The Rise of Social Media, a Great Turning Point in History

From the Lecture Series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius P.h.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In the early days of the internet, not everyone was optimistic about its future.Time Magazine, in its 1994 article, stated that the internet “is not designed for doing commerce.” Newsweek labeled it a “trendy and oversold community.” For many, it was merely a fad that could not last long. But the trend was not going to stop.

Infinite social media infinite icons 3d rendering background
Social media transformed humans’ relations, communication, and access to information. (Image: tostphoto/Shutterstock)

Many people saw the capacity of the internet that seemed unlimited. Investors started to put large amounts of money into tech companies as they saw the potential of the internet in commerce. Those massive investments led to the dot-com bubble from 1995 to 2001. When it burst, many tech companies went down, but new approaches to the internet, known as the Web 2.0, emerged.

It was Tim O’Reilly, the internet entrepreneur, who popularized the term. He described patterns, practices, and programs for the internet that were interactive, collaborative, and focused on empowering the user.

The idea of web 2.0 is, in part, achieved through social media, in which the user creates, shapes, shares, and exchanges content instead of passively consuming it. In doing so, a wide range of technical possibilities is involved, including email, instant messaging, text messaging, photo sharing, blogging, and social networks like Twitter or Facebook.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Inception of Facebook

Facebook started as the college project of a sophomore at Harvard University in 2004. In those years, to introduce incoming first-year students, colleges created little booklets called facebooks that contained the new students’ photos. In this way, students got to know each other better and faster.

The previous semester, Zuckerberg had hacked into dorm systems and obtained those photos. He built a website called “facemash,” put those photos on it, and invited Harvard students to vote and choose the most beautiful person.

Since Zuckerberg had taken the photographs without permission, Harvard ended the project. But the project was so popular that it achieved remarkable usage and clickthrough.

Social media,social network concept.
Facebook was launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard Sophomore Student. (Image: nopporn/Shutterstock)

Zuckerberg started a new project called TheFacebook, which he launched on Wednesday, February 4, 2004. With a minimal design, users could post personal information and a photo on this platform. They used their real names, posted information about themselves, and then created links with others and shared their posts with them.

The project that started in Harvard expanded to other Ivy League schools, then all other American universities, then the whole country, and finally around the world.

Learn more about online access and preservation of the internet.

The Striking Growth of Facebook

Facebook, which was born in an afternoon in a Harvard dorm room, has been expanding to massive proportions since its emergence. In 2011, Facebook earned 3.7 billion dollars. The next year, the number of its users reached 100 million. It was also the first website with one trillion page views in a month in 2011.

The usage of this website is staggering. One out of two internet users uses the Facebook every day. It has transformed communication and allows information to go viral and transfer among networks instantly.

Facebook gives everyone the opportunity to become a publisher of ideas. Every person can be a Gutenberg! Users publish nearly 30 billion posts every month in the form of photos, links, or messages. All these were made possible by Mark Zuckerberg who refused to let his company get acquired by others.

Learn more about a brief history of the internet.

The Role of Social Media in Today’s World

Facebook and other social networking sites have had a significant impact in current events around the world. For example, Colombian activists in 2008 rallied extensive demonstrations against the FARC guerrilla movement that had kidnapped civilians. They used Facebook to organize their rallies.

Another example happened in Iran in 2009. The Green Movement in Iran protested through Facebook and Twitter against what they considered fraudulent elections. Another instance in Iran was collecting signatures through the internet for a petition called the One Million Signatures Campaign. The petition called for equality in legislation for women.

A woman working on a laptop.
With social media, everyone can be the publisher of their own ideas. (Image: sergey causelove/Shutterstock)

These uses of social media to bring about change is still going on. Although not all movements that use social media succeed, these platforms have gained significant influence in pursuing these movements.

According to some thinkers, the internet is creating broader democratization throughout the world, and Facebook is part of this process. Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, calls this process the spread of “horizontal knowledge.” Before the Internet, the media spoke to the people from a higher and authoritative voice, in a vertical position. But, the Internet has created a kind of communication that involves the participation of people in a horizontal mode. Decentralized and self-motivated people are replacing the centralized authority of the past media.

Common Questions about the Rise of Social Media, a Great Turning Point in History

Q: When was the dot-com bubble?

The dot-com bubble was the result of massive investments in the tech industry by investors who saw the vast potential of the internet. Those investments led to the dot-com bubble from 1995 to 2001, when it finally burst.

Q: What is web 2.0?

Web 2.0 is an idea popularized by Tim O’Reilly, the internet entrepreneur, when the dot-com bubble burst. He described patterns, practices, and programs for the internet that were interactive, collaborative, and focused on empowering the user.

Q: How was Facebook started?

Facebook started in 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg was a sophomore at Harvard. He developed a site called “facemash” and put the photos of other students on it. He asked other students to vote and select the most attractive one.

Q: How did Facebook change the world?

Facebook gives everyone the opportunity to become a publisher of ideas. People can be their own Gutenberg. The flow of information is decentralized, and all people can play a role in it.

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