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For most people, the term “social media” is synonymous with a handful of high-profile social platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram – and for good reason. All of these sites have hundreds of millions of monthly active users around the globe, and all of them have become so popular and so instantly recognizable that it almost seems impossible to remember a time before they actually existed.
Early roots of social media
And, yet, even before Facebook launched in 2004 or Twitter launched in 2006, there was already a generation of social media sites that created the foundation for what exists today. For example, MySpace actually launched back in 2003, and at one time, was the most popular social network in the world. The same holds true, to a lesser extent, for social networking sites like Friendster or Six Degrees. And, arguably, sites like Yelp (founded in 2004) and Trip Advisor (founded in 2000) can also be considered among the early pioneers of social media, building in a lot of sharing and opinion-oriented content into a vibrant community that became more powerful the more people that joined.
But the real genesis of social media can be traced back to the early days of blogging in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when brave media innovators decided to take on the mainstream media world with quirky, fun, independent blogs that covered everything from technology to entertainment. They believed that all media should be social, and that media should not be limited to a few big media companies.
These early bloggers using blogging platforms like WordPress were actually the first “social media influencers,” and they helped to define many of the conventions and formats that still define social media today, such as the use of “tags” to help find content and the method of time-and-date-stamping all new content. Most importantly, they showed that average, everyday people could opine on movies, sports or tech gadgets just as well as the big-name media publications.
Basic conventions and features of social media
That being said, every social media site follows certain basic conventions. First of all, they all require some sort of profile, avatar image and/or user handle in order to get started. And all of them embed certain content-sharing tools (such as likes and shares) to make sharing content as easy, convenient and real-time as possible. They also have a way of organizing connections into some form of network – sometimes these connections are co-workers (as in the case of LinkedIn), sometimes they are fellow travelers (as with Trip Advisor), and sometimes they are friends and family (as with Facebook).
And, finally, all the big social media sites include some form of “feed” or “stream” that enables users to find popular, like-minded or noteworthy content. Of course, there are various iterations on all of these. For example, most “feeds” are organized in reverse chronological order, but due to the immense explosion of social media content, algorithms now play a key role in determining what gets shown, and to whom.
In addition, there are various other conventions that many of the most popular social networks use. One of these is the ability to embed almost any form of multimedia content into a post or update. In the early days of social media, this was mostly limited to images and text. But today, video is the most popular form of social media content. And, as new social media platforms like Twitch emerge, it’s likely that we’ll continue to see newer and newer formats of social media content and sharing emerge.
The future of social media
About the only definite for the future is that social media will continue to be all about sharing, community, communication and networking. For now, Facebook is the clear leader worldwide, but new developments in places like China – where platforms like WeChat are adding in new entertainment and finance options for users – could mean that the next decade of social media looks very different from the last generation dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.