Social media is here, and it’s here to stay. Our challenge is to take advantage of this and grow both in our home and work lives.

Communicating using these types of tools is not a new concept. It is, however, the buzzword of the moment. There’s a plethora of pretty-looking, interactive, engaging applications and hundreds of rival social interaction sites that you can use to communicate and share information with your network of friends and acquaintances.

We are, and have always been, social animals who live and work together in groups, and it follows that media has been used for social reasons ever since we lived in caves.

What else are cave paintings for if not to show your fellow cave dwellers just how to handle a buffalo? With the advent of digital communications, it was inevitable that we would find ways to connect with each other online.

From the early days of email, people have been forwarding messages to each other, but the bulletin board changed the way that people interacted. Some of the first applications were built to accommodate communication and sharing. For several decades we have been party to one of the biggest cultural shifts since the industrial revolution and have watched the development of a whole host of types of digital interaction. The range extends beyond Facebook and Twitter to more esoteric offerings such as multi-user dungeons from where World of Warcraft and Second Life can trace their origins. Multi-object-oriented applications are used for text based adventure games and education facilities while instant messaging, chat rooms and bulletin boards are more familiar in the mainstream.

The birth of the bulletin board

One of the earliest bulletin boards was Arpanet, where the first terminals were linked together in California in November 1969. People liked the idea of communicating with each other online. One popular bulletin board in California was the WELL.4 This was launched in 1985 as the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link and is still running today.

The US was well ahead of the rest of the world when it came to word of mouth networking, bulletin board and forum software. The early pornographic site, Rusty-N-Edie, had some 124 computers and nearly 6,000 subscribers by 1993. Any subscriber living outside the US had to dial in to the US numbers, paying for an international telephone call (Figure 3.3). The site contained 105,000—110,000 files available for downloading, nearly half of which were graphic image files (GIFs). GIFs from Rusty-N-Edie—s bulletin board could be downloaded by the customer to his or her home computer, and could be viewed only with specialised software. Some of these —adult— photos were the subject of a court case between Rusty-N-Edie and Playboy magazine.5

Bulletin boards still exist today. A quick search on the web brought me to Monochrome, and there are several websites devoted to bulletin board archives. These simple interactive ‘green screen‘ technologies allowing real-time interaction between users and message passing are considered to be the foundation upon which social media evolved.

Building walled gardens

Unsurprisingly users wanted to have a new and more engaging way of interacting. CompuServe and AOL provided walled gardens for users.

Figure 3.3 Rusty-N-Edie’s bulletin board

Walled gardens are sites where members of that site can chat to other members of that site.

Walled gardens, however, prevent you from communicating with non-members. Users could contribute to bulletin boards within AOL’s subscription services which extended its reach outside the United States. AOL first launched in Japan in 1986 and by the early 1990s had thousands of users across the world socially interacting with each other. CompuServe was a very popular service, topping more than 3 million users by 1995, whilst AOL provided online games for the Commodore from 1985 and a graphical chat environment from 1986.

Talking in real time

When you ‘talk‘ to someone on a bulletin board, it‘s a bit like chatting using mobile phone text messages, and online users wanted something more like a conversation. This need was filled when Internet Relay Chat, was developed.

One of the first examples of news broadcasting using Internet Relay Chat was when it was used to report on the 1991 Soviet coup d’’tat attempt even though there was a media blackout in force at that time.6 It was used in a similar fashion during the Gulf War, the 1992 US presidential election, and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. There are also some examples of weddings being conducted online there! I do wonder whether the happy couples are still married to each other or whether they have announced their separation in a similar community spirited fashion. The idea of Twitter broadcasting news events is certainly not a new concept at all.

As these different streams of communications evolved over time, it became apparent that there were disparate islands of information surrounded by a sea of data. These pieces of information weren’t connected to each other at all. CompuServe and AOL forged ahead with their own communities, significantly growing users at a tremendous rate but creating an issue. The main problem with walled gardens is that if you want to interact with your friends who have accounts in other networks, you have to join the other network.

Walled gardens require all of your contacts to use the same network in order to get value from the connection.

This closed type of interaction only brings benefits to the company that built the network software. Soon browsers such as Netscape circumvented the walled garden approach by providing the mechanism to visit websites around the world. Netscape used graphical user interfaces to present easy to navigate pages with images and files to download. Communication using Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) allowed forum software and newsreader software to proliferate, encouraging interaction between disparate members of the new Internet community. NNTP and newsreader software are still used by forum moderators, technical experts and regular contributors to this day. Their main benefit is that they allow offline responses to posted questions on myriad forums covering any topic you’d care to ask about.

Social and non-social software

Fifteen years ago, where did you go to get information about someone to get your work done? You probably tried the library, visited the bookstore, or looked in an encyclopaedia. The information you needed would be stored there and the data was as fresh as the day the book was sent to print. Now let’s move forward to today. Where would you go to get that information? You’d go onto the web. Specifically, you’d use a search engine to find the information you need. Some of the data you’ll find will be static, and some of the information will be dynamic, up to date and engaging. The web has changed into Web 2.0, it’s changed the way you find the things you want and it’s become much more interactive and social.

The way that social media has been adopted is different from the way that other types of ‘non-social‘ software have been used.

If you’re working at your PC on desktop applications like Adobe Illustrator, Excel or Word, you do not require validation from your peers in your network or recommendations for you to use the software or find it valuable. You may have heard about the software from someone and decided to try it yourself. Non-social software started to change with the introduction of collaborative applications. Tools like SharePoint, Lotus Notes, Outlook and Instant Messenger introduce the concept of ’others’ in your network. You can interact and collaborate with these ’others’ in different ways. You can send an email which is instantly delivered or you can update a document on the network which can alert others in your work-group that the document has changed. You can send an instant message to people across the company and communicate online with your team mates. Collaboration software enables you to interact with ’the others’ to efficiently get your work done.