Chapter 2 of Superconnected provides a brief history of communication technology, the internet, wireless connecting, social networking and social media sites. It focuses on how users and their worlds are impacted and changed when they use these social technologies.
Social networking is a major concept in this chapter. I trace a bit of its history and discuss its relevance to our lives today. A bunch of individuals (or groups, or organizations) can be said to be networked when they are connected or tied together such that they have some relationship to and influence over one another. To consider them networked is to be able to trace and chart the many ways, some subtle and even invisible, that this takes place.
Online social networking is often described as one of the most recent applications of the internet and the web, but it actually pre-dates both. The first computerized interpersonal social networks arrived in the mid-1970s. They had great historical significance in terms of facilitating the exchange of messages among physically separated people, and there was an incredible sense of excitement that accompanied their use in those early years. The feeling of being part of a grand social experiment, a pioneer on a brand new frontier, was frequently invoked among those developing this new kind of social interaction in those not-so-distant times. They seemed to sense, correctly, that they were at the vanguard of a revolutionary form of sociality.
1970s systems that allowed people to become networked together included EIES (Electronic Information Exchange System), a teleconferencing network that included very early versions of online educational courses; Community Memory, which used hardwired terminals in various neighborhoods near Berkeley, CA to allow people to submit and respond to questions; PLATO, developed at the University of Illinois, which allowed people to share “notes” (at first education-oriented), play games, chat, and network, and eventually spread these messages around the world; and the Computerized Bulletin Board System, originating in Chicago intended from the start to be accessible to the larger public through dial-up access. In these early days, it could take days or even weeks for a response to appear!
In the 1980s, larger, more broad-based networks that allowed for widespread discussions, like Usenet and the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), began to attract devoted followings. Their spirit — the idea that the internet could be highly social – began to permeate the common consciousness.
These early networking systems were important not only because the technology that would connect people online was proving to work but, very importantly, because of the strong and real sense of community that was invariably the by-product whenever they were established. Those who communicated via these online networks very often came to feel bonded — like members of a community or “club” in which they were genuinely, often deeply, engaged. It was, for sure, a new way to initiate sociality. Early pioneers on what John Perry Barlow called the “electronic frontier” were showing everyone else that time spent online could come to have a social, communal quality that was real and meaningful. Soon, this quality would practically be synonymous with the internet.