The Roots of Social Networking

Before Facebook, before even Friendster, people still had social networking. Here's a look at how computer users got together in the days before the dawn of the Internet.

The Roots of Social Networking

The first social networking website,, debuted 15 years ago. Five years later, a site called opened its doors, spawning the social networking craze that led to MySpace and Facebook.

But even before then, people were using computers to communicate and socialize, just not always in the way we think of social networking today. In some cases the social network never extended beyond one computer that people used at different times--one person would leave a message in the morning, another might see it in the afternoon.

Since social networking websites are a fairly recent phenomenon, I decided to celebrate the anniversaries by digging a little further back to investigate the world of computerized social networking in the pre-Web era. But what is a social network, anyway? For the purposes of this slideshow, I defined it loosely as a computer system that distinguished between distinct user accounts or profiles and allowed those accounts to communicate with one another. The term has come to mean much more than that over the years--but as you'll see, the rudiments of today's services existed far earlier than most people realize.

If you feel like being social after viewing this slideshow, tell us about your favorite ancient social networking experiences in the comments area below.

Berkeley Community Memory (1972)

The world's first computerized bulletin board operated much as a regular bulletin board did: You could leave a message on it, and only the people standing in front of it could read the message.

Created by Efrem Lipkin, Mark Szpakowski, and Lee Felsenstein, this bulletin board, called "Community Memory," allowed users to sit down at an ASR-33 teletype located inside Leopold's Records in Berkeley, California, and type in a message--or read messages left by other people at that location. Early messages included queries on how to make ethanol, ads for taxi services, and questions about finding decent bagels in Berkeley.

The teletype linked to a remote XDS-940 time-sharing computer running custom software in San Francisco. Despite that, the messages were limited in audience to those who used the sole terminal at the record store.

Photo: Lee Felsenstein

PLATO IV (1972)

PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) started life in the early 1960s as a platform for people to learn remotely via computer. But no school is complete without a way for students to complain about their assignments or gossip about their teachers, of course. So the fourth incarnation of the PLATO project, which debuted in 1972, gave rise to the world's first online message-board software, PLATO Notes, and the first multiuser chat system, both in 1973. Thanks to these innovations, PLATO played host to modern computerized social networking not dissimilar to what we enjoy today.

Images: Benj Edwards (left), Wikimedia Commons (right)

Honk (1976)

In 1976, two students at Kansas University created an early computer bulletin-board system on the university's Honeywell 635 mainframe. John Borak's (top right) and Alexander Barket's (bottom right) program--named "Honk"--operated in much the same way as Community Memory, allowing users to post and leave messages for other people in the immediate area (in this case, other users of the Honeywell computer).

Shown at left is an early teletype similar to the one used for Honk at Kansas University.

Photos: Computer History Museum (left), Kevin Anderson (right)

Computerized Bulletin Board System (1978)

In January 1978, Ward Christensen (shown here) created the world's first dial-up bulletin board system, CBBS. It ran on custom S-100 bus hardware pieced together by Christensen's friend, Randy Suess. The pair designed the system so that anyone with a computer and a modem could dial in and connect to the BBS over regular telephone lines to read or leave messages for other computer enthusiasts (topics were limited to computer-related subjects). The concept took off and exploded as a hobbyist phenomenon, with the height of the BBS scene peaking just before the Internet stole its thunder in the mid-1990s.

Photo: Jason Scott, BBS: The Documentary

CompuServe Information Service (1979)

The first two consumer online services--The Source and CompuServe Information Service--debuted in 1979. CompuServe offered features such as online news, shopping, encyclopedia and database access, electronic mail, and message boards. In 1980, CompuServe debuted CB Simulator (a name that capitalized on the Citizens' Band radio craze of the time). The first nationwide online chat service, CB Simulator worked much like Internet Relay Chat, which debuted eight years later.

Of the two 1979 services, CompuServe endured longer, eventually becoming a part of AOL. Today, CompuServe exists as a value ISP that only vaguely resembles its former self.

Images: CompuServe

Usenet (1980)

Usenet allowed users on different systems across a network to converse publicly through posts in topic-themed newsgroups. Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis created Usenet at Duke University and linked it to other machines nationwide via ARPANET. Any topic was fair game for discussion on Usenet, including movies, politics, religion, and, eventually, drugs, sex, and pornography. Usenet quickly grew, and became one of the most popular message systems on the early public Internet of the 1990s.

Shown here is an early Usenet post as it would have appeared on an Apple II, one of the many possible machines through which a person might have read Usenet messages.

Image: Joey,

American People/Link (1984)

American People/Link offered services such as online messages, email, and live chat through a system that resembled a nationwide dial-up BBS network. In 1985, APL released a print advertisement that promoted People/Link as an online dating service--a novel idea at the time. During its height in the late 1980s, APL had about 5000 members. It shut down in 1991.

Image: American People Link

Quantum Link (1985)

The mighty AOL got its start as Quantum Link (or Q-Link for short), a 1985 dial-up online service for Commodore 64 computers. It provided features similar to CompuServe at the time, including message boards, news, shopping, file downloads, and chat. It also had early online multiuser games, and was home to Habitat, a pioneering experiment in online virtual worlds. The service changed its name to America Online in 1991, and it stopped supporting Commodore computers in 1995.

Prodigy (1988)

Prodigy began its life under the name Trintex in the early 1980s. It was a prototype Videotex service--a type of dial-up information system that used vector graphics to create visually rich presentations for home TV sets. When Prodigy rolled out publicly in 1988, it had the distinction of being the first consumer online service for IBM PCs with a graphical interface (competitor CompuServe used a command-line interface).

Prodigy offered services similar to AOL and CompuServe, including shopping, chat, messages, email, and games (such as the popular MadMaze). It became an Internet service provider in 1996, and shut down for good in 1999.

Ultimately, the Internet, the Web, and email made these early social networks obsolete. But as the stunning success of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have proven, people's desire to connect online remains constant.