Chapter 4: Friends Indeed

Martin Giles|Special to CNBC.com
Friday, 16 Mar 2012 | 11:33 AM ET

Always connected and always online: welcome to the social supercloud.

Mark Zuckerberg
Getty Images
Mark Zuckerberg

THE WORLD IS IN THE MIDDLE of an unprecedented collective experiment. By the time you read this, Facebook may well have become the first online social network to boast a billion members – which, were it a nation, would make it the third most populous on Earth after China and India. Of course, there is no guarantee that Facebook, which at the time of writing claims some 800m active users, will get to the billion-member mark. But its success has already shown how the notion of friendship in the physical world can transfer successfully to a virtual one. And we are still in the early days of this social revolution in cyberspace – one which is going to play out in many different areas between now and 2050.

As well as online social networks, a plethora of other “social media” services is reinforcing links between people on the web and off it, as those who strike up friendships online subsequently meet face-to-face. These media include everything from blogs and “wikis” (sets of web pages that can be edited by anybody) to online-dating sites and services such as Foursquare that share a person’s location with his or her friends.

Along with Facebook and its ilk, some of these services have provoked fierce debates about the future of privacy in an increasingly networked world. But there has evidently been a shift towards greater openness online, a trend that emerges clearly from an overview of the relatively short history of social media. The early part of this timeline can be thought of as the BFF period, running until the end of 2003.

Often used by teenagers to designate their favourite buddies as “Best Friends Forever”, the abbreviation is used here to denote the time “Before Facebook’s Founding”.

Genesis and evolution

At the beginning of this pre-Cambrian era of social media, online friendship and information-sharing was largely the preserve of techsavvy types who hung out in online communities such as The Well or on bulletin-board systems, which allowed their users to post messages to one another and play online games. Although some people used their real names on the discussion boards and in the chat rooms that blossomed in the 1980s, many hid behind online aliases and took pleasure in taunting neophytes who tried to join their ranks.

During the next stage in the evolution of online social networking there was a gradual democratisation of the tools that allowed people to communicate with one another via the web. Firms such as CompuServe and America Online introduced e-mail, chat sites and discussion boards to many more people – though their membership never reached anything like the stratospheric levels of Facebook. Thanks to these commercial services, which offered relatively secure electronic “walled gardens” in which users could exchange information, people began to get more comfortable using their real identities in cyberspace.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the world wide web unleashed a torrent of innovation that ultimately brought social media to the masses. The number of blogs exploded. By July 2011 there were over 166m public ones in existence according to Nielsen, a research firm. Wikis multiplied too. Perhaps the best known of these, Wikipedia, which was set up in 2001, has since grown to become one of the most popular sites on the internet, boasting 20m articles on everything from obscure diseases to equally obscure actors. A triumph of online collaboration, Wikipedia benefits from the fact that hundreds of people edit its existing entries each day (for the most part, though not always, improving them) and add new ones to it.

But perhaps the most important development in the 1990s was the rise of social-networking services such as SixDegrees.com, which linked personal profiles with the ability to search for and contact other users. These paved the way for the likes of Friendster and Myspace, two social networks that attracted plenty of attention in the early part of this century. These sites, along with others such as CyWorld in South Korea, Skyrock in France and VKontakte in Russia, differed from most of their predecessors in two important respects. Instead of being structured according to topics or themes, they were unabashedly “egocentric”, placing people at the centre of online communities. And their simple interfaces made it easy for non-techies to join and use them.

Yet the fortunes of both networks ultimately faded while those of Facebook, founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg in his dorm room at Harvard University, began to soar. The Facebook era of social networking has seen the notion of formalising and nurturing friendships online shift from a minority pursuit to a mainstream activity around the world. And this is changing the notion of friendship and collaboration in several ways.

Miles Giles is the US Technology correspondent of The Economist.

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