliest social networking websites did tend to be highly specialised. Classmates.com was founded in 1995 with the purpose of reuniting old classmates and keeping them in touch. Another early social networking website was SixDegrees.com. It was founded in 1997 and lasted until 2001. The name for SixDegrees.com was taken from the idea that there are only six degrees of separation between any two human beings. As a result, the website centred on indirect ties between people. SixDegrees.com was notable in that it not only included profiles, but users could create friend lists, post bulletin board messages to people, and so on. In many respects, it was the direct predecessor to MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, and so on.
Yet another, but highly specialised predecessor to the modern social networking sites was AncientSites. AncientSites was dedicated to history, from ancient Rome to the Germanic peoples of the Dark Ages. Member profiles were written as if the individual was an ancient Celt or ancient Greek or so on. Members could join various groups, chat with each other (chatrooms were everywhere on AncientSites), post to bulletin boards, and so on. Founded in 1997, AncientSites closed its doors in 2001. It maintained a loyal following, however, so much so that its creators would develop a new site, AncientWorlds, that is pretty much the same as the original AncientSites.
Another predecessor of modern social networking websites is LiveJournal. LiveJournal was founded in 1999, primarily as a blogging service. What set LiveJournal apart from other blogging services is that it has characteristics of a social networking web site. Like MySpace and Facebook after it, users on LiveJournal can have "Friends." LiveJournal also features groups called "communities," where users can hold discussions on various topics of interest to them. In some respects LiveJournal has always been as much a social networking website as it is a blogging service.
While Classmates.com specialises in renewing school ties and LiveJournal is a blogging service. Care2 is also specialised. Founded in 1998, it is meant to encourage activism in individuals by connecting them with like minded people. Like the social networking sites that followed it, Care2 includes a profile which lists one's interests. And it includes bulletin boards and groups in which individuals can discuss things. What sets it apart from other social networking sites is that it emphasises activism. I have a Care2 account myself, it is one of the better social networking sites out there.
If there is a turning point when one can say social networking websites came into their own, it is perhaps the year 2002. hi5 was founded in 2002 and from the beginning was set up much like MySpace or Facebook. Users create their own profiles listing their various interests. They can make friends, post pictures, and so on. Although not as well known as MySpace or Facebook, it is still popular. In 2007 it ranked as one of the 25 most visited sites on the web.
It was also in 2002 that Friendster was founded. It launched in March 2003. The idea was simply that individuals would have profiles like those at online dating sites, but instead those profiles would be used to network with friends and acquaintances. It was successful early on. By June 2003 it had 835,000 registered members. Unfortunately, problems would soon emerge for Friendster. The large number of users put a burden on the website's servers, which meant page loads could take over a minute. Users became very unhappy, as word of the site's problems spread through boards and blogs. Worse yet, Friendster would soon have rivals to contend with.
The first among these was MySpace. It was in 2003 that employees of eUniverse, an internet marketing company, realised just how successful Friendster could really be. They then developed their very own social networking website. Launched in August 2003, eUniverse promoted MySpace among its 20 million users. By July 2005 MySpace had 22 million users. Much of this success would come through the site's MySpace Music service, in which bands could not only have their own profiles, but put samples of their work on the site as well. Of course, MySpace also has many other features, such as blogs, photos, groups, and so on. If MySpace has become the most successful social networking site, it is perhaps because there is so much to do there. Indeed, in 2007 MySpace even introduced MySpaceTV, their own equivalent of YouTube.
Another rival to Friendster arrived in Feburary 2004. Facebook was originally a very specialised site, initially servicing only students at Harvard. It quickly expanded to include the whole Ivy League and later still any university student. High school students were allowed to join in September 2005. In April 2006 employees of ten major companies (including Amazon and Microsoft) were allowed to join. Finally, in September, 2006, everyone was permitted to join.
Even though Facebook is now open to everyone, it is still in some respects more specialised than MySpace or Friendster. It is essentially set up along the line of networks based on geographic region, workplace, or school. And unlike other social networking sites, one's profile cannot be viewed simply by anyone. Someone in say, the Bangkok, Thailand network would not be able to view the profile of someone in the New York, New York network beyond his or her profile picture and name. While this does insure privacy, it is also a bit frustrating in that it can sometimes be difficult to determine if someone in another network is indeed one knows. Still, there is a good deal to do at Facebook. Indeed, the site features what they call "applications," features which can allow one to share his or her favourite movies with people or take quizzes or what have you.
Of course, there are more social networking sites out there than Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook. There is Bebo, which seems to be most popular in the UK and its colonies (including the United States). There is Orkut, which is owned by Google, but seems to be most popular in India and Brazil. There is Yahoo! 360°, Yahoo's social networking site which they intend to replace with a universal profile system. In all, well over 100 social networking sites exist, not counting sites such as LiveJournal which have some social networking features.
Social networking has existed on the World Wide Web from the beginning. Online dating existed before the advent of the Web. Sites such as Geocities developed soon after. Perhaps the only surprise with regards to the emergence of sites such as MySpace and Facebook is that they did not emerge sooner. One thing that can be certain. They won't be going away any time soon.