BBC BLOGS - dot.Rory
« Previous | Main | Next »

A social journey

Rory Cellan-Jones | 12:20 UK time, Friday, 10 December 2010

We have had plenty of reminders this week of the power of social networking.

Twitter displayed on a mobile phone

Twitter, for instance, has been an invaluable tool for anyone following the denial of service attacks launched by the Anonymous group of web "hacktivists" against firms which have severed links with Wikileaks. Students involved in sit-ins and protests have used both Facebook and Twitter to organise and to spread the news of their activities.

Five years ago, before these networks took off, something like the UK Uncut movement, which was apparently formed after a conversation in a pub, would have been much harder to organise.

Yes, "flashmobs" organised by mobile phones have been with us for a while, but the sheer size of the modern networks and the speed at which they connect people has transformed protest - as well as just about every other area of modern life.

But the history of social networking stretches back much earlier than 2004 when Facebook was founded.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has been around since before the birth of the world wide web, and is still the platform of choice for what you might call the hacker community.

Right now it's alive with debate and rancour amongst those involved in the attacks on websites such as Amazon, PayPal and Mastercard.

And further back than that, in California in the 1970s and 1980s, various groups experimented with ways of using the new communications technology to build social networks.

In fact, some believe the starting-point for the journey that led to Facebook and Twitter was a teleprinter machine at record store in Berkeley. There, in 1973, locals would drop by and leave messages on the machine for friends, with one message leading to another until a community formed around the teleprinter terminal.

Next week I am travelling to the United States to start making a series for BBC Radio 4 called The Secret History of Social Networking. It will aim to examine how the idea of online communities was born, why so many of the early networks failed to take off, and where the phenomenon is heading now.

With the producer who came up with the idea, Mike Wendling, I will be visiting the people and places at the centre of this secret history, starting in Berkeley at that record store. If we can find it. Along the way, I will try to give a flavour of our social journey here on this blog. So come here next week to see how we are getting on.


  • Comment number 1.

    Social networks have definitely changed the world both for good and bad. The history of the social network is interesting but where is it going? A massive social net with Facebook as its backbone or a net made up of niche networks like Kiltr and dizeo? To me the future is worth a thorough investigation more so than the past.

  • Comment number 2.

    Could it become fashionable to have far fewer "friends"?

    Be very careful when predicting where the phenomenon is heading now as we all know how much we laugh at predictions made in the past when embarrassingly committed to posterity.

  • Comment number 3.

    One often overlooked type of social media is the good old bulletin board or internet forum usually dedicated to a shared interest such as a football team. If you look on such forums you'll find that they actually contain very active discussions on everything under the sun - the Leeds United forum on which I participate has a huge music discussion thread, politics threads are always common, reality TV, whatever you like.

    They are a fascinating phenomenon in that they bring together people from all over the world, of all different political hues, education levels, ages, surgeons to shelf-stackers with just one common interest - an addiction to one club - but the discussions on there are usually far more lively than you would ever find in (for example) something like the Guardian's Comment Is Free where the participants are self-selecting based on a largely shared world view.

  • Comment number 4.

    Microsoft Comicbook chat, those were the days! lol

  • Comment number 5.

    IRC and bulletin board forums are far more suited than Facebook for active discussion on topics with complete strangers. Facebook ultimately requires some level of prior knowledge of a person before discussing with them. Yes popular pages can spread very quickly but this takes time to do so. IRC has the advantage of being largely customisable and works over a very slow connection, having been popular in the days of dial up. In fact, it is useful these days over mobile connections where connections become less reliable again. Even something like MSN can have problems on a poor connection, signing you out and then timing out on a sign in. IRC is probably the first form of social networking online, and there are still some communities that are going strong. Quakenet for instance.
    Twitter is useful as it is a very public system and relatively simple once a hashtag is in place.

  • Comment number 6.

    What, no mention of Usenet?

  • Comment number 7.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 8.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 9.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 10.

    Rory, I think you'll find that humans have been 'social networking' for many, many thousands of years, using whatever their current technology happened to be. We are no different. Except for the fact we probably don't have to walk as far. Even then, direct face-to-face contact wasn't always necessary: quite complex information can be transmitted many hundreds of miles in a few minutes, simply by the use of pre-arranged signals such as beacon fires.

  • Comment number 11.

    Nice one but i wished you were doing a TV version instead. I don't listen to radio anymore:)I remember using a social network like site in the noughties can't remember what it was called


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.