Many have argued that GeoCities was the first online social network and would have gone on to become as big as Facebook if had now switched gears after being acquired by Yahoo! for USD $3.57 billion—in 1999!
GeoCities let people develop and publish pages about themselves. It developed many of the technologies intrinsic two Web 2.0. It was one of the Top 5 destinations on the Internet. Its users were deeply loyal to its online community…
So could it have become what Facebook has become—a decade (i.e., five software generations) earlier? No, it could not.
The reason has nothing to do with technology. (While Facebook is leveraging many new web and mobile advances to grow like mad, the core technologies required for online social networking were available in the 1980s.) The reason has nothing to do with the management team at GeoCities. (They were brilliant and forward thinking.) The reason has nothing to do with the idea of a “Facebook” either. (For decades, Harvard has been printing these to let people network when they arrive on campus.) The reason is entirely societal.
Social networks are about connecting people (they have been around forever). The rise of online social networks over the past N years (where N is: five, if you count the first billion-dollar valuations; three if you count analyst coverage; and one, if you count making a movie about it) could not have occurred until two elements about how society uses and views the Internet were firmly in place…
First, Internet access had to become truly ubiquitous
In 1999, the Internet was still considered a new technology to non-techies (even though it had been around for decades). For most people it was an extremely complicated activity; one that was slow and prone to failure. (Remember this horrible sound?)
It took an additional 5-10 years (depending on where you lived) for Internet access by millions of everyday people (i.e., techies and their aunts and grandparents) to become as easy as using the television or telephone. Until the Internet became a dependable, always-on utility for everyday people, the online social explosion could not have occurred.
Second, everyday use of the Internet had to become pervasive across generations
In 1999, most people did not dial-up and log in to the Internet daily, let alone several times each day to seek or share information (except techies). For most people, accessing the Internet was still considered a special activity, not an everyday one.
Now every generation uses the Internet (most several times every day). People under age 25 do not even remember life without it. Grandparents share vacation photos with their grand kids. Churches use the Internet to coordinate activities and fund-raising. Until seeking and sharing information on the Internet became pervasive to the everyday lives of all generations, online social media would never have explored beyond early adopters.
This takes nothing away from the achievements of today’s social media leaders
While the time is finally right for social media, it does not mean creating a successful online social network is easy. Many have tried and failed. Only a few leaders have become the social media equivalents of ABC, NBC and CBS (or Coke and Pepsi, or Ford, GM and Chrysler).