Mark Suster, a guest-blogger over at TechCrunch, has written a fun, breezy history of social networking. Suster was there in the beginning, from the misty pre-history of CompuServe and Prodigy through the AOL epoch, when a plague of those CDs with "1000 Hours of FREE AOL" began popping up all over the place (my brother and I would throw them like Frisbees in the backyard), up through the recent explosion of Web 2.0 megasites like YouTube and Facebook. His survey is a quick, entertaining overview of where social networks have been, where they are, and where they’re headed (don’t miss the attached Powerpoint slides).
Given their current dominance, it’s tempting to view the evolution of the social networking as a inexorable process that culminates in Facebook: "All roads lead to Zuckerberg," as it were. When it comes to explaining the phenomenal success of Facebook, however, Suster is clear: they flourished while other social networks floundered because they were open to innovation from within and without (just look at all those 3rd party apps!). Not only that, but Zuckerberg and co. understood that social networks had to be, above all social – places to share experiences, communicate with friends, family, colleagues and like-minded strangers. Facebook gave the user a large, growing set of tools to share and communicate, from posting blogs, sharing links and uploading photos and videos; they also allowed the user to experience all of this in real time, and all at once, via their "News Feed."
Similar lessons can be learned from tracing the history of "people search," from the hoary old days of the White Pages, where a forest of phone numbers and addresses lay buried in a 30-lb brick of cheap paper, through the launch of Spokeo 5, where users can browse through an immense, ever-expanding web of constantly updated information at record speed. Spokeo has tried to improve on the outdated design of older, competitors like Intelius and Zabasearch to make the people searching process quicker, more interactive and, yes, more social. Thanks to features like our Friends List (our very own "News Feed") and Reverse Email search, our users can keep up to date with their friends myriad social network profiles and discover new friends in the process. As social networks like Facebook continue to grow and expand and respond to user needs, we will be growing along with them.