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Unraveling the web's story

Finding Our Digital Identities: A History of Social Media

Screenshot of the profile for Myspace co-founder Tom Anderson

Benjamin Sun and Omar Wasow met for the first time in 1999. They had both recently struck out on the web as passionate early adopters. Wasow had just recently made a shift from running a pre-web Internet provider called New York Online to developing and designing websites for magazines like Vibe and Essence. Sun, on the other hand, had just helped launch a small site known as AsianAve, focused on fostering a community of Asian Americans.

AsianAve launched in 1997, and it’s recent success was the reason that Sun wanted to talk to Wasow. The site can be best be described as a proto-social network, a social media site before that word had any meaning. Like a lot of websites that came out in the late-90’s, it was a mix of a few different things. Half of the site drew influence from popular web portals that had begun to find some success on the web, surfacing niche and neatly organized editorial content targeted at their main demographic. But the flip side of the site hosted a much more chaotic, though far more active, message board where users could exchange ideas, find dates, and setup their own unique personal profiles. Sun hoped to replicate the success of AsianAve with an African American community, and thought Wasow was just the person for the job. Almost immediately, he agreed.

In the coming months, they would launch a new site. A site called BlackPlanet.

The BlackPlanet profile of future NBA star Kevin Durant

BlackPlanet was built on top of the same foundation as AsianAve, but it found success at a much more rapid clip. Take AsianAve. It was able to reach about a million users in two and a half years. The site’s creators were quite happy with that success and grateful for the organic growth they had helped coax along. BlackPlanet, on the other hand, reached that same number in just a matter of months. Impressively, the site spread almost entirely through word of mouth, reaching tens of millions of page views a month just six months after launch.

It’s the kind of success that can only be found by tapping into a dedicated and creative community. A community that turned around and became the site’s greatest promoters, evangelists, and champions. A powerful community with lots of ideas and new directions, ready to shape the next iteration of BlackPlanet.

Fortunately, the users of BlackPlanet benefited from the ambition and vision of Wasow, who not not only helped create one of the first examples of a social network, but was guided by the goal of empowering the African American community online. Drawing on the technological and creative resources at Community Connect, the parent company of BlackPlanet and AsianAve, Wasow began working on features for the site, drawing from an ever-expanding wishlist he pulled straight from the site’s users.

That direction, it turned out, was to lean into the social features of the site, developing more sophisticated tools for chat, robust message boards, job listings, and opportunities for dating connections. Along the way, they were the first to do quite a few things. For instance, one user could easily connect their profile to another (you know, friend someone) and proudly display their friends on their completely customized profile page. It seems obvious now, but that had simply not been done before.

Then Senator Barack Obama on a later iteration of BlackPlanet

BlackPlanet was among the first to kick off a new type of digital identity. It’s key insight was that a lot of users came to the web to simply hang out. If you listened to our users, and allowed them to carve out a space for themselves, they would come back day after day, week after week.

If you were black and part of the generation coming online for the first time, everyone you knew was likely already on BlackPlanet. Celebrities, musicians, and ordinary people, all in one place. It was as awe-inspiring as it was revolutionary. Users of BlackPlanet agonized over every meticulous details of their profile. You could even edit the HTML of your page, and there was more than a few people who’s first foray into programming came when trying to tweak their BlackPlanet profiles. But more than that, they found love, and hookups, and jobs, and new interests, and lasting friendships and grew up on the site amongst their peers. BlackPlanet was, for a lot of people, their home on the web.

BlackPlanet and AsianAve proved a lot of things. They proved that the spirit of the web was in its ability to connect people, not just computers. They proved that people often define themselves through their relationships and that all they need is a creative and expressive outlet for their digital identities. And BlackPlanet even generated revenue, rare in the days of overblown IPOs, surviving the dot-com crash with a combination of paid memberships and advertising.

In the wake of BlackPlanet’s success, dozens of social networking sites sprung up. Some left a mark, like SixDegrees and SocialNet. Others faded away without ever really gathering an audience at all. The next big player, though, ended up being Friendster.

Friendster focused on the relationships between individuals, allowing users to create a simple profile and then connect with people they knew in real life. It was BlackPlanet stripped down to only its most social component, and through these connections, members built an ever-expanding network of relationships. Though not billed explicitly as a dating app, some certainly used it like that. Most, as the site’s name might suggest, simply used it to find their friends.

The Friendster feed

Friendster has an interesting story of its own, complete with a near tragic and somewhat self-fulfilling end. It’s one I’d certainly like to return to. For now I’ll just say, in the early 2000’s, it was one of the most popular sites on the the web.

It was also the site that crossed the path of a few employees at eUniverse on the hunt for a new venture. eUniverse was a marketing agency, run by CEO Brad Greenspan, that had survived the dot-com crash by working on a number of advertising campaigns, managing newsletters for dating sites and building the ad-tech (or adware if you prefer) inside of the Kazaa peer to peer file sharing service. Over the years, they had collected a number of email addresses. 38 million of them actually, patched together from these disparate marketing efforts and advertising pushes. Following the dot-com crash they began looking for new ways to capitalize on this audience.

During an acquisition one year, eUniverse had brought in two new employees Chris DeWolfe and Tom Anderson, who forwarded a link to Friendster to their boss to check out. Everything that followed happened very, very quickly.

In August of 2003, a few engineers at eUniverse setup the site using a rudimentary programming language known as Coldfusion, and grabbed a domain name to host it on, one that had previously been reserved for a now-defunct digital storage service:

If Friendster was the spark, BlackPlanet was the template. The team at eUniverse understood that Friendster, with its focus on close personal relationships, could be rather limiting. BlackPlanet, on the other hand, was an open world filled with near-limitless potential. Users chatted together, listened to music, hung out, and hunted for jobs. All in one place. It was an effort worth replicating.

The first iteration of Myspace was a spattering of pastiche, a little of this and a little of that from other social platforms that had garnered a bit of success. It had personalized profiles user’s could update with a bit of basic HTML (BlackPlanet). It had a list of a friend’s prominently displayed in each one (Friendster). Only later would the embedded music players and the message inbox likely familiar to a lot of former Myspace users out there actually make it’s way on to the site.

In the beginning, the center of it all was the profile. The profile was little more than a blank canvas. A list of friends, an about me section, a couple of links. Everything else was up to to the user. And the kind of people that made a home for themselves on the site, namely teenagers, took that as a welcome challenge. Some agonized over every meticulous detail, blending color palettes with tiled background images. Others plastered it with seemingly random kitsch. Some changed theirs daily, and others not at all. But the journey that started with your own profile and brought you into the candid lives of others was what kept bringing people to Myspace.

A unique, but fairly typical, Myspace profile

Like the site’s that had come before it, Myspace started out slow. Employees at eUniverse reached out to friends and friend of friends to beta test the site, and get a feel for what people liked. Soon enough, these friends invited some of their own friends, who invited some of their own friends, and on and on it went until it reached a fever pitch of hundreds of new people signing up every day.

Myspace smartly embraced their community, making Tom Anderson (or just “Tom” as he was known) the face of it all. The goofy tech wiz, always casual when he spoke publicly to Myspace users, even in official press releases. Tom mirrored the site’s ideology, hang out, be cool, wear your personality whichever way you want. While parents and media pundits debated over issues of invasiveness, and screen time, and “fake” friends, teenagers  and young adults went all in on Myspace. When user’s wanted something, Myspace pretty gave it to them. When they wanted freedom, they got out of the way.

Then the recruiting began. That email list? They all got Myspace invites. Ads were plastered everywhere. The Myspace team even started reaching out to C-list celebrities and online reality stars to bring them over to Myspace to boost their credibility with youngsters. Every day, Myspace kept on growing, until it rivaled BlackPlanet, and then Friendster, eventually surpassing them both to become the most visited site on the web. It’s mass appeal and aggressive marketing strategy was ruthlessly effective.

Sure enough, most popular site on the web was enough to get the attention of the global media conglomerate News Corp’s CEO Rupert Murdoch’s attention. In July of 2005, News Corp bought the site for over half a million dollars.

Myspace would go through a lot of changes thanks largely to feedback from users. The site has been, at various times in its history, a fun and imaginative space for people looking to escape their real lives, a music discovery engine, a celebrity booster, and, in more recent years, the uncool fad of yesteryear.

In their marketing material, Myspace typically played up Tom Anderson, the ambitious tech genius who threw together Myspace overnight. In reality, MySpace was always backed by the large pockets of eUniverse, and they had plenty of reasons to believe it would succeed. But tech was ultimately their downfall. The site, and the basic Coldfusion code that was holding the whole thing up, was never meant to accommodate nearly a billion users. As the site expanded, the tech team simply couldn’t keep up.

Over time, users felt compelled to leave the site and seek social refuge elsewhere. But Myspace had already established a precedent. It would never again be enough to simply serve the needs of a niche community and grow at a steady pace. Social media was an explosive business of boundless growth. It was worldwide, and it was here to stay. But in some corners of the Internet, college-aged users began gravitating towards a brand new platform, one with less bugs and more features, but with the same goal in mind. It was called Facebook, and that, I promise, is a story for another day.


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