history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)

As many of you know, Nicole Ellison and I are guest editing a special issue of JCMC. As a part of this issue, we are writing an introduction that will include a description of social network sites, a brief history of them, a literature review, a description of the works in this issue, and a discussion of future research. We have decided to put a draft of our history section up to solicit feedback from those of you who know this space well. It is a work-in-progress so please bear with us. But if you have suggestions, shout out.

history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)

In particular, we want to know: 1) Are we reporting anything inaccurately? 2) What are we missing?

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32 thoughts on “history of social network sites (a work-in-progress)

  1. Matthew Purdon

    Noticed that you needed stats for Piczo. We have about 12 Million Monthly Uniques World Wide. Our members are predominately teens (13-18) in the UK, US, Canada, Germany, Norway, Australia.

    If you need more info or history, please feel free to contact me.

    Matthew Purdon
    Director of User Experience

  2. Simon Spero

    “Friendster gained traction amongst three key groups of early adopters: bloggers, attendees of the Burning Man arts festival, and gay men[…] Each believed that the site was designed for their niche.”

    People you meet at a SOMA house party for $200

  3. tiffany

    the community connect sites — blackplanet.com, migente.com and asianavenue.com all had features like message boards, private messages, profiles, and the ability to add friends since at least 1998.*

    (*well let me say that blackplanet.com did. i’m not sure if mi gente and asian avenue were around in 1998. if they were, then i’m pretty sure they had those features.)

    this may or may not be important, but from my experience with black planet (i stopped hanging out there in 2002 or so), most of those “friendships” were virtual. you “met” them online, and even if they became your friends, the primary way you interacted with them was online. you weren’t articulating or replicating your social networks online; you were creating a new online network that may or may not have dovetailed with your offline networks.

    once friendster, myspace and linkedin hit the scene, the nature of friendship in online spaces seemed to shift. your offline became your online; they are either one in the same, or have significant overlap.

  4. Elwyn Jenkins

    It would be handy to know the date you wrote this article snippet. Can you say which months/year this was written. Obviously by quoting sites as per a date of 2007 it must have been written sometime this year. It could have been February (or any other month). If it was written in the earlier part of the year what you are saying about Facebook may not be up to date. So can you be more specific on the date you wrote this?

  5. Alia

    I think you’re missing the urban hipster/scenester element of social networking. And you’re missing porn social networks (Suicide Girls). And some of the current gay networking sites.

    Before myspace or friendster, and similar to AsianAvenue, sites like makeoutclub were popular on the west coast and in Canada for people involved in indie scenes. The concept of a descriptive online profile (or AA’s mini-site) was really popular and it was also a good way for people to advertise their personalities, the bands they were in, and put a face to people they saw at shows/in social settings. Musicians were usually wellknown members of these sites; when I was a makeoutclub member, people were constantly bitching about Kelly Osbourne being on the site. I got the impression that most people who were drawn to it migrated to Friendster when it came out; in 2005 (even after Facebook and Myspace debuted) I was still hearing scene-y people say things like “we met on Friendster, we dated for a while but now we just chill out”. (Note, Facebook is still not widely used, I agree with your earlier post about the class divisions; queer people and people with a scene identity are much more drawn to Myspace.)

    I think the key point of social networking is that it combined the showoff feature of the online profile/personal site (note, personal sites were never that popular because they’re a pain in the ass to learn how to do), plus the already-adopted “friends” aspect of online diarying/livejournaling that people were using to connect to primarily offline friends. I’m not sure if there is a clear evolution that people have pointed out, but for example, whereas my friends used to use a variety of online sources to display interests, update our statuses and connect, nobody really blogs anymore – the interest was not so much blogging in the first place so much as creating online links to each other, and where formerly the only tools were words, now tagging photo albums, or sending messages or wall posts are more popular. (I’d add, especially with the advent of services like Facebook mobile. I actually can’t think of a friend who doesn’t run their life using Facebook, and every person in my circle of friends/closer acquaintances has it; it’s THAT popular here in Canada.)

  6. Nico Luchsinger

    Although you focus on U.S. Sites, there may be two non-U.S. SNS worth mentioning: One is Xing (http://www.xing.com, formerly openBC), based in Germany and focused on business relationships like LinkedIn. Xing is the only SNS I know that does not generate its revenue through advertisement on the site but through fees the users pay for premium access. The other one is studiVZ (http://www.studivz.net), a SNS for students which is remarkable because it basically looks like Facebook did about a year ago, and although Facebook now has a lot more features, studiVZ still remains extremely popular in Europe.

    Also, I’d guess that Xing and studiVZ are the two biggest SNS in Europe – but I don’t have any stats to confirm this.

  7. John Dodds

    I second the xing.com – spreading across german speaking Europe – very big in swiss business circles but fewatures 25 languages so clearly international.

  8. Sheizaf Rafaeli


    Thanks for the draft history you are writing. This promises to be a very interesting and useful project.

    I wonder about criteria for inclusion of at least two predecessor genres in writing up the history of SNS. Neither of the following are full implementations of what would be considered SNS today, but they are certainly close ancestors.

    1) Classmates.com, claim to have been around since 1995. I certainly remember signing up, providing my own networking coordinates and linking with old friends through them as early as 1996. CLassmates has clones and imitators. Some are mentioned on their site, some just take after them without credit. For instance, the Israeli site Hevre.co.il has been on the air since 2001, with almost all current SNS features. Hevre (which is Heberw speaking) claims 1.3 millions registered users. Quiter a saturtion for a culture with a total of only 5 million speaking the language.

    2) The buddy lists on instant messaging sites, including the server-side management of buddy lists on ICQ and IM, aer precursors of SNS. I remember trading sites and activity for these lists (e.g. on IRC) as early as 1995.

    And a JCMC – related anecdote that you might apreciate. One of my aspirations=-turned-failures as co-founder and co-editor of JCMC was an attempt, early in 1995, to create for JCMC an annotated bibliography that would link, on a per-article basis, those scholars interested in discussing the article. (I believe that) the term ego-centric networks evolved only later. In any case, it captures the flavor of contemporary SNS, and also explains the JCMC social – network based annotated bibliography flop. I suggest taht you mention ego-centrism, as it is as important as teh Milgram-Six-degrees meme.


    Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli

    sheizaf@rafaeli.net http://sheizaf.rafaeli.net

  9. Steve Petersen


    This is an interesting work-in-progress. I have a couple of suggestions.

    First, I think it is worth noting http://www.beautifulpeople.net — a site for which admission requires that existing members approve your profile. The fact that existing users have to approve membership is an interesting exclusivity device that I haven’t noticed much elsewhere in the is realm. What kind of attributes do people use to judge others? What are some important implications of such a membership process that differentiate if from other social networking sites? (I have no connection with the site — not even a profile on it.)

    Second, you should consider the social networking sites aspects of wikis. For instance, ardent Wikipedians create their own profile pages with personal information. While Wikipedia may not automatically list their “friends” on the site, wikis like Wikipedia allow cohorts of people with similar interests to congregate around a common cause/activity.

    I hope that these ideas help.

  10. Adam Ostrow

    A few ideas …

    (1) I might consider AOL the first social network. As a high schooler in 96-00, virtually everyone at my school had an AOL profile where we list interests, location, school, etc. While it wasn’t explicity a social network, you could search for people at the same school, in the same town, of the same age, etc. Plus, AOL’s community features like chat rooms and message boards provided a central area to socialize, and you could dig deeper into the user profile to find out more about someone.

    (2) I think it would be important to note LiveJournal’s position as an open source social network / blogging platform. A lot of innovation and ideas came out of company’s like Blurty, Greatest Jounral, DeadJournal (the “niche” social network). Our site (MindSay.com) was started on LiveJournal code before migrating to our own system, and built on a lot of their ideas to launch things like custom friend groups that allowed you to publish blog entries to only co-workers, colleagues, or a custom group of people.

    (3) As someone mentioned, Classmates.com would also fall into the category of early social networks.

    (4) I also wouldn’t leave out eBay. People socializing online around a shared hobby or interest may have actually started with eBay. There are countless stories of real-life relationships formed via interaction on eBay.

  11. zephoria

    Please note that the definition of a “social network site” is at the top of the article. I’m specifically focused on sites that have profiles and a publicly articulated list of friends (not just buddylists) that are visible on the profile to anyone who has permission to see the profile.

  12. Steve

    What about Yelp! Inc.? They’ve only been around since late 2004, but there are profile pages, and a publicly articulated list of friends is clearly visible on each one. Plus, the two unusual bits about Yelp are that (1) they have the Yelp Elite, which serves a physical community/event organizing and development function as well; (2) they have what i think of as something like a gift economy centered around reviews of neighborhood establishments. People provide useful, cool, and funny reviews as gifts to generate status within the community, which in turn provides tangible benefits like Elite status (which offers networking opportunities, open bars, meals and other perks at Elite events sponsored by local businesses).

  13. bob

    Wow, your characterization, on On the Media, of MySpace as a subcultural hotbed was just way off. In very general terms, MySpace is for really young teenagers, and, frankly, for red-state, Everybody Loves Raymond/Mind of Mencia types.

    Facebook is still largely made up of middle- and upper-class collegians, but that’s changing, too. There is a split, but it’s not the one you describe at all. What’s basically happening is that smart people and professionals are flocking to Facebook, and their opposite number are flocking to MySpace to design loud, ugly, typo-riddled pages and assault users with their favorite Christina Aguillara or Good Charlotte song. Just like some people move to NYC or San Francisco, and others stay in White Plains or Fremont.

    Neither site represents any kind of subculture.

  14. dominus

    I was just passing by, and saw your blog.
    I do not know, it is in the scope of your research or not, but probably as you already now MUDs, MOOs and similar things are the first successors for the social networking sites. Some of these applications were games and some others were used as social networking sites, where people had certain profiles, homes, objects, a kind of reputation points and etc., when there was no graphical data on the applications because of the low bandwidth.
    If you need more information, let me know.

  15. jeremy liew

    Some comments on the WIP:

    – For profile centric SNS is it worth drawing the distinction more explicitly between FOAF/meeting people/exploring the social map type sites (linkedin, original friendster etc) vs the sites that are used to communicate with an existing network? Its sort of a throw away line mid paragraph one but seems like a central distinction

    – Targeting of SNS audiences is often accidental and a function of viral growth. If viral coefficient (= av num of new users invited by a single user) in some subgroup is 1 then that group grows unboundedly. So any subgroup with a viral coefficient >1 quickly grows to dominate the whole population of a SNS (because it grows unbounded while the other groups grow boundedly) , and this can become self perpetuating as new members view the existing population to decide if they are “like them” enough to join. (this can be rectified by sectioning out groups e.g. by IP address). Hence Orkut’s unintentional growth in Brazil and India, Friendster’s unintentional growth in South East Asia, Xuqa’s in Turkey, Tagged’s in the US urban communities etc.

    – Dogster and catster are really targeted at dog and cat owners, not dogs and cats per se.

    – Given its size, bebo seems underrepresented in the article.

    – Is it worth drawing the behavioral distinction more clearly between profile centric SNS (where major activities are around communication, performance and self expression) and the other sites where profiles are an adjunct to content? This is partially address through examples in your penultimate paragraph but could be made more explicit.

  16. Bertil

    Maybe one very minor correction:
    “LinkedIn makes a portion of an individual’s profile visible this way, but requires viewers to have an account to view the entire profile.”
    “LinkedIn allows you to either hide or fully disclose your profile, or make a portion of your profile visible to all, and the entire profile visible to paying members.”
    (at least, that is how I undestood it)
    The money aspect is certainly not the key element on most SNS, but it’s interesting to see one case where it is the control element (because paying members are head-hunters).

    Otherwise, great stuff: I’ve already quoted you in my drafts.

  17. Alice Townes

    I am not qualified to add anything to your history of social networking, but I think the style that you have used perpetuates a certain kind of inaccuracy. It is interesting to look at a general overview, but if you want to understand personal experience, I think your research could be structured in a different way: Following the path of a person’s SNS experience over time until the present day. At what point did what category of person first use a site? Where did they move to next? Why? You began to do this by discussing sites that only applied to certain groups. But which sites are usually used in tandem with each other? Do people who now use myspace usually originate from ethnic SNSs? “Graduating” to more sophisticated sites over time is the an interesting phenomenon, because it helps us define why sites are used in the first place. Tracking these graduations would be a new way to approach the data. Social networking sites are not static or universal, and your method is in danger of giving that impression.

    I am deeply in awe of your research and really appreciate everything you’ve been publishing on the internet for general consumption. It is a relief to me to finally have words to describe what I’ve been observing, a source to quote, and a place to go for hard facts relating to a subject that seemed completely undefinable to me before this point.

  18. Jim Kerr

    As much as I understand your desire to stick to an easily definable term for “social networking sites,” I think you are doing a real disservice to the history and development of the bigger picture view of social networking. It is much more than just profiles.

    Someone mentioned AOL, and the AOL chat rooms in the eighties and early nineties were very important groundbreaking sites in the development of sites like MySpace and Facebook. You could also point to something like The Well, which was incredibly influential in developing the Internet as a social gathering place.

    I daresay understanding what is similar between The Well and Orkut is more important than analyzing the development of “friend collecting” on MySpace and Friendster. The phenomenon of social networking on the Internet is evolving more into a reflection of complex real-world social groups than the dominance of specific implementations, whether it is MySpace, Orkut, Facebook, or Tagworld.

  19. Rukia13

    I don’t feel qualified to critique what you have said. However, I noticed a couple of SNS’s that weren’t included in your article: Multiply and Vox.

    I can only speak to the first, as a user; however I understand that all three offer greater privacy settings than Facebook and the like. That way, as Multiply’s slogan goes, “…create, share and discuss your blog, photos, videos and music with more of the people you know, and less of the people you don’t.”

    Multiply is geared towards the 30s and above group that don’t want to share a lot of information with the general public. For instance, last night I posted one photo album to share with my network (my family, friends and colleagues + their family, friends and colleagues), posted another album for just my family and friends and a third for just five specific people (other than myself).

    Thanks for sharing your work.

  20. Steve


    This is, of course, your research. You are free to define the concepts as you choose, and nobody here has the authority to tell you what to be interested in.

    That being said, I find myself squarely on the side of those who have said or implied that the interesting aspects of sites where teens hang out with their friends and/or hang out to meet new friends absolutely do not depend on whether such a site allows your friend/buddy list to be publically viewed. I mean, yeah, the idea that you can “show off” your circle of friends probably is of importance to the kind of personality who, in high school, got off on belonging to the most elite clique (or the most anti-elite rebel anti-clique) and derived their sense of social identity from that display.

    I don’t know whether this personality type represents most teens, or even a majority. You would be more likely to have numbers on that than I. But I hope to goodness not. Because these are some sick people!

    I think for a moderately sane personality using an SNS the fact that their friends list is public is, perhaps, an interesting secondary benefit, and for the lurker who peruses such a site it makes profile surfing fun and easy. But to imagine that this feature is of such importance that it represents a conceptual divide between fundamentally distinct classes of “computer mediated communication sites which appeal to teens” (my notion of the uber-class of which your difinition of SNS would be a subclass) strains credulity.

    I would submit that the real significance of online sites for teens is not that they replaced (or supplemented) the mall, but that they replaced (or supplemented) the telephone. Think on the differences between those metaphors and you’ll see why I regard it as ludicrous to divide teen communication sites conceptually by whether they display your friends list.

    To me, the significance of teens online lies in questions like where do you go when you need to talk about things the adults in your life cannot or will not understand, or would embarass you to speak of to other than your peers. Where do you go when the black depression is grinding you down worse than ever and you need somebody (some buddy) who will stay up with you most of the night helping you remember why life is worth staying around for.

    Today, most of those sites feature pictures of your friends, associates, “myspace whore trains” or other kinds of chosen ones. Yesterday, many of them did not. If we really want to know how online teen communication got from yesterday to today, it would behoove us to lighten up on the definitionitis and look at the entire process by which online teen communication evolved and continues to evolve.

    Just a thought,

  21. zephoria

    Steve and Jim – I’m not speaking about all teen sites online. I’m not even speaking about all networked publics or all community sites. We are intentionally addressing a fraction of them because of a need to scope things so that they are manageable.

    I can’t address everything in the history because we simply don’t have the room. We are trying to offer “a” history, not the only history. All histories have biases, all histories emphasize some things over others. There’s no stopping point in a history because everything is interconnected so you have to find a place where you choose to scope things and go from there. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the way things have to be. Someone else’s history has to go through the community sites of the past; we simply can’t address all of them or we can’t get to what’s going on now.

  22. silpol

    oh, Livejournal… their use of F-word (friends, I mean, but pun intended) had caused so much confusion among Russian-spoken segment of LJ, to say the least. The thing was rather cultural and situational same time: Slavonic understanding of friendship is even more emotional than Western one, and also Russian-spoken (don’t confuse with Russian by user’s location!) segment was VERY far away from typical teenager profile in US – some professors in Tartu, Estonia were using it for teaching students in university, and there were other applications. I guess you ought to bring some international flavor into this research, while you generally seems to avoid it 🙂

  23. matlock

    Hi Danah,

    it might be a bit off-topic, but i’ve just written a short post about how i’m using a user-centred definition of social media sites in my work with independent media companies. In the post, i classify based on users *expectations* and *behaviours*, rather than features or platforms. I find this helps to describe what platforms actually *do* for users, regardless of whether this was the original intent of the service.


  24. Likhita Somani

    Dear Ma’am

    I am a public relation consultant in India and do PR for the first Indian Social Networking Site, Fropper.com Please let me know if you would like to add any indian site to your research study. I shall provide you with the information.

    Thank You


  25. John Powers

    There are the social networks for do-gooders too. It’s probably too late for this issue. But these sites are interesting from a social software point of view. Omidyar.net is closing on Sept. 7. So that event and the migration of the users of Omidyar.net to other sites provides a window into this world of philanthropic social networking sites.

  26. Bob Jacobson

    I appreciate the effort to be complete, but your level of detail bogs down your description and critique of what’s essential to and about these different systems, and their scientific/social/cultural significance. Also, starting to discuss social networks as if they originated in 1997, by ladling on the features required to qualify as a SNS, unnecessarily discounts the experiences had and lessons learned — and forgotten — by founders and users of such pre-Web systems as Matchmaker (which I experienced online, when I got my first PC, as far back as 1983); MUDs; various ad hoc, pre-ecommerce online data, sales, and email systems; a remarkable online community located on a virtual island (like a MUD cum Second Life, with only vector graphics) whose users got together, from everywhere in the US, for the first big F2F party, in VA in 1983; The WELL (of course); USENET newsgroups; pre-Yahoo Newsgroups; and all sorts of kludged precursors (like Homestead) to today’s standardized Web fare, which is less conceptually inventive — in other words, kind of boring.

    My concern for a proper recounting and examination of SNS’prehistory isn’t old fogeyism: I believe that a great deal of useful prior knowledge is being ignored or forgotten, only to be reinvented in less “pure,” more inaccessible forms. Beginning your history 20 years into the SNS phenomenon may reify others’ belief that “everything’s new!” I know you know that’s not true, but why sustain a false belief?

    Where do things stand now regarding this draft and its completion and publication?

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