A brief history of online social networks

August 27, 2008

What was the first really big online social site? MySpace, Plenty of Fish, or Facebook. Well, young Jedi, these are all far too young. Since 1985 The Well has been connecting people. And after that there was a place called LambdaMOO.


The Well allowed me as a member to connect with such people as Dr. Tim Leary, and Jerry Garcie. I connected with people from around the globe in a way I had never dreamed was possible with the local Bulletin-Board Systems (BBSs). And when Lambda came along it took everything to a new level. Neither of these place allowed rich content. There was no pictures, no audio, no music and of course no video. There was however text. The written word. And relationships were built based upon the words you typed. From 1989 until 1997 these two places were a part of my daily life. And in an era when most of my friends and peers thought the “internet thing” was a waste of time and a toy, I got to be part of something that was bigger then anything those of us in those days ever dreamed. In that era it was a new frontier out there and we all were a bunch of mavericks and by accident pioneers.


I created friendships in that era that have stood the test of time. I watched people meet in textual based rooms, start relationships, and fall in love. Some ended up getting married and those are some of the strongest relationships I have ever witnessed. We exchanged ideas, reviews on products, and helped one another out in anyway we could. In Lambda we developed a virtual world. When Pavel created Lambda that wasn’t his idea. But he gave birth to something bigger then us all, and we all benefited. Pavel didn’t do it for money. Pavel didn’t do it for fame. There was no cost to join either one of these sites other then the price of your monthly dial-up account.


So what’s the point of this. The beauty of that era was it was pure. We had no ads. There was no marketing hammer us from every angle. No banner ads. It was about connecting. Building relationship built upon mutual respect, trust and shared interests. As I said, it was pure.


There is a rumor that banner ads or some other form of ads will be coming to Twitter soon. This doesn’t bother me. I enjoy the service, and I don’t mind a smart ad. Facebook has ads, and yes, I do click through. What people tend to forget is these services take a huge amount of money to operate. Servers, network usage, IT security, skills & talent, etc all cost money. And we tend to forget that at times. Lambda was run by volunteers. It was sponsored by XEROX PARC in the beginning. But I don’t think any of use would have minded an ad here and there, just so long as it didn’t fsck too badly with out online experience.


Consumer control dictates we have the power. But in order for us to have that power, we must surrender a part of our privacy. If I don’t want ads for online sex-webcams on FB, I need to tailor what I do wish to have ads displayed for. By sharing my interests the powers that be can build a program that targets me and my interests. And this folks, is part of data mining. The real money or power behind FB is not the online ads, it’s ALL that data we place online. Take that data, run it through a few stats programs on a super computer and the corporations and/or government are able to build profiles based upon our lifestyles and interests. The question to ask, is this a good thing?


The vote is still out. Lambda and The Well never data mined, but I suppose they could have. What I think is important, is if Big Brother is going to track what we do online, do we really care? And are they going to be ethical with that data? Is the exchange of what I consider important in my life, who my friends and peers are really that valuable that I am not prepared to share that knowledge with corporations in order to connect with people around the globe?


Personally, I can live with that exchange. However for your business you may decide no. The internet is never gonna be the same. Online marketing now has as much if not more power then TV or radio. And the key to take away from this posting is that text has power. What you write and how it is written online can have a huge impact on your bottom line. Trust is important. The text we read online is the content we keep. And yet so many websites seem to miss this point. Personally I see the textual content of a site as having more value then the images or rich media they offer. So, young Jedi, be smart and make damn sure you have something of value in all those words upon your website. Twitter is all text. Facebook has rich content, but it’s the textual content that determines if I’ll view that video or not.


I suppose something haven’t changed. Twenty years later we are back to text. Yes, the pen is mightier then the sword.