From the genesis of social networks and beyond

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In the early days of the Unixverse, many milliseconds ago, even before the birth of the World Wide Web, social networks were created. But they weren’t called social networks then; they were called Electronic Bulletin Boards, or short “BBS” for Bulletin Board System. Granted, it’s a bit of a stretch to compare old-school BBSes with today’s social media, but please bear with me. I am going to explain.

The genesis of the BBS

Older BBSs did not have a graphical user interface. It required a special device to connect called a “modem”, a device virtually unknown to the Tik-Tok generation. A modem modulates digital signals to and from analog signals for transmission over a telephone line.

Older techs will remember the amusing noises these devices made when connecting, and certainly the joy of the ever-increasing connection speeds that reached around 56 kbps in the late 1990s. of data could make the average Tik-Tok influencer cry, it was enough to support late BBSes with GUIs and image transfer.

What was remarkable about these early social networks was their decentralized and isolated private nature. They were generally run by enthusiasts (“sysops”) with a technical bent, and the communities were generally small and tight-knit. BBSes were run on personal computers with limited resources. They were accessible to a limited number of people. In terms of networking, they were “islands unto themselves”.

BBSs have often served as discussion platforms for their members, they have also been used as libraries for the distribution and exchange of digital media. Everything from freeware, shareware, public domain code repositories, image libraries, pornography and pirated software, good and bad, have made their debut in the BBS world. But BBSs weren’t the only type of early social network. There was another based on an entirely different concept.

Usenet

Usenet, which still exists today, was one of the first information and discussion systems on the Internet. Like most BBSes, it started with text. You can think of Usenet as a wired messaging system for group receivers, or perhaps a precursor to Twitter. While BBSes were isolated and had to be connected directly, Usenet is part of the Internet based on the UUCP protocol and later on the NNTP protocol. It was first used by academia, but quickly became mainstream in the 90s.

Since Usenet is global in nature, there is a standardized categorization of hot topics, or taxonomy if you will, that determines the name of any newsgroup. All newsgroups are public, and you can subscribe to and read them with a Usenet client, such as Mozilla Thunderbird.

From the mid-1990s, these early forms of social networking declined as the rise of the World Wide Web spawned a new generation of web-based message boards. These discussion forums had web-based graphical user interfaces and were more convenient to use.

They functioned as exchange platforms, usually focusing on a specific subject or area, such as Usenet, but in terms of community structure, discussion boards are similar to BBSs, as they are usually run by an “owner”. sysop which maintains the system and moderates discussions. . Sometimes chat rooms were also used for commercial purposes, such as for customer service, real estate sales, used car sales, etc.

Understanding the recent history of social web services is important to get a picture of the status quo and the conundrum we currently find ourselves in. In the mid-2000s, things changed again and got worse.

The beginning of social media

The first modern social networking sites appeared, such as MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook. Initially, they were seen as a unifier that went beyond the limits of the very fragmented world of discussion forums and blogs.

They also introduced the key concept of followers or friends, a feature that drives content and mimics real-life relationships between people. This feature can be imagined as a graph with accounts/people as nodes and connections as vertices.

Although some consider it to be the essence of a social networking site, it can be said that its main objective is discussion, exchange and the creation of a community, especially among people with related interests. This is something that all predecessors of modern social networking sites, such as BBS, Usenet, forums and blogs have in common.

The big difference is that today’s social networking sites are operated and controlled by companies, not individuals. Company ownership is not problematic in itself, but the rapid growth of social networking sites over the next decade led to a corporate oligopoly.

The result is that today’s social networking sites are controlled by a handful of very powerful corporations. For example, it is now virtually impossible for new competitors to compete with Facebook, the failed venture of Google Plus (G+) being one example.

Additionally, companies tend to put fiscal and economic interests first, which means they don’t always act in the best interests of their users. Over the past decade, social media companies have acquired a pretty poor track record when it comes to data privacy, security, and content moderation.

As of 2022, it is still unclear how users can regain control over social networking services. For some, it even seems impossible. However, there is growing dissatisfaction with companies’ management of social networking services. Between 2021 and 2022, Facebook recorded the first-ever reduction in user numbers in its history.

The recent/ongoing acquisition of Twitter by Elon Musk has also raised eyebrows and widespread suspicion. These may be the first signs of the shattering of corporate control over social networking services and the oligopoly that holds them together.

Multiple efforts are currently underway to decentralize control of social media, web content, and private data hosted in the cloud. None of them have had a significant impact on the general public so far, but some observers, such as Forbes, PC Magazine and Influencer Marketing Hub, report that niche social networking sites are currently on the rise. .

One such decentralization effort is Project Solid, a protocol for securely storing private data in so-called web-based pods, led by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Other efforts ranging from microblogging to video streaming networks operate under the Fediverse umbrella. They are based on federated and distributed server instances running on private infrastructure owned by anyone.

Intelligently distributed computing seems to be the prerequisite for any successful decentralized social networking application. Unfortunately, distributed computing is technically complex, especially when performance and functionality is expected to match that of commercial sites. This is an interesting space to watch over the next few years.

Social interaction in cyberspace began with a decentralized and sometimes even disconnected infrastructure. It was often based on the efforts of amateurs and sideliners. It would be quite fascinating to see consumer apps return to this structure, to say the least. For this to happen, however, the technical complexity must be overcome and the efforts of volunteers must be rewarded.

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