Online Communities and Social Networking: Its History (& What’s Next)

September 2023



Table of Contents

History of Online Community

Community discussions have been an important part of life as long as there have been communities. Before there were social media network apps, there were letters-to-the-editor pages in the local newspaper. Before newspapers, people gathered in the town square to hear what a guy in a tri-corner hat had to say. When prehistoric people drew mammoths on the cave walls, other cavemen probably got together to comment on whether or not it was as good as the last one.

This is because community discussions serve an important purpose: bringing people together, connecting them with their interests. Community engagement and discussion has been the driver of change in history, from arts and culture to business and politics. Online communities and social media didn’t create anything new, but they made it stronger. They brought together larger groups from far away, making them more powerful and accelerating their development.

The Internet is newer than you think, but there are older Internet communities than you might expect. The Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations — called “PLATO” for short — was a program at the University of Illinois that had a bunch of features you’d recognize: chat rooms, email, forums, and even an early social network operated by touch-screen displays. Amazingly, this started in 1960, nearly 30 years before the World Wide Web took over the world.

Insticator’s Commenting platform is a new way for brands and publishers to have discussions with their audience. It keeps the audience engaged on their website, while they talk about the content. It’s like PLATO, but more modern.

We’re hard at work on Commenting 2.0, which will be loaded with even more features and improvements, but it’s got us thinking about where we came from, and how we got here. Here’s a little timeline of online communities throughout history. If we left out one of your favorites, hit us up in the comments and we’ll think about adding it — that’s what they’re there for, after all.

1960-1990: The Early Years

In the early days of the Internet, most of the infrastructure was housed in places like colleges and government research centers, while early computer scientists, mathematicians, and other nerds worked hard to make computers the life-changing, labor-saving devices we all thought they could be. Comments, bulletin boards, social media – all of those things got their start in this exciting time.

1960PLATOThe system of mainframes and dumb terminals that created many of the community practices that shaped everything that followed. Learn more
1969ARPANETWhile ARPANET did not include features we would recognize as “online discussion” today, the scientific network connected computers in a way that would form the foundation of the internet, and developed the protocols that most systems rely on today. Learn more
1986LISTSERVLISTSERV provided a way of managing mailing lists, allowing members of lists to easily communicate amongst groups using email. Every message to the group would arrive in every member’s inbox. Learn more
1973Community MemoryAn early Bulletin Board system run on mainframe terminals. Users could post a message to the mainframe that others could search for and retrieve from other terminals that would be printed out — and at one point, these were coin-operated terminals. Learn more
1978BBSThe first Bulletin Board Service (BBS) was launched in Feb 1978. BBSs were community message boards run on individual computers. Users would dial in to a specific BBS to connect and participate in the micro community and would have to disconnect and connect to a new number to switch between BBS. Learn more
1978MUD“Multi User Dungeon” was a text based dungeon crawling game created by Rob Trubshaw. Real-time in-game chat meant it being used as much for community as adventure, and the chat room was born. Learn more
1979UsenetAn early forum system, Usenet allowed users around the world to participate in topically-organized discussions. Usenet was the crucible for the development of “cyberculture” where norms such as the use of acronyms, anonymous discussion, “flaming” and memes were established. Learn more
1980CB SimulatorCompuserve’s CB simulator was the first dedicated online chat service made widely available to the public. Modeled after Citizen’s Band radio, it offered an initial 40 channels of real time chat. Video of CB simulator (mildly nsfw)
1985The WellThe Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL) started as a BBS before becoming one of the oldest continuously-operated online communities — and was pivotal in the establishment of the entire concept of “online community” as well as the ethos of the early web. Visit The Well
1988IRCInternet Relay Chat was the first popular protocol to bring real time group chat to the internet. Chat was organized into channels, often based on topic, allowing like-minded individuals to live-chat and send direct messages. Learn more
1989AOLPart ISP, part entertainment platform AOL included many online community features including message boards and live chat. The combination of content, community and an endless stream of sign up discs helped drive internet growth in the 1990s. See a history of AOL

1990-2004: The Explosion

Over the next 15 years, the Internet would move out of colleges and government buildings, and into people’s homes, thanks to newly-affordable personal computers, and a more-accessible internet. Instead of text-based interfaces that were one step above writing code, the Internet could now be navigated with mouse clicks and friendly, colorful graphics.

The “information superhighway” was quickly moving into people’s dens and living rooms, and became part of the fabric of everyday life.

1991ListservListserv was created as an email list management software that allowed users to create and manage email-based discussion lists. Each of these lists could be used as a discussion group with members replying to distribute their comment to all subscribers. History of Listserv
1994GeocitiesOften cited as an early predecessor of social media, Geocities allowed anyone to create their own personal webpages. These were located in “digital neighborhoods” of homesteaders forming early niche online communities.
1994W3Cs WIT ProjectWorldwide-Web Interactive Talk, or WIT, was arguably the first true online forum. Developed by the W3C Consortium to facilitate technical discussions about the web, WIT created the paradigms that many soon followed. User guide and download here
1995WWWBoardThe late 90s were the age of the web forum. Online community usually meant a buzzing forum powered by the likes of phpBB, VBulletin, Envision or Ultimate Bulletin Board. The trailblazer, though, was likely WWWBoard from Matt’s Script Archive. This simple text-only forum software was made free to use for all. 
1996ICQPronounced “I Seek You”, ICQ is best remembered as an earlier 1:1 instant messenger, paving the way for the likes of MSN and Yahoo chat in the future. It warrants inclusion in our list though due to its robust groups, channels and topics features that powered theme based communities feature chat, polls, bots and more. Whatever happened to ICQ
1997SixDegreesSixDegrees was undoubtedly social media before its time and turned community discussion to be centered on our personal networks for the first time and created many of the paradigms for every network that followed. 
1997Guest BooksWebsite Guest Books were scripts that allowed visitors to a website to leave short messages (usually) of appreciation and to interact with others who had done the same, although they rarely allowed for threaded conversation. The open, non-registration nature of Guest Books left them vulnerable to later spam and they lost popularity. Learn more
1998Comment SectionAn evolution of the Guest Book was commenting. Rather than one place to leave thoughts on a website, users could now comment on any page or article. Ubiquitous in the blog boom of the 2000s, commenting sections likely first appeared on OpenDiary. Learn more
2001AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)At the peak of its usage in 2001, AOL’s flagship messaging product had around 26 million users. Particularly popular among college students and young people in the days before cellphones were widely adopted, users would leave “Away Messages” to inform friends and relatives where they could be found – and possibly some excerpted song lyrics, too.
2002LinkedInA website devoted to professional networking, LinkedIn has grown to more than 900 million unique users, and is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Microsoft. LinkedIn has become a place for professionals and brand to share “thought leadership” articles on a variety of work-related topics.
2003MySpaceAlthough other social networks had appeared since SixDegrees (including FriendsReunited and Friendster), MySpace took them truly mainstream and allowed commenting communities to be built first around music artists, and then around us all. Learn more. This marked the start of an exodus of online communities moving away from the web and into the apps of social media giants.

2004-Present: “Web 2.0”

Instead of simply reading the Web, Web 2.0 made us all into participants and content creators with the advent of popular, and accessible new social media technologies. We’re no longer logging on to check the news — we’re talking to our friends, posting photos, microblogging, and more.

Eventually, these social networking giants would make some folks very rich, and usher in a new era of the Internet, where most of the content — user-generated or otherwise — are housed inside the “walled gardens” of a few major pages.

2004YelpBuilding on the foundations of websites like Epinions (later to become part of Ebay), Yelp took the idea of a review only platform mainstream. Whilst it pushes the definition of online community, Yelp certainly became the main online  channel for many businesses to engage with their customers. Learn more
2004FacebookThe rise of Facebook and its app-first approach began a big migration of community from the open web and web-platforms to the app ecosystem. 
2005RedditReddit currently hosts nearly 3.5 million communities, each built by users around a particular topic. The platform soared in popularity off the back of an exodus of disgruntled users from Digg around 2010 (Digg itself benefitted from a similar exodus from slashdot some time before).
2006TwitterWith twitter, social media community to a shift to real-time engagement through microupdates. While in the early going Twitter struggled to explain the utility of their product, it eventually became a hub for breaking news and journalists, and a “town square” for political discussions. Learn more
2009WhatsappThe convenience of group messaging in Whatsapp soon led to it being used as a platform for communities rather than simply direct messaging. This development was acknowledged by the company in 2022 when community features were added, allowing up to 21 groups to be linked. Learn more
2013SlackBuilt for business communications, Slack’s reinvention of the messaging app also proved popular as a community platform for many. Two years later, Discord’s popularity in the gaming sector would lead to a repeat of this pattern. Learn more
2016TikTokWhile not seemingly built with community first in mind, the incredible popularity of TikTok has led to it being the center of a new form of online community built on the community of creators model started by MySpace and popularized by YouTube. Learn more
2018ParlerPronounced “Parlor,” the conservative-leaving app promoted itself as being a place for “unrestricted free speech,” a policy that ran afoul of app store policies on both Google and Apple, which require more-moderated content. Acquired by Starboard in 2023, the site was shut down and seems to be on indefinite hiatus.
2019Insticator CommentingInsticator Commenting brought community back to our websites, allowing full-featured conversions right alongside content (or more usually beneath it). Bringing the best of old school forums, blog commenting and social media discussions, Instructor commenting delivers all of that without losing control of your audience to a social platform. Learn more
2021MetaIn 2021, Facebook changed the name of their parent company to “Meta,” in order to showcase their focus on the “Metaverse,” a virtual-reality meeting space where users would interact with one another via headsets and animated avatars.
In the years following the announcement, Meta experienced drops in users and share prices, prompting mass layoffs at the social-media giant.
2022Truth SocialAfter Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the terms of service, Trump Media launched its own social app, designed as a Twitter-like service for that end of the political spectrum.
2022Elon Musk’s TwitterIn 2022, Twitter agreed to a $44 billion buyout of the company by SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. He started his tenure with a pun, carrying a bathroom sink into the Twitter offices so he could be photographed with the caption, “Let that sink in.” 
2023ThreadsMark Zuckerberg’s Meta launches the “Threads” add-on for Instagram, and within a week of launch was quickly approaching 100 million users. Early adopters have found some customization options lacking, and Elon Musk has vowed lawsuits over Threads’ similarities to Twitter.

2023 And Beyond: What’s Next?

As Twitter encounters difficulties maintaining market share, the social media landscape is beginning to balkanize, with competitors like Mastodon, Bluesky, Spill, and Threads all vying for a piece of the microblogging pie. Reddit, too, has experienced growing pains, as a change to their API-usage policies has forced a shutdown of independent third-party apps and spurred mass protests on the site. With so many struggles, and so many options, it can be hard to see what’s next for online communities.

To Insticator, the answer is this: the future of social networking is distributed. The “walled gardens” of Web 2.0 are reaching the end of their life cycles, and the replacements attempting to recapture that spirit are going to fall into the same traps as their predecessors.

So what’s next? Everything old is new again. Instead of routing traffic through those large social networking hubs, conversations are going to be happening on homepages, under articles, back among the independent sites. But with Insticator’s Commenting 2.0, we can incorporate all we’ve learned about social media engagement to keep those conversations going. 

Specialty gamification features means that commenters on your site can earn badges and perks for engaging with their fellow users. Email notifications tell users when someone else has replied to their comment, drawing them back to your page after they’ve left for another chance to get your content in front of them. And Insticator’s Content Engagement tools amplify the effect: our Quiz Unit entertains users with trivia questions to keep them from leaving, and Content Recirculation tools recommend your most-popular other pages to users, increasing the likelihood they’ll stick around for longer. The best parts of the old Web coupled with the features, metrics, and monetization the new Web has given us.

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