The History (and Future) of Social Media…20+ years in review

As we again head into a new year, many of us take some time to reflect on the year that has passed, looking at how far we’ve come, reassessing goals and planning measures to, as the kids say, ‘crush it’ in the New Year.

In the marketing world where I live and breathe, I wanted to take a look further back at the history of social media, because in just the last two decades, things have evolved fast and furiously, and our daily lives have forever changed because of it. Since 2024 marks the 20th anniversary of Facebook’s creation, I thought this would be an ideal time to look back at the origins of social media. This blog references data from a HubSpot report called “The History of Social Media since 2003”. 

While the first email was sent in 1971, and America Online (AOL) went, uh, online in 1985 (remember that gosh awful noise?), the first wave of social media recognizable as a birth parent of the platforms we use today came to be with the arrival of Friendster in 2002. Friendster users could connect with friends, share pictures and discover new content. After that, the social media platform floodgates opened.

2003 saw the launch of LinkedIn, a social network connecting people in a business context. That same year saw Myspace introduced to the world, and everyone’s friendly follower, Tom. It was the largest social platform in its prime, making $800 million in 2008…yet by 2011, even an infusion of Justin Timberlake’s fame and millions couldn’t bring sexy back to Myspace. It became about as relevant as a Motorola RAZR flip phone in a world of smartphones with 4-inch touch-screens where you can photograph your lunch and upload it to your Facebook profile.

Speaking of which….

In 2004, Harvard University students partook in the launch of the brainchild called “The Facebook” (Sean Parker of Napster fame supposedly recommended dropping the ‘The’). Twenty years later (2024) Facebook is the world’s most popular social network, with 2.9 billion monthly active users worldwide. Today, the primary characters from ‘The Social Network’ movie, namely the Winkelvoss twins, Eduardo Saverin, Sean Parker and of course, Mark Zuckerberg, are all billionaires…although Mark is about 50x richer.

2005 brought the introduction of YouTube, whose first video by one of its founders Jawed Karim, “Me at the Zoo” has now been viewed 287 million times. In contrast, Pinkfong’s ‘Baby Shark Dance’ video has since been watched the most times, with over 13 billion views. Reddit was also launched in ‘05. And the next major social network player to ‘enter the chat’ kicked off what was called the ‘Microblogging Era’.

Twitter launched in 2006 with posts set to a 140 character limit, expanding to 280 in 2017. In 2023, it expanded again up to 4,000 characters (but only if you are a paying subscriber). Initially intended for SMS-based updates and sharing, 17 years later, Twitter was renamed ‘X’ after being purchased by Elon Musk, who dug through his couch cushions and came up with the quite portly buy-in price of $44 billion. The very first ‘Tweet’ came from Jack Dorsey, one of Twitter’s founders, saying “just setting up my twttr”.

2007 saw the kick-off of Tumblr, which became popular for those in smaller fandom-type community groups. Tumblr is still active (who knew?) and currently is the host of half a billion blogs. 2007 also brought the market debut of a product that would change the world, just like Steve Jobs envisioned. The Apple iPhone gave people easy access to all their social platforms while mobile, and the world’s attention span and ability to focus would never be the same, as visuals became prioritized in the social media experience.

The first mobile-only and second visual-first platform soon followed, which we all know today as Instagram. In IG’s first eight months, it gained five million subscribers, and today has over two billion active users monthly worldwide. As a side note, HubSpot’s research indicates that social media marketers say Instagram has the highest ROI and Engagement of all other apps.

The 2010’s kicked off with the introduction of Pinterest, followed in 2011 by Snapchat, then Google’s Facebook competitor Google+ (which had too many minuses and shut down in 2018) and Twitch for the exploding social online gaming community. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 for what was then an unheard of cost of ONE BILLION DOLLARS… (side note, Instagram had 13 employees at the time).

The next year, Twitter bought Vine pre-launch for a measly $30 million. 2017 introduced TikTok in the United States, which now has over 130 million U.S. downloads, usage numbering around 73% with Gen Z, and the attention of U.S. Congressional lawmakers. And of course, now we have Threads, billed as ‘Instagram’s text-based conversation app’, whose success story is still being sewn up as part of the Meta-verse.

From those early days, who could have envisioned how social media would become a daily routine, let alone a truly, highly effective marketing platform? For nearly every business imaginable, social media has forged new avenues to interact and connect with audiences, build brand awareness and inspire people into action (and into spending).

What does the future hold for social media? Here’s what I do know; it will continue to evolve. Algorithms will continue to work mathematically for social companies to wield their control over what their products subscribers see so the house always wins. There is even beta testing in the EU going on now for ad-free social platforms, charging a monthly cost due to forthcoming stricter European regulations and following the market template we have for video streaming apps in America. So, there are multiple things marketers need to pay close attention to as everything continually evolves.

The HubSpot report says nearly a third of consumers use social media platforms as search engines already, and that number is steadily growing (just ask Google, because they are noticing it like a pimple on Prom night). With this method of ‘social search’ on the upswing, brands should make it as easy as possible to be found on social media. This includes using appropriate hashtags, as well as creating content, profiles and usernames that are all easily identifiable.

The report also notes that social shopping is increasing with consumers of all generations on multiple social media apps. Fifty-nine percent of companies noted they saw increased sales through social media this year alone. As a marketer, embracing social shopping/selling is a relatively simple way forward in growing your business.

And since social media has become a marketplace, know that your customers, or potential customers, are going to use it as a means of accessing customer service. Seventy-six percent of those selling on social say they offer customer service attention on their sales pages. If you don’t think customer service and marketing intersect, please take a moment and read our “Customer Service Should Factor Into Your Marketing Strategy” blog for my thoughts about it.

In social media, there is a LOT to keep up to speed with. But at CMOco, that’s exactly what we do. We live it every day, so find us there; like, share, follow, subscribe…all the things!

I hope you enjoyed this history lesson of social media as it happened over a generation. As we wrap up a successful 2023 and move into the New Year, know that we’re always staying on top of what’s going on in the Social world and can help direct you to the best channels, platforms and content you need to grow and succeed in the coming year.

Here’s to a Happy 2024!

~Bruce Thiem, CMOco’s Director of Integrated Media