What is social media and how did it grow so quickly?

Social Media application icons shown on a mobile phone

You’re more likely than not to have used social media recently, and it’s also likely that the time you’ve spent on the platforms has clocked up at least several hours a month. For instance, 99 per cent of people aged 16-24 in the UK in 2016 said they had used social media within the past week, while they spent close to an hour a day using it to communicate.

The popular social media platforms are obvious to most people – Facebook has a UK audience of some 40 million, LinkedIn and Twitterboth exceed 20 million, and Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat have close to 10 million each. The reach of these platforms makes it clear that social media is now ubiquitous. But for all the big name players, what is the definition of social media? Where did it come from? And how did it gain such an important role in our lives so quickly?

What is social media?

If we take the words “social media” at their basic level, it is media that allows people to connect with each other. Email allows you to connect and interact with other people, so it is “social”. But given most email is just text based messaging and delivered and received on a one-to-one basis, it’s a communication tool rather than media.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries website defines it as “Websites and applications to create and share content or to participate in social networking”. Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter fit neatly within this definition.

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them.Tim O’Reilly

All of these sites allow users to create and share content with an audience – the essential media element that email is missing. On all sites, there are methods of connection and building a network: Facebook friends, followers on Twitter and connections on LinkedIn. In many cases, you will not have met all of these connections in real life (although that is less true in the case of Facebook friends), so followers can often represent more of an “audience” than being actual collaborators.

Social media is also closely associated with “Web 2.0” – the concept of the “second stage” of the web popularised by Tim O’Reilly and Dale Dougherty. In the first stage of the web, users were limited to passive viewing of content; for example, they would go to a website and be able to access its information, but not be able to interact with it.

With Web 2.0, the Internet is thought of as a platform in itself, where people are essentially building applications within it. The more people collaborating, the better the applications get, and where users are able to interact with the content and create their own.

Where did social media come from?

It’s practical to think of social media as the use of the mundane, commonplace technology around us in the pursuit of a goal transcending that technology: fostering conversation and connecting people.Rick Levine, The Cluetrain Manifesto

While interactive chat rooms stretch back to before the World Wide Web, social networking as we understand it today really began to evolve in the late 1990s with the launch of multiple instant messaging services. For instance, both MSN Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger, along with their Internet chat rooms, both launched in 1999.

Instant messaging isn’t comfortably defined as social media, because, similar to email, it’s mostly text based and is more of a one-to-one communication tool, although you could participate in small groups. However, messaging is a crucial element of many social networking services today and an important precursor.

The real “Web 2.0” social media, where users could upload and share content, along with networking with other people, began a few years later.

How did social media grow so quickly?

It was really advances in web publishing technology and the idea of inverting access to publishing tools from backend Content Management Systems (CMS) to front-end users that first enabled social media. But there are four other crucial points in its history that led to it becoming ubiquitous.

1. Broadband

Do you remember trying to look at images on a web browser using a 56 k/b dial up connection? In the 1990s, this activity was painfully slow – often prohibitively, and not helped by a lot of the web not adhering to usability standards that we see as the norm today.

Fast broadband
Faster broadband allowed online activities that consumed more bandwidth – like uploading photos

Download a low quality film of around 700 MB would take 3-5 days. The creation of broadband infrastructure that began in the early 2000s was the first important step in allowing social media. Faster download and upload times meant that people could download and upload from the new social media tools much more quickly.

2. Cloud computing

In his book Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Thomas L Friedman says 2007 as being one of the seminal years in Internet technology. The Kindle was launched, Google introduced Android, Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, AirBnb was conceived to name a few.

Perhaps most importantly was the launch of Hadoop, which enabled the mass storage and analysis of unstructured data. This led to cloud computing, which is one of the key reasons why social networks can store such vast quantities of data.

3. Mobile Internet

The smartphone became a widely owned product around 2009-2010. Previously, people could only access social media from desktops, which limited their time spent and possible interactions.

Steve Jobs holds the new iPhone in San Francisco, California January 9, 2007
Steve Jobs holding the new iPhone in San Francisco, California January 9, 2007. CREDIT:KIMBERLY WHITE

With the advent of fully functioning web mobile web browsers, native social media applications, and WiFi and mobile data networks, it was possible to be on social media at almost any time if you wanted to be.

4: In-built ‘virality’

A classic story of the early Internet is how the creators of Hotmail were told by an investor to automatically sign off every email with “Get your free email at HoTMaiL” and a link back to their homepage. As people received Hotmail emails, they were tempted to sign up to the service because of the message, and the popularity of the service exploded.

One of YouTube’s great viral marketing ploys was to allow anyone to embed the videos on their own website. YouTube embeds soon became a feature of many articles.

Both of these are examples of in-built “virality” – the content within the services may be viral (like chain emails or viral videos being passed on by email) but also the way the networks themselves expanded was viral.

Services like Twitter and Facebook asked new sign ups to email friends on their email lists to get them to join, suggesting the experience will be better if you do. Once signed up, users tend to receive a lot of email notifications from the platforms about almost every interaction (unless you turn them off). The networks are then gamified through the enticement to gain likes, retweets or followers. This keeps people going back and sticking to the network.