In the last 15 to 20 years, online communities have gone through a dramatic evolution. From BBS’ and chatrooms to services like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, Tumblr and Pinterest, the way we communicate with others online and the definition of “social” has grown into an industry in it’s own right. Here is a look back at how online communities have evolved from humble beginnings to where we stand today, what the key characteristics that defined each “social technology” and what I think the future holds for online communities and the social aspect of the web.

From humble beginnings

The evolution of networked computers and the Internet was one of the major turning points of the 20th Century. Finally many new technologies could come together to create a network of computer systems that spanned the globe. The change wasn’t only technological, a new generation grew up with the capabilities to communicate, share and learn across a widely distributed network of individuals. What would eventually lead to the “World Wide Web” started off as merely a way to exchange messages and data. Even before websites were widely available, social was already baked right into the foundations of the Internet.

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS)

A Bulletin Board System (BBS) was a system that allowed a user to dial into a piece of software through a phone line and engage with other people in the form of message boards, chatrooms and other similar social activity. BBS’ were popular before the Internet as we know it today really took off. BBS’ were really the first social application of what the Internet could offer users, and it was really one of the first ways you could be social with other computer users across a distributed network. BBS’ could only be accessed through a phone line and so the majority of usage was confined to the local area to prevent running up huge phone bills. Bulletin Board System technology and it’s usage was really the precursor to what would develop over the next 20 years.

Chatrooms

Chatrooms were really the evolution of BBS’ as Internet Browser’s and Graphical User Interfaces made the Internet a more user friendly place to be. Chatrooms are synchronous exchanges of messages between many distributed users. There is usually an open one-to-many public chatroom and a private messaging feature that allows one-to-one messaging. Chatrooms were extremely popular through the 1990’s and early 2000s and since then have evolved intro different sub-niches as the Internet has become fragmented. In 2004, IMVU was founded which was a virtual 3D universe that allowed users to meet other users and chat in a virtual environment. Other services such as a Second Life can also be said to derive from those early chatroom days.

Forums and messaging boards

Forums and messaging boards were one of the first and remain one of the most popular ways to interact asynchronously on the Internet. Usually targeted around a specific niche, Forums and messaging boards were one of the first ways to build a strong community because users usually had to register and build a profile in order to post a message. Because the messages were then achieved as threads, it was possible to see a particular user’s contributions over time and therefore hardcore users would build credibility and respect within the community. Although not quite as prevelant today, forums and messaging boards remain one of the best ways to talk about a specific niche to a concentrated community of like minded individuals.

Question and Answer boards

If you are looking for an answer to a very specific question, chances are someone has started a thread on a Forum somewhere on the Internet. Because Forum’s archive these threads, the question and answer exchange can be goldmine of information. It is the age old adage that, if you have a problem, chances are someone else has already had that problem.

Experts-Exchange.com was one of the first “Ask an expert” type website that capitalised on the value of the question and answer type exchanges in Forums. Experts Exchange was a subscription based site where you could get your question answered by an expert in that area. For a long time, whenever you searched Google for a specific IT related question, the top result would often be Experts Exchange. Stack Exchange is now the dominating online question and answer network with sites such as Stack Overflow that feature a huge amount of questions and a community that offers up expert answers and solutions for free.

Digg and Reddit

Digg.com is a social news site founded by Kevin Rose and launched in late 2004. Whilst similar to many of the notable online news portals of the time, Digg was completely curated by it’s dedicated community of users rather than a team of professional editors. This meant that whatever reached the first page of the site was what the community had voted up to become popular. Digg introduced the user voting system that has become a standard feature of many of the current wave of social websites and products we have today.

Reddit is a similar website to Digg in that it is a user submitted content which is then voted up or down by the community. Reddit is fragmented into “subreddits” which have specific communities of subscribed users that revolve around that subject matter or niche.

The communities of Digg and Reddit were early examples of how a website could build a community of hardcore, dedicated users. If a website got featured on Digg or Reddit it would sometimes be enough to overwhelm the website’s server due to the huge influx of traffic that would be sent by the community. Both websites also have a comment system that allow users to comment and reply to other users about each submitted piece of content.

During August 2010, Digg released version 4 of their website that dramatically changed many of the key features of the previous versions of Digg and introduced new features that were an attempt to fight back against the likes of Twitter and Facebook. Many of the hardcore Digg community did not approve of the big changes and there was a huge backlash when the new site went live. The power of a community like this should not be underestimated.

LiveJournal

Founded back in 1999, LiveJournal was one of the first social blogging platforms on the Internet. LiveJournal allowed you to start a blog and have other users leave comments. LiveJournal users had a “friend list” and could follow other user’s blogs through syndication. LiveJournal was one of the first “Web 2.0” type companies and quite obviously inspired later companies like Myspace and Tumblr. Many of the standard features of modern social websites can be attributed back to LiveJournal.

Friendster

Known as the first real “social network” Friendster was the first services that offered the majority of the social product features we are now so familiar with. Founded in 2002 by Jonathan Abrams, Friendster allowed users to create a list of friends and share messages and information with them. Friendster was considered the number one social network until Myspace took that crown away. Although Friendster is now considerably smaller than it was in it’s heyday, it is still considered the spark that really lit the social network phenomenon that we know of today.

Myspace

Myspace, the former social networking giant, was founded in 2003 and quickly outgrew every other social network of the time, stealing the top spot from Friendster along the way. On Myspace you could “design” your profile using HTML and CSS, connect with your friends and leave comments on other people’s profiles. Myspace quickly grew in numbers and was eventually acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $500 million. I’ve previously wrote about Myspace’s fall from grace in the post The rise and fall of Internet super giants. Myspace would eventually lose the social networking top spot to Facebook, partly because Facebook was a better product and partly because post-acquisition Myspace made a lot of mistakes. Myspace’s story does show that the unprecedented leader can sometimes be toppled by a new up and comer.

Facebook

Facebook has out grown any other previous social network with over 800 million users and over 1 billion user connections. Facebook took many of the features of the previous generation of social networking websites and built a platform and social graph on the back of it’s huge growth, engagement and adoption rate. I’ve recently wrote my analysis on why I think Facebook is a success so I won’t go into too much detail again on this post.

Twitter

Twitter has become one of the largest social networking websites but still remains almost as simple as it was when it first launched. Twitter’s quick 140 character limit updates and default open settings have made it the place to go for breaking news, crowd sourced opinions and a constant stream of what is happening in the world. Twitter is very different to Facebook and takes a very different perspective on the tradition social network usage.

Tumblr

Tumblr is a platform that allows you to create a “Tumblelog” of text, pictures, video, links and audio. One of the pivotal features of Tumblr is the “reblog” feature that allows a user to repost a piece of content on their blog. This leads to pieces of content becoming viral as it is spread through Tumblr. Many of the most viewed content on the Internet now originates from Tumblr. Tumblr has grown extremely quickly since it’s launch in 2007 and now boast over 15 billion monthly page views.

Foursquare

Foursquare was founded in New York in 2009 by Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai. Dennis had previously founded a company that had a similar goal as Foursquare’s called Dodgeball that was acquired by Google, but got lost and forgotten about within the Googleplex. Foursquare is a geolocation service that allows a user to check-in to a specific location such as a restaurant and bar and broadcast it out to their friends. Tips, lists and to-do’s make discovering new places and user specific recommendations an integral part of the future of Foursquare. Foursquare has now logged over 1 billion check-ins and has over 15 million users around the world.

Instagram

Instagram is a social photo sharing website that is currently exclusive to iPhone. However this hasn’t prevented Instagram from growing, the service has over 15 million users, even the team behind the app have recently doubled in numbers to the grand total of 10! Instagram allows a user to take a photo, add a filter and then share it with their friends in an open social network. When Instagram launched there were already many filter photo apps that on the market. Instagram added the key ingredient of social and have never looked back.

Turntable.fm

Launched in 2010, Turntable.fm was one of the first social / music products of the Internet. Turntable.fm allows users to listen to music in real time with other users. The site is split into music rooms that specialise in a type or genre of music. Each user has the chance to DJ for the room and the other users vote if they like the DJ’s choice of song. Turntable.fm was one of the first real collective social experiences for music. Other services like UStream or Chill offer the same type of interaction but with video. Collective social experience services like Turntable.fm have now finally become a reality thanks to increasing Internet speed and bandwidth.

Pinterest

Pinterest is one of the latest social networks that allows users to create theme based image boards around things they like. Users can follow boards, comment and share images and follow other users. Pinterest is a clear sign that social networking is going to continue to fragment as users seek out their specific interests while browsing online.

The future of social

The last 5 years have seen a huge evolution of what social really means online. We’ve went from chatrooms and forums to services like Facebook and Turntable.fm. Increasingly much of our social interaction online is on a “post PC” device. Services like Instagram are completely iPhone based, but have really taken off due to the connected nature of the Internet.

Each year, a more diverse set of people begin using the Internet. At one time, social experiences were confined to specific niches such as technology related of teenagers. Now with services like Pinterest, there is an opportunity to target a completely new demographic.

The growth of Facebook and Twitter have also added a new opportunities for online social websites and services. By building on top of Facebook’s social graph or using Twitter’s OAuth, a developer can tap into the pre-existing data and connections a user has already created. This can benefit a new product in a number of ways such as tapping into the co-efficient of established services and a better user experience for new users who are looking to find their friends or simply don’t want to have to sign up to another service. I wrote about this in the post The 3 levels of user authentication.

What lies ahead in the future of the social internet? It has been said that the social technology wave has peaked. Personally I think it’s impossible to say what kind of social websites and products we’ll be using in the next 5 years. However I think some general trends will continue.

Firstly, I believe the continued fragmentation of the Internet will open new opportunities to target specific demographics. This opens many new opportunities for business and monetisation as we move away from mass consumption in the form of Television and Newspapers.

Secondly, I think more social applications that are focused on mobile with a web service as a complementary rather than the main point of interaction. Mobile phones have come a long way in the past couple of years. We know have powerful, Internet ready devices in our pockets that offer a far greater intertwining of our real lives. Instagram is the perfect example of how a company can focus their attention on a mobile app and still have huge success.