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From the Walls of Pompeii to the Walls of Facebook: Ten Milestones in the History of Social Media

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas is currently offering a free course titled Social Media for Journalists. The first module of the course details the history of social media. This timeline features a combination of material from the course, as well as information from other sources.

1. Ancient Social Media 

Long before the first tablet, there were, well, tablets. In fact, the Romans, writes Tom Standage, author of Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, even had their own version of the iPad. He notes:

 Instead of notebooks they jotted things down on wax tablets of various shapes and sizes, from small ones (the size of an iPhone 4) to big ones (the size of a big iPad, before the iPad Air showed up). The image at the top of this post is a particularly fine example, from the Roman-Germanic Museum in Cologne (to which I am indebted for the picture). It is the size, shape and aspect ratio of a modern iPad.

Standage also deciphered some of the musings scribbled on the walls of the ancient city of Pompeii. They contained messages such as:

“I won 8,522 denarii by gaming, fair play!”

“I made bread”

“The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian”

“Atimetus got me pregnant”

These comments bare a striking similarity to posts made on the walls of Facebook. Some people, like this baker and his wife, even posted their profile pictures:

 2. The Pamphleteers

The invention of the printing press facilitated a new form of social networker, called the “pamphleteer.”  A description  of the pamphleteer, written for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, could easily apply to modern day blogging:

“From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century the pamphlet was the chief instrument to carry one’s ideas to the public…The pamphlet, forerunner to the newspaper, was well adapted to this use because it was small and cheap and could reach ‘a larger audience than the orator in the House of Commons.”

The Revolutionary War inspired the most famous pamphleteer, Thomas Paine.

3. Penny Presses

The term “penny press” usually references the type of newspapers hawked on the streets during the 19th century. These tabloid newspapers were sold for one cent, thus the name, “penny presses.” Working  class people, who  could not afford regular newspapers, favored this type of news feed. Some penny presses covered political issues, as well as local gossip.

4. Victorian Calling Card: Precursor of LinkedIn

Decorative visiting cards, also called calling cards, were the social networking tools of the Victorian era.  The rules of etiquette dictated that if you wanted to visit a woman in her home, unless you were invited, you must first leave your card. if you received a card in response at your own home, you were welcome to visit. No card implied rejection. The homes of influential and wealthy families often kept plates of calling cards near the doorway, allowing visitors to see the other members of their host’s network. These card trays functioned like friend pages on Facebook or network pages on LinkedIn. If a visiting wife believed that befriending another member of the host’s network could benefit her husband’s career, she could ask her hostess for an introduction.

5. 1945: Barry Gray Talk Radio

Barry Gray was  a disc jockey, who worked for New York’s WMCA radio station. On an evening in 1945, he was on the phone with bandleader Woody Herman when decided to put the telephone receiver up to his microphone and share his conversation with the listening audience.This spontaneous live interview was so successful, that it evolved into a listener call-in format. We now have podcasts and Google Hangouts.

6. 1969: ARPANET

The development of peer to peer technology marks an important milestone in the history of social media. You might not realize it, but if you download torrents, you are already familiar with peer to peer. In this type of network, activities such streaming audio or video are shared among  interconnected peers, who each make a portion of their resources available to other network participants.

7. CompuServe

Also in 1969, two electrical engineering students at the University of Arizona created CompuServe, the first dial-up Internet service provider for the public in the United States.

8. 1979: Usenet Groups

In 1979, Duke University graduates Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis conceived the idea of the Usenet group, which let let users post articles to what they called newsgroups. Sites such as Google Groups and Yahoo! Groups use many of the features established by the Usenet systems. Usenet was the precursor of the BBS or Bulletin Board System , which became popular in the 1990′s.

9. 1997: Six Degrees

Launched in 1997, Six Degrees  was the first modern social network. It allowed users to create profiles and befriend other users. The site was shut down in 2001.

10. 2000 and Beyond

Social media sites such as MySpace and LinkedIn appeared in the early 2000′s, while websites  like Photobucket and Flickr facilitated online photo sharing. LinkedIn came on the scene in 2002, and Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004. YouTube joined the party in 2005, followed by Twitter in 2006. In 2011, Google Plus used a somewhat Victorian, invitation-only system to start its social network, but later opened it up to everyone.

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