In the past 20 years, the landscape of social media has changed immeasurably. Major players have come and gone, while others have evolved along with new trends and challenges. If you reduced the evolution of the social network to its major events and milestones, the general timeline of social media might look something like this:
1995: Classmates.com launches as a platform to keep up with high school friends.
1997: AOL Instant Messenger launches and instantly outmodes the chat room.
2002: 3 million users join Friendster during its first three months online.
2005: YouTube launches.
2006: Twitter launches, and Facebook opens to the general public.
2007: Tumblr launches.
2008: Facebook’s traffic overtakes that of Myspace.
2009: Foursquare launches, and Facebook introduces the Like button.
2010: Facebook surpasses Google as the most-trafficked site on the Internet, Instagram launches, and Twitter introduces sponsored tweets.
2011: LinkedIn has an IPO, Google+ launches, Justin Timberlake and Specific Media acquire Myspace for $35 million, Pinterest opens to the public, and Snapchat launches.
2012: Google+ hits 90 million users; Facebook reaches 1 billion users, acquires Instagram, launches promoted posts, and holds its IPO; and Pinterest becomes the fastest site to break through the 10 million unique visitor mark.
2013: Vine launches, Instagram launches Instagram video and Instagram Direct, Twitter hits 500 million registered users and 200 million active users, Yahoo acquires Tumblr, and YouTube launches paid channels.
2014: Instagram reaches 300 million active users, Ellen DeGeneres’s Oscars selfie becomes most-retweeted tweet of all time, and Facebook reaches 1 billion active mobile users per month.
As fascinating as such a timeline is, though, it doesn’t help get to the bottom of one of the most fascinating aspects of the evolution of social media: how social networks have reinvented themselves over the years. Reimagining a social network’s design, adding new features, and iterating user experiences for new platforms — like mobile — have been integral to the success of the most powerful social networks. To better understand how reinvention has been key to the players that have demonstrated their staying power through the years of the evolution of social media, let’s take a look at two of the area’s most famous giants: Facebook and Twitter.
While social media has been around since long before Facebook and Twitter — as evidenced by the timeline above — they played a part in making it accessible to the masses. As Business Insider reports, social media became more “social” in the 1990s, when the world wide web was available to the public. Early sites like CompuServe and Prodigy attempted to engage the mainstream user with social media, but they were soon outpaced by innovations like AOL’s instant messenger and Napster’s free distribution of media.
Friendster emerged as the first real social network, and was quickly replaced by MySpace and then Facebook. People had warmed up to the idea of using their real names and identities online, and in some ways, to the idea of sharing details of their lives for anyone to see. Facebook began as a social network exclusively for Harvard students, but within the space of a few years had opened to anyone with an email address. It soon added the News Feed, launched a mobile-friendly version of the social network, added the Like button, and replaced the traditional “wall” with the Timeline.
Twitter was founded after Facebook, but evolved in a similar way. After it launched to the public, the social network added an array of new tools and features, ranging from the ability to @mention another user to easier ways to share multimedia to better ways to track trends and search for other users.
Both social networks have become indispensable tools not only for Internet users, but also for the businesses that want to reach them, and place ads or sponsor content. They also hold extreme significance for many content publishers, who rely on them to reach the millions of users who count on them to deliver at least a part of their news and media diet. While both social networks have faced and continue to be challenged by an array of changes, they have evolved through the years to confront those challenges and stay useful and relevant to a growing audience. Read on for the timeline of how each has changed and grown through the years. It may surprise you just how much Facebook and Twitter have changed since they began (or since you and your friends joined and began posting).
2004: Mark Zuckerberg launches a social network called “The facebook” for students at Harvard University. According to The Guardian, 1,200 students had signed up within the first 24 hours and within a month, more than half of the university’s undergraduate population had created a profile. It soon spread to other Boston universities, then through the Ivy League, and eventually across all U.S. universities.
2005: The social network became Facebook.com, an address that cost $200,000 to purchase. Profiles gained larger photos and smoother type. Students from U.S. high schools were allowed to sign up in September, and a month later, it reached students at universities in the U.K.
2006: According to Forbes, 2006 brought Facebook’s first major redesign. A News Feed appeared on users’ home pages, and a Mini Feed — or a timeline of a user’s Facebook activity — was added to individual profile pages. Also in 2006, Facebook opened to anyone with an email address. The social network remained free to join, and began to bring in advertising revenue. Yahoo, Google, and others expressed interest in acquiring the company, offering sums rumored to reach $2 billion, but Zuckerberg refused to sell.
2007: Early in 2007, Facebook announced Facebook Mobile, which enabled users to surf Facebook on a website optimized for mobile phones, upload photos and notes to Facebook from a phone, and send and receive messages and posts via SMS. Facebook’s features evolved further. Users could send gifts to friends, post free classifieds, and develop their own applications (with graffiti and Scrabble among the most popular options). The social network reached 30 million users.
2008: Facebook redesigned its welcome page to appeal to its growing user base. A redesign added a cleaner menu bar and tabs to separate profile data. PC Mag reported at the time that instead of having a user’s wall, personal information, photos, and applications spread throughout the profile, those four features were separated by tabs, and users could add their own tabs for specific apps. The network also added a Publisher tool that made it easier to add photos and videos or write notes. On Facebook’s mobile website, users gained the ability to comment on their friends’ status updates.
2009: Facebook introduces the Like button. The News Feed was replaced with a Real-Time Stream. Facebook added the Publisher tool from user profiles to the homepage to enable users to post links, photos, videos, or notes without an extra click. Facebook also began asking users, “What’s on your mind?” to encourage them to share status updates. Mashable reports that in 2009, Facebook Mobile apps were available from Apple, Nokia, INQ, HTC, LG Electronics, Motorola, Palm, RIM, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, T-Mobile Sidekick and Windows Mobile. Users whose phones didn’t support one of these apps could still log in via the mobile website.
2010: Facebook redesigned its profile pages. It also added pages for companies and celebrities, who could invite their fans to “like” them on the social network. Also in 2010, Facebook launched Open Graph, which pulled in activity from outside of Facebook to the social network, and launched a (buggy and slow) web-centric mobile app.
2011: Facebook added a ticker of real-time activity to the home page. The same year, it introduced video chat, and retired the concept of the “wall” in favor of the Timeline, which featured a large cover photo and an assortment of posts going back through a user’s Facebook history. It soon enabled developers to integrate apps with Timeline. Also in 2011, it enabled users to subscribe to others’ public updates and posts. Facebook created an app that worked on both Android and iOS but wasn’t optimized for either.
2012: Facebook launched the App Center, which initially featured about 500 Facebook apps, most of them games. It introduced a new photo viewer that displayed larger photos. The company released a new, fully native app for the iPhone. Also in 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion and held its IPO.
2013: Facebook announced Graph Search, a smarter “social search” tool. It improved the way that apps appeared in the Timeline and added improved Timeline controls for users. Facebook also announced “Facebook Home,” a redesign of the Android operating system that centered on the user’s social network.
2014: Facebook rolled out a Trending feature on the homepage to surface relevant conversations on headlines and events. Each Trending topic featured a headline and a brief explanation, and users could click on the title to open a feed of content related to the topic. Also in 2014, Facebook announced news reader app Paper, split Facebook Messenger from the primary app, and introduced Rooms.
2006: Twitter was originally designed as an SMS-based platform. 140 characters was the limit that mobile carriers imposed with SMS protocol, and while Twitter grew into a web platform, the character limit remained. In 2006, Twitter officially launched for the public as a product of parent company Odeo. Its simple design aimed to get users to answer the question, “What are you doing?”
2007: Twitter became its own company and was a success at SXSW, where it won the SXSW Web Award. According to CNN, Twitter’s traffic more than tripled the week of the conference. Twitter made minor modifications to its homepage, highlighting the fact that users could post from their phone, IM, or directly from the social network’s website, according to Web Geekly. Also in 2007, the hashtag — first proposed by user Chris Messina — debuted on Twitter. Users had begun including an @ symbol to identify other users within a tweet, and Twitter added the functionality to the platform.
2008: 2008 brought the first significant design change to Twitter. Its login page no longer showed examples of what others were posting, and the signup form was simplified. Twitter passed the mark of 1 billion tweets. Jack Dorsey stepped down as chief executive to become chairman of the board, and Ev Williams replaced Dorsey as CEO.
2009: A 2009 redesign shifted attention to trending topics. Twitter stopped asking users, “What are you doing?” and replaced the question with the headline, “Share and discover what’s happening right now, anywhere in the world.” A Nielsen report indicated that Twitter grew 1,382% year-over-year, according to Mashable. The same year, reports indicated that Twitter’s growth had suddenly stopped. But in October, Twitter passed the 5 billion tweet mark. A US Airways plane crashed into the Hudson River, and a photo posted to Twitter broke the news before the traditional media.
2010: Twitter changed its tagline to, “The best way to discover what’s new in your world.” Users began sending more than 50 million tweets per day. Twitter added the retweet functionality, and introduced Promoted Tweets as an advertising platform. Twitter’s search results began showing people, and the network started offering personalized suggestions of users to follow with its new Suggestions for You feature. Twitter introduced a redesigned web interface, which added new ways to embed multimedia. Also in 2010, Twitter launched the Tweet Button, an official option for web publishers to let their readers share their content (and count tweets in the process). Between August 2009 and August 2010, Twitter grew 76% to 96 million unique visitors, while MySpace dropped 17% to 94 million. Williams stepped down as chief executive, handing over the position to Dick Costolo.
2011: Twitter reached 100 million monthly active users. The social network played a controversial role in Egypt’s digital revolution, and Google and Facebook were rumored to be interested in acquiring Twitter for as much as $10 billion. Twitter launched a new version of its homepage, expanded its Local Trends feature to 70 new cities and countries, and improved its search tool to make it easier to find people to follow. The user profile and timeline of tweets were both redesigned, and the Connect and Discover tabs were introduced. Twitter’s new layout was compared to Facebook’s. Twitter’s headline changed yet again, this time to, “Follow your interests.”
2012: Twitter surpassed 200 million monthly active users. President Barack Obama celebrates his victory with a tweet that for years held the record as the most-retweeted tweet ever. (It was later topped by Ellen DeGeneres’s group selfie at the 2014 Oscars.) Also in 2012, Twitter acquired video clip company Vine.
2013: Twitter launches Vine as a standalone app that enables users to create and share 6-second, looping video clips. Vine videos shared on Twitter are visible in users’ Twitter feeds. Five months later, Facebook’s Instagram would roll out a similar video feature. Also in 2013, the company’s IPO valued it at $31 billion and Twitter acquired MoPub and Trendrr, and opened its API for integrations with third-party platforms.
2014: Twitter announced a feature called Instant Timeline, which shows users who have just created an account an array of interesting content, before they’ve even followed anyone else. Also in 2014, it announced services that would make the timeline more customized, and highlight the most important tweets instead of displaying everything in reverse-chronological order. The social network also upgraded its video capability and its features for sharing public tweets privately. Twitter acquired SnappyTV, TapCommerce, and Mitro.