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The Long Tail of Social Networks

By Tom Watson on January 20, 20083 Comments

I’ve been quiet here for a very good reason: I’ve been writing! But I wanted to point out a recent post over at GigaOM that shows the long history of online social networks. Lots of folks believe they kind of sprung from the Internet ether sometime after the year 2000 – but in fact, what we call online social networking has existed as long as modems have connected human beings.

Indeed, I’ve just been writing a portion of the book that deals with my own personal history online, which dates to the mid-1980s and dial-up bulletin board systems. Let me share a bit of that (rough and unedited, of course):

Electronic communications fascinated me from the start; when the newswires went to electronic transmission in the 80s, I quickly used the nifty 300 baud modem in my MS-DOS PC to hook into the raft of dial-in bulletin boards that were then popular with a subset of early adopters obsessed with networking. Many of these BBS systems, as they were called, focused on specific subjects, like computers and programming, or sports and news. In those days, we traded files and engaged in long back-and-forth conversations over many days. And we connected with Usenet, the true precursor to today’s consumer Internet. Usenet was a linked series of user groups based on various topics, first conceived in in 197 by Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis of Duke University. With a BBS, you would dial in to one server and be limited by who was on that server and what files were there. With Usenet, you still dialed into one BBS server, but that was just a gateway to a much wider network – thousands of servers, and millions of users and files. A decade before the first commercial web browser, Usenet was a functioning network of networks – a real social network, too. In general, comity reigned, broken only by the occasional “flame war” – when I discovered it in the late 80s, it all felt very polite, very civilized, and very new.

By the early 90s, my growing interest in online networks had blossomed and I had accounts with Pipeline, an early Internet service provider in New York, and with Prodigy, a large-scale national dial-in service. Pipeline offered email and access to Usenet. Prodigy offered access to its collection of content from mainstream news and entertainment providers, as well as communities gathered around sports, entertainment, politics, and the like. Pipeline was stripped down, menu-driven, organized very much like Usenet’s newsgroups. Prodigy offered more graphics, more glitz, more photos, and more content. Pipeline felt local, and Prodigy felt national. Neither was alone – Prodigy was just one of the big three online providers, along with CompuServe and the ascendant America Online. Pipeline was one of many smaller ISPs offering a dial-in connection and a sense of community.

The GigaOm piece by Brian McConnell shows a very similar experience and it’s really worthwhile to consider the more than two decades of online social networking in considering what I’ve labeled the CauseWired movement:

As Facebook enjoys its moment in the sun, we should take a moment to step back and look at the history of computers and social communication. Some historical perspective is in order, both to assess the real value of social networks as businesses, and to anticipate how they are likely to evolve in the future.

I’ve been using the Internet since 1988, and have been using various commercial online services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and GEnie since I had my first computer. A lot of things that could be described as social networks have come and gone in that time.

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