A brief history of time-wasting

As it turns out, our current dependence on social networking is just another thing you can thank the ‘70s for

Melody Morrissette

In the beginning was the word. The word was e-mail. 

Who: Ray Tomlinson, Dutch computer programmer.
What: The @ symbol.
Which changes: E-mail. Originally a machine-to-machine messaging system, it is now user-based.
The Fallout: Keyboards get a face-lift.

Who: Doug Brown and David Woolley, PLATO software developers. 
What: Talkomatic (Brown), PLATO Notes (Woolley).
Which changes: Mass interaction. Talkomatic becomes the world’s first group chat program. PLATO Notes becomes the first online forum/message board system. Though both systems were technical breakthroughs, they were simply created for company use to report system bugs, and not well marketed for personal use.
The Fallout: Flame wars! 

The first multi-user game is created. It is a Dungeons-and-Dragons style RPG. Nerds everywhere rejoice!

Who: Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis, Duke University computer science grads. 
Which changes: Information sharing. USENET, a distributed Internet discussion system, allowed users worldwide to read and post public messages. A hybrid between e-mail and web forums, USENET users could share and discuss information on multiple topics called “newsgroups,” which would be threaded in succession. 
The Fallout: The words “post” and “thread” are redefined.

Lucasfilm releases Habitat, an online role-playing game. It allows users to interact in a large-scale virtual environment that is graphically based; the first of its kind. Nerds again rejoice.

Who: Jarkko Oikarinen, Finnish software developer.
What: Internet Relay Chat (IRC).
Which changes: Communication. IRC is a form of real-time text messaging. It allowed for group discussion, private one-on-one interaction and chat and data transferring.
The Fallout: Verbal communication, having enjoyed its dominance over the written word for many years, takes its first hit.

The World Wide Web is created.

British engineer, computer scientist and MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, creates What’s New?, the first weblog.

Pandora’s inboxMany USENET users are left annoyed as they open the mass message “Green card lottery,” the first commercial spam e-mail, courtesy of married lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel. The message, which was targeted at immigrants in the US, was sent to 6,000 addresses. According to the couple, they gained 1,000 new clients from the e-mail and “made $100,000 off an ad that cost them only pennies.” TIME magazine later called them “the most hated couple in cyberspace.” 

19-year-old programmer Brad Fitzpatrick launches LiveJournal.com and “blog” officially enters the world’s vocabulary. Months later rival site Blogger.com is launched.

Shawn Fanning, an 18-year-old student at Harwich High School in Massachusetts, unknowingly brings down the record industry when he creates Napster.com. It is one of the first peer-to-peer file sharing platforms, and Fanning soon becomes the target of several music-industry backed lawsuits. Metallica was not impressed.

2005: Yahoo decides to release its own social networking site: Yahoo 360. No one notices.

The Internet Gets Judgmental. James Hong and Jim Young, two friends working in Silicon Valley, create HotOrNot.com. The University of California, Berkeley graduates started the site under the original moniker “Am I hot or not?” as a way to settle a disagreement they had one day over a passing woman’s attractiveness. Within a week of launching, the site was one of the most frequented on the web, rivaling CNET and NBC. It was also apparently the inspiration for later ‘00 success stories YouTube and Facebook.

What it also inspired? Mass quantities of low self-esteem. Thanks guys!

Philosopher Larry Sanger and internet entrepreneur Jimbo Wales launch Wikipedia.com. With little content on the site to begin with, few people take notice of its launch. But the project gradually begins to snowball, reaching 100,000 entries in 2003. To date, its archive is roughly 750,000 strong.

WWW celebrates its 10 millionth server, while Blogger.com celebrates its 10 millionth post. Coincidence?

Who: Jonathan Abrams and Cris Emmanuel, California computer programmers.
What: Friendster.com
Which changes: The world as we know it. Friendster.com was the first site of its kind. Abrams wanted to create a safer, more effective environment for meeting new people. By allowing users to browse profiles and connect to friends, friends of friends and so on, members were able to expand their network of friends more rapidly than in real-life, face-to-face scenarios. Friendster.com reached over 1 million users before the year was over.
The Fallout: The word “friend” is redefined. No longer a companion who you actually had to spent time with, it could now be someone who you hadn’t met, but did agree with when they posted “Radiohead is the greatest band ever!” on their profile.

New concept: Flash Mobs.
The idea: Coordinating a large group of people to assemble suddenly in a public place, via e-mail or social media, to perform an unusual/pointless act, then disperse.
How it started: The story goes that Bill Wasik, senior editor of Harper’s Magazine, created the first flash mob as a social experiment in New York. He later said that he originally started the experiment as a way to make fun of hipsters and a culture of conformity. “It may have backfired on him,” wrote the Vancouver Sun. “[Wasik] may instead have ended up giving conformity a vehicle that allowed it to appear nonconforming.” The idea’s popularity spread quickly all over the world and is still popular today. Notable flash mobs include the 2006 “silent disco” in London, England where over 4,000 people showed up, and the 2008 “Worldwide Pillow Fight Day,” which had participants in over 25 cities around the globe, most notably in New York where over 5,000 people attended.

A handful of eUniverse employees with Friendster accounts decide to create their own social networking site. After 10 days of working on the project, they launch MySpace.com. The site gained momentum almost instantly, as eUniverse was able to use its 20 million users as guinea pigs, improving and expanding the site from there. eUniverse was purchased by News Corp., a media company founded by Rupert Murdoch, in 2005 for $580 million. It’s estimated that $327 million of that value was from MySpace. By 2006, MySpace is the most popular social networking site in the U.S.

Dogster.com, the first social network for canines, launches. Dog owners rejoice. The dogs themselves remain unaware of its existence.

Yahoo decides to release its own social networking site: Yahoo 360. No one notices. By 2009, the only remaining active version of the site was in Vietnamese. Success!

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg releases his networking site to the public. Zuckerberg started the site in 2004 with a few of his fellow computer science students at Harvard. The site was originally only accessible by students of the university, but it gradually expanded to include other colleges. By 2008, Facebook had become the most used social network in the world, with more than 400 million active users.

Twitter takes off at SXSW. Though the text-based, 140-character micro-blogging service was already available in 2006, it wasn’t until the company’s aggressive campaign at the Texas music festival that it took flight. Twitter staff set up 60-inch plasma screens in conference hallways exclusively streaming twitter messages. During the course of the event usage of the application tripled, and “tweet” had officially become a verb.

Google releases its latest social networking tool, Google Buzz. Buzz is lauded as one of the most integrative networking tools to date. It uses the company’s own web-based e-mail program Gmail, as well as internet heavyweights Picasa, Flickr, YouTube, Blogger and Twitter. Sergey Brin, a Google executive, said that Buzz was intended to help bridge the gap between work and leisure. Within 56 hours of its release, 9 million posts were made with the system — approximately 160,000 posts and comments per hour.

Published in Volume 64, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 4, 2010)

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