Although the current spate of social media platforms burst onto the scene within the last several years, these tools have antecedents in earlier, traditional media. Long before the rise of Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, people found innovative ways to use technology to interact. Kendall Whitehouse, Wharton's director of new media, takes a look at how our desire to virtually connect with others is evident in media -- from the telegraph and newspapers to comic books and radio.
Social media platforms have revolutionized the way we communicate. They have sparked democratic uprisings in the Middle East and fueled the recent IPO of a nearly $70 billion company. Although social media's rise has been sudden -- Facebook is a little more than eight years old and Twitter just six -- it didn't occur in a vacuum. Before Facebook and Twitter, before MySpace and Friendster, there were Usenet newsgroups, AOL chat rooms and online bulletin boards.
Yet the roots of social media go even deeper. Decades before the rise of the Internet, we can see evidence of the drive to shape both private communications and mass media into platforms for social connection. Several of these earlier instances -- despite being based on very different technologies -- share many of the characteristics of modern social media, such as using "handles" or aliases to represent identity, adopting "in crowd" lingo, and blurring the boundaries between private and public conversations.
Perusing the 'Personals'
In The Victorian Internet, author Tom Standage recounts the tale -- apparently gleaned from the 1849 publication Anecdotes of the Telegraph -- of a marriage ceremony conducted over the telegraph. With the bride in Boston and the groom in New York, telegraph operators transmitted the couple's vows and the words of the magistrate performing the ceremony over the wires. Thus, the world's first electronic communications network was called into service to connect people in an intimate way.
Newspapers were the great mass medium throughout much of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. Yet, from at least the Victorian era on, people were using the medium for interpersonal communications. Well before Craigslist and Facebook, 19th century newspapers would run "personals" of lovelorn Victorians seeking to connect with a briefly-glanced stranger or to find a suitable partner for marriage. Like current social media messages, these notes -- while often targeted to a specific individual -- were public and available to anyone who perused the paper (although identities were often concealed by aliases)....MORE