social mediaChurches. Associations. Guilds. Clubs. Unions. Sports teams. Squads, companies, battalions and regiments. Mankind was designed to be social creatures from the beginning, and the varied number of ways in which we group together – and form bonds – proves the adage that “it is not good for Man to be alone”.

In the past, the primary means by which people kept in touch, renewed their bonds and shared information (otherwise known as ‘gossiping’) was by congregating in various locations that facilitated these social activities in a welcoming and warm environment. The village pub or local church halls served as informal community centres; men met together in country clubs outside of the workplace while women had sewing circles; and children socialised on the playground or during camps. Today, social media serve very much the same purposes.

The earliest form of ‘social’ media on the Internet was the Usenet newsgroups. Using NNTP to transfer information from news server to news server, Usenet allowed the formation of specific groups dedicated to particular interests or themes with people responding to posts from all over the world – the forerunner of modern Web forums.

During the same timeframe, Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) were also quite popular as local phenomena, where users were mostly from within the same area code as the operator of the BBS. People would dial up to the BBS, where they could do many things including file transfers, email and posting bulletins. There were a few large BBSes (CompuServe, AOL and Prodigy come to mind), but by and large, a BBS served as the local watering hole for geeks and nerds.

Yet another early form of Internet social media was Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which was the forerunner of Instant Messaging (IM) and live chat clients and services. IRC was a natural progression of Usenet; where Usenet’s architecture was more like that of email, IRC allowed users to interact in real-time.

While most of these Internet services are still available, today’s social media revolves around the World Wide Web. Highly complex Web applications are now run on top of HTTP instead of their own specific protocols, and can provide all of the functionality of their predecessors… and more. Social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and the like offer such a rich feature set and user experience that more and more, people spend most of their time on them.

The power of such sites and services lies in user-generated content. Social media sites are useful because people share so much of their personal details and even their entire lives on them. They are useful to people searching for those whom they have lost touch with, and for people to keep in touch with others. They are useful to the advertisers, who can target their advertising more effectively. They are useful to businessmen seeking to expand their network of contacts. And they are useful to organisations who conduct data mining.

Different types of social media services provide different unique propositions. Twitter offers the convenience of quick updates as well as easily-digestible sound bites. LinkedIn started out as a corporate networking tool for the high-level decision maker. And the current champion of the whole industry, Facebook, offers everything – email, IM, news, picture storage, corporate website – for free.

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