The Evolution of Social Media: How Did It Begin, and Where Could It Go Next?

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The evolution of social media has been fueled by the human impulse to communicate and by advances in digital technology. It is a story about establishing and nurturing personal connections at scale.

According to Merriam-Webster, social media is defined as “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).” The 2019 Pew Research Center report on social media use in the United States showed that 72% of American adults use some form of social media. In 2005, the year after Facebook went live, that number was 5%.

What follows is an examination of the origins of social media, its relatively rapid growth as a sociological and commercial force, and the change it has brought to the marketing world.

evolution of social media

A Brief History of Social Media

In less than a generation, social media has evolved from direct electronic information exchange, to virtual gathering place, to retail platform, to vital 21st-century marketing tool.

How did it begin? How has social media affected the lives of billions of people? How have businesses adapted to the digital consumer lifestyle? How do marketing professionals use social media? It’s all part of the story of social media’s ongoing evolution.

Pre-internet Roots

In a sense, social media began on May 24, 1844, with a series of electronic dots and dashes tapped out by hand on a telegraph machine.

The first electronic message from Baltimore to Washington, D.C., proved Samuel Morse understood the historic ramifications of his scientific achievement: “What hath God wrought?” he wrote.

A recent article in The Washington Post, “Before Twitter and Facebook, There Was Morse Code: Remembering Social Media’s True Inventor,” details the history and relevance of Morse code, complete with early versions of today’s “OMG” and “LOL.”

While the roots of digital communication run deep, most contemporary accounts of the modern origins of today’s internet and social media point to the emergence in 1969 of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network — the ARPANET.

This early digital network, created by the United States Department of Defense, allowed scientists at four interconnected universities to share software, hardware, and other data.

In 1987, the direct precursor to today’s internet came into being when the National Science Foundation launched a more robust, nationwide digital network known as the NSFNET. A decade later, in 1997, the first true social media platform was launched.

The Launch of Social Sites

In the 1980s and ’90s, according to “The History of Social Networking” on the technology news site Digital Trends, the internet’s growth enabled the introduction of online communication services such as CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy. They introduced users to digital communication through email, bulletin board messaging, and real-time online chatting.

This gave rise to the earliest social media networks, beginning with the short-lived Six Degrees profile uploading service in 1997.

This service was followed in 2001 by Friendster. These rudimentary platforms attracted millions of users and enabled email address registration and basic online networking.

Weblogs, or blogs, another early form of digital social communication, began to gain popularity with the 1999 launch of the LiveJournal publishing site. This coincided with the launch of the Blogger publishing platform by the tech company Pyra Labs, which was purchased by Google in 2003.

In 2002, LinkedIn was founded as a networking site for career-minded professionals. By 2020, it had grown to more than 675 million users worldwide. It remains the social media site of choice for job seekers as well as human resources managers searching for qualified candidates.

Two other major forays into social media collapsed after a burst of initial success. In 2003, Myspace launched. By 2006, it was the most visited website on the planet, spurred by users’ ability to share new music directly on their profile pages.

By 2008, it was eclipsed by Facebook. In 2011, Myspace was purchased by musician Justin Timberlake for $35 million, but it has since become a social media afterthought.

Google’s attempt to elbow its way into the social media landscape, Google+, launched in 2012. A rocky existence came to an end in 2018, after the private information of nearly 500,000 Google+ users was compromised by a data security breach.

social media statistics and usage

Modern Social Media Outlets

Today’s social media landscape is populated by a suite of services that jockey for the attention of more than 5 billion mobile device users worldwide. Here is an overview of the most prominent social media networks of 2020:

Facebook

Launched in 2004 by Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg, it has nearly 1.7 billion users — including 69% of U.S. adults, according to Pew Research.

Reddit

Launched in 2005 by Massachusetts 20-somethings Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian as a news-sharing platform, its 300 million users have transformed Reddit into a combination news aggregation/social commentary site. Its popularity is based on the ability to “up-vote” and “down-vote” user posts.

Twitter

Founded in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and others as a microblogging site, by 2020, 22% of U.S. adults were Twitter users, according to Pew Research.

Instagram

Founded in 2010 by Stanford graduate Kevin Systrom as a photo-sharing site and purchased by Facebook in 2012, Instagram has more than 1 billion users worldwide.

Pinterest

Founded in 2010 by iPhone app developer Ben Silbermann as a visual “pin board,” Pinterest became a publicly traded company in 2019 and has more than 335 million active monthly users.

Snapchat

Founded in 2011 by a trio of Stanford students — Evan Spiegel, Reggie Brown, and Bobby Murphy — this video-sharing service introduced the concept of “stories,” or serialized short videos, and “filters,” run for informative digital effects, often based on location.

TikTok

Founded in 2016 by Chinese tech company ByteDance, this short-form video-sharing site was merged with the U.S.-based mobile app Musical.ly in 2018 and became popular with American teens and young adults. As of early 2020, it had more than 800 million users worldwide.

Social Media: End Users and Businesses

What began as a desktop or laptop experience shifted to mobile phones and tablets as cellular service expanded; the capabilities of cellular phones expanded, turning them into “smartphones”; and high-speed wireless internet became more readily available in homes, businesses, and public spaces.

With the advent of social media apps that could run on smartphones, end users could take their communities with them wherever they went.

Businesses took advantage of this new consumer mobility by serving their customers new, simpler methods of interacting — and new ways of buying goods and services.

The End-User Experience

At first, social media existed to help end users connect digitally with friends, colleagues, family members, and like-minded individuals they might never have met in person. Desktop access to bulletin board services such as CompuServe and Prodigy made it easier to grow free online communities without ever leaving the house.

The invention of the smartphone liberated social media from the desktop and laptop computer. Apple’s first iPhone, launched by Steve Jobs in 2007, helped shift the focus of online community building to mobile. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, and other social media services thrived in the mobile app environment.

Technological improvements — specifically, powerful in-phone cameras — shifted the focus of mobile apps to video and images. In addition to written messages, end users could now broadcast in real time.

Instagram, in particular, became the app of choice for social media users interested in travel, entertainment, fashion, and other visually oriented topics.

The Business Experience

As social media companies grew their user bases into the hundreds of millions, the business applications of Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms began to take shape. Social media companies had access to some of the richest trackable user data ever conceived.

A recent article on IAS Insider, “The Evolution of Social Media Advertising,” sums it up: “Users don’t just log in and browse, they tell the platforms their name, and where they live, what they like and who they know, painting the most vivid picture currently possible for marketers looking to target specific consumers.”

Facebook began to place ads on its platform as early as 2006. Twitter enabled ads in 2010. LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, and TikTok all have attempted to monetize their services through various forms of sponsored advertising.

In addition to placing ads on social media platforms, companies discovered the potential utility of cultivating an active, engaged social media presence. Whereas social media advertising must be paid for, the act of creating and sharing informative or entertaining content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms is an attempt by brands to grow an audience organically, in other words, without paying for it directly.

According to HubSpot’s “Social Media Marketing: The Ultimate Guide,” companies use organic social media marketing to:

  • Increase brand awareness
  • Generate leads and increase conversions
  • Develop and nurture relationships with customers
  • Learn from competitors

The combination of advertising, or paid social media marketing, and organic social media outreach evolved into the digital marketing specialty known as social media marketing.

How Marketing Pros Utilize Social Media

As the ability to reach consumers expanded thanks to social media, marketing professionals quickly adapted. Social media’s evolution provided measurement tools that gave marketing professionals unprecedented access to valuable, actionable data about consumers’ demographics, buying habits, and more.

With marketers no longer limited to traditional forms of media — TV, radio, print, mail, billboards, magazines, etc. — the social media marketing industry was born.

increases in digital advertising in the US

Taking Advantage of Social Media’s Popularity

The most efficient way to take advantage of social media’s popularity is to leverage existing audiences. To that end, digital marketers engage social media “influencers” to share messaging and product offers with their followers.

According to an article on Sprout Social’s website, “What Is Influencer Marketing: How to Develop Your Strategy,” influencer marketing is defined as “a type of social media marketing that uses endorsements and product mentions from influencers — individuals who have a dedicated social following and are viewed as experts within their niche.”

These social media influencers spend time building trust with their audiences. With more than 3.2 billion social media users worldwide, finding influencers whose audiences fall into the company’s niche of consumers helps cut through the noise by targeting specific potential buyers.

While influencers provide companies a layer of built-in consumer trust, social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn provide in-depth analytics that allow digital marketers to target specific demographic groups with ads. This can be useful for building brand awareness among potential long-term customers, as well as for generating leads for specific products or services.

The Importance of Engagement and Integration

Social media engagement consists of the various ways users respond to a post. This can include comments, follows, shares (retweets on Twitter), and clicks on a shared link. All of these actions are measurable thanks to analytics provided by the social media platforms (Facebook Insights, Twitter Analytics, LinkedIn Page Analytics, etc.).

Each of these engagements presents an opportunity for marketers to influence a customer or group of customers. For example, a company that monitors its Twitter feed in real time — either through an automated service or in person — is positioned to respond quickly to a customer’s request or comment.

In addition, data that reveals users’ habits over time can be integrated into a long-term social media strategy. For example, Facebook Insights shows when users are most active on the platform. This information can be used to determine when is the best time to post new content, giving it a better chance to be seen.

Another way marketers use social media is to monitor cultural trends and, if applicable, incorporate brand-specific concepts that build on those trends to entice customers to engage with the company’s content.

Personifying the Company

Another Sprout Social article, “5 Actionable Strategies for Social Media Branding,” provides guidelines for how social media can be used to develop a company’s public “voice.” The bottom line when it comes to social media branding is authenticity. Today’s savvy digital consumers expect a robust and “real” personality from brands. Sprout Social’s tactical advice includes:

  • Develop and use consistent visual branding across all social media platforms
  • Use a tone that reflects the brand’s public persona
  • Cater to marketing personas based on social media metrics

Companies that fail to develop a consistent, engaging social media presence are not taking full advantage of the marketing tools available in today’s competitive marketplace.

The Future of Social Media

What happens next in social media almost certainly will be shaped by the evolving business model, as well as by advances in storytelling technology. How will mega platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and others make money? How will end users adapt? How will businesses spread their messages and use social media to build audiences? The answers to these questions will determine the next stage of social media’s evolution.

Premium Social Media Services

What does the future hold for social media? According to a recent article in Entrepreneur, “11 Ways Social Media Will Evolve in the Future,” consumers will gravitate toward services that allow them to:

  • Personalize content at a granular level
  • Reduce the amount of vitriol and conflict commonly found on public social media feeds
  • Increase focus on protecting privacy
  • Take greater advantage of the utility of mobile devices
  • Focus more on community building

This could mean a movement toward paid subscription services on social media, according to Entrepreneur. The challenge for marketing professionals will be to meet the shifting demands of social media users while maintaining an authentic brand voice.

Social Media Video

Another growing point of emphasis for social media in the future, according to Entrepreneur, will be video content. Video marketing already has a substantial presence in the U.S., where it is a $135 billion industry in 2020, according to Social Media Today.

According to HubSpot’s “The Ultimate List of Marketing Statistics for 2020,” video became the No. 1 form of media used in content marketing in 2019, surpassing blogs and e-books for the first time. Video’s prominence as a marketing tool is expected to continue to grow, based on the latest information in Wyzowl’s “The State of Video Marketing in 2020 [New Data].”

This survey found that 88% of marketers received positive returns on investment through video. Perhaps most significantly, 59% of marketers who said they had not previously used video intended to do so in 2020 and beyond.

What’s Next for Social Media?

The future of social media is limited only by the imagination of its stakeholders. The brief history of the industry has proven that the rapid change — advances in technology, more-strident financial demands, shifting cultural dynamics — will transform the current social media landscape.

Will Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other major platforms go the way of Google+ and MySpace? Will the entrepreneurial heirs of Twitter creator Biz Stone and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg build on the success of their predecessors? Can social media maintain its relevance as technology evolves?

Human beings are social creatures. Commerce is driven by human interaction. These two facts will continue to shape the evolution of social media into the next decade and beyond.

Recommended Reading

How to Become a Social Media Manager
What Can You Do with a Marketing Degree?
Why Should You Major in Marketing?

Sources

Digital Trends, “The History of Social Networking
Encyclopedia Britannica, Myspace
Entrepreneur, “11 Ways Social Media Will Evolve in the Future
Forbes, “How Social Media Can Move Your Business Forward
The Guardian, “Google Buys Blogger Web Service
HubSpot, “Social Media Marketing: The Ultimate Guide
HubSpot, “The State of Video Marketing in 2020 (New Data)
IAS Insider, “The Evolution of Social Media Advertising
LiveJournal, About LiveJournal
Maryville University, “How to Become a Social Media Manager
National Science Foundation, “NSF and the Birth of the Internet
Pew Research Center, 10 Facts About Americans and Twitter
Pew Research Center, Smartphone Ownership Is Growing Rapidly Around the World, but Not Always Equally
Pew Research Center, Social Media Fact Sheet
Social Media Today, The History of Social Media
Social Media Today, Video Marketing Statistics for 2020
Sprout Social, “5 Actionable Strategies for Social Media Branding
Sprout Social, “What Is Influencer Marketing: How to Develop Your Strategy
Statista, Percentage of U.S. Population with a Social Media Profile from 2008 to 2019
Statista, Pinterest — Statistics & Facts
TheStreet, “History of Snapchat: Timeline and Facts
TechCrunch, “Looking Back at Google+

Infographic Sources

CNBC, “Digital Ad Revenue In The US Surpassed $100 Billion For The First Time In 2018
IAB / PricewaterhouseCoopers, “IAB Internet Advertising Revenue Report: 2018 Full Year Results
Pew Research Center, “10 Facts About Americans and Facebook
Pew Research Center, “Share of U.S. Adults Using Social Media, Including Facebook, Is Mostly Unchanged Since 2018