Social media is ubiquitous today. We all know it. We’ve all taken part in it. And how could we not? It’s extremely accessible, housed conveniently on our mobile devices that never leave our sides. It allows us to connect with one another, something inherent to our humanity. And it’s free! What’s not to love? Well, if you’ve ever seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix or watched any recent news you are probably aware of a few undesirable features — maybe the monetization of the user or questionable privacy practices. But that’s all gravy right? Because despite that, social media is and will likely remain a worldwide phenomenon for quite some time. This is demonstrated by Statista’s projections, that predict social media usage will grow to 4.41 billion users in 2025 from the already exorbitant 3.6 billion users tallied in 2020 (see Figure 1).
So what are social media’s origins you ask? Who started the social media craze that we know and love today? The answer: A lawyer named Andrew Weinreich and his friend Adam Seifer (Riordan, 2003). Together they founded SixDegrees.com in 1996, the first ever social networking site. It was based on the Web of Contacts model and inspired by the ideas of Stanley Milgram, a Harvard psyschologist who hypothesized that everyone on the planet is connected by just a few intermediaries (Morse, 2003; Wikipedia, 2020). SixDegrees employed user profiles and encouraged users to generate a list of friends that included members and non-members so that the degree of relationships could be established (Wikipedia, 2020). Non-members were recruited to the site via email, helping to grow the site’s popularity. As an added bonus, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree “friends” were able to communicate with messaging and bulletin boards (Wikipedia, 2020).
SixDegrees was rather successful and at its height the site had nearly 3.5 million registered members (Read, 2015). However, it failed to maintain that trajectory of success due to inadequate internet usage on the whole, limiting the size of its networks (CBS News, 2021). In addition, Weinreich attributes the site’s failure to the limited use of digital cameras, which prohibited the use of photographs on the site, an element that would later become an integral part of today’s most successful social media platforms (Riordan, 2003). Not surprisingly, after YouthStream Media Networks purchased SixDegrees in December 1999, they shut it down the following year (Press, 2018).
Despite its ultimate failure, SixDegrees.com left its mark in social networking history. First, it inspired the social media landscape that we know today. The sites that followed in its footsteps, like LinkedIn, MySpace, and Facebook, borrowed elements pioneered by SixDegrees, such as profiles and friends lists. Second, SixDegrees, through its eventual extinction offered a glimpse into the ever-evolving, uber-competitive world of social media. Even though it was the first, it certainly wasn’t the last to crash and burn — ask Friendster or Myspace. And I’m sure you’ve noticed that your favorite platforms are continually introducing new features not only to keep you engaged, but also avoid their eventual demise.
So, I hope you’ll join me in saying “thank you” to the OG Social Network and its founders for being at the tip top of the family tree that we know to be modern day social media and showing us just how cut-throat their industry will be.
CBS News. (2021). Then and Now: A History of Social Networking Sites. https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/then-and-now-a-history-of-social-networking-sites/2/
Press, G. (2018, April 8). Why Facebook Triumphed Over All Other Social Networks. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/gilpress/2018/04/08/why-facebook-triumphed-over-all-other-social-networks/?sh=450e95ff6e91
Morse, G. (2003, February). The Science Behind Six Degrees. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2003/02/the-science-behind-six-degrees#:~:text=The%20notion%20of%20six%20degrees,by%20just%20a%20few%20intermediaries.
Riordan, T. (2003, December 1). Idea for Online Networking Brings Two Entrepreneurs Together. The New York Times. https://www.immagic.com/eLibrary/ARCHIVES/GENERAL/GENPRESS/N031201R.pdf
Read, A. (2015, November 10). A Brief History of Social Media (The Stuff You Probably Didn’t Already Know) And 4 Predictions on its Future. Buffer. https://buffer.com/resources/history-of-social-media/
Wikipedia. 2020. SixDegrees.com. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SixDegrees.com