Social media is fascinating in that businesses and professionals are often using all of these websites for things they were never intended for. Although it feels as if Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest have been around forever, believe it or not quite a few of these sites came from humble beginnings with very different intents.  From dorm rooms to couches, let’s look back to the history as to how the most popular social networks began – and perhaps learn some trivial knowledge that can help deepen our appreciation for these platforms.Facebook

Undoubtedly, the history of how Mark Zuckerberg started the biggest social network in the world is already familiar to you. Zuckerberg was commissioned to create a social network called Harvard Connections but delayed the project while pursuing the creation of another site, Whether or not he copied the idea is up to the courts, but what we do know is that the growth of the site was phenomenal, getting between 1,200 to 1,500 new users in the first 24 hours.

Starting at Harvard, Facebook quickly branched out to other universities like Columbia and Stanford. It then soon was expanded to cover many of the most prominent colleges in the US, Canada and even in the UK. After a final rollout to employees of big name companies like Apple and Microsoft, other universities in Australia and New Zealand and to high school students, Facebook was finally introduced to the world.

Fast forward to today: Facebook has over 750 million users and as of June 2011, is the second most visited .com site after Google. It’s way beyond a social network as well, becoming a gaming platform, marketplace, messaging hub, photo hosting site and more. And now every business is trying to figure out how to increase Facebook fans.


Crazy as it sounds, Twitter started out as a hack on top of AOL Instant Messenger that let Jack Dorsey view status updates on his RIM pager. It was too early for the idea though since mobile devices were still quite scarce and expensive at the time.

From humble dispatch software beginnings, Dorsey was starting to piece together a way to expand the service and add instant messaging and text messaging to the mix. In 2006, he collaborated with Evan Williams and Biz Stone to create a prototype for internal use within William’s company, Odeo. After a few short months, Twitter was eventually formally spun off into its own company.

It’s first growth spurt came during the 2007 SXSW festival, where live tweets were broadcast on two distinctly located plasma screens. From 400,000 tweets per quarter in 2007, Twitter now sends 230 million tweets per day and has 100 million active users around the globe. It has also spawned an ecosystem of hundreds of Twitter apps and tools.


To start a professional networking site, you have to begin with a few professionals. After working for Apple and PayPal and getting a generous payout from the latter’s sale to eBay, Reid Hoffman was now ready to start his own company. After a brainstorming session with a few friends on his couch, he soon gathered a team of 13 people to start building and promoting his site, LinkedIn.

It was tough going at first but the viral growth soon kicked in and eventually Hoffman was able to monetize the site through advertising, job listings and subscriptions. After a few successful years, LinkedIn finally went for an IPO in January 2011. As of September 2011, the company is now valued at $8.8 million, one of the most successful public offerings in the post bubble era. LinkedIn has also now established itself as the hub for B2B social media marketing.


Blogging has become almost synonymous with WordPress. Matt Mullenweg and Mike Little forked WordPress from b2, one of the more popular blog publishing platforms at the time. It grew out of concerns that b2, also known as Cafelog, suddenly stopped getting updates and its main developer fell off the grid somehow. WordPress was built from the GPL code of b2 and released to the world in 2003.

Since then, it’s grown quite a lot winning several Open Source awards across the years and becoming the blogging platform of choice for many companies and brands. Mullenweg himself has gone on to create other successful projects through his company Automattic, such as After the Deadline which aims to bring spell checking to every site on the web and Gravatar, a centralized avatar repository used by many of the top blogs in the world. WordPress is what runs this website and has also spawned an ecosystem that has fostered thousands of WordPress plugins.


David Karp started Tumblr in 2007. When Karp was 19, he found out about a new form of blogging called tumblelogging, a shorter form of posting thoughts to the internet. He soon launched his own site on November 1st, filling the niche between actual blogging and tweeting.

The site has grown quite well to 3 million users strong, boasting an 85 percent retention rate due to its pristine yet customizable interface. Tumblr is now home to over 28 million blogs and more than 10 billion posts. Who would have thought?


Your favorite mayor-ousting service began as a thesis project by Dennis Crowley at NYU. After gaining some buzz as a unique SMS-based location service, the precursor to Foursquare and its technology was bought by Google in 2005. He started collaborated with Naveen Selvadurai in 2008 and soon launched a new location-based app in the popular South by Southwest (SXSW) festival the next year. Dubbed Foursquare, it combined a location pinging services with a badge scoring system that made it a huge hit in the event.

It kept on growing, churning out an API so that other developers could build upon its location discovery service. Foursquare now has 10 million users scattered all over the world with 750 million check-ins under its belt. There’s even a holiday named after it; April 16 is dubbed Foursquare Day. Although the personal ROI of using Foursquare is debatable, the future for location-based services from a marketing perspective is promising.


Click a button, find a cool site. That was the basic premise for this service built by friends Geoff Smith, Garrett Camp and Justin LaFrance in 2001. It started as an add-on for Firefox, one of the first actually, and as people adopted the new browser, StumbleUpon grew with it. It also spread via word-of-mouth and its popularity eventually led it to being bought by eBay in 2007.

Feeling that the site was growing beyond what eBay could offer, one of the founders set out to buy the company back in 2009. It was a long and arduous time but in April 2009, StumbleUpon became independent once more. The site has done quite well ever since, boasting 1 billion stumbles (or page recommendations for your non-Stumblers) per month. If you haven’t tried it yet, there are many reasons why you should become a StumbleUpon user.

Empire Avenue

What’s this? Using your social media activity to increase your stock price? This could only happen on the magical website that is Empire Avenue. This social stock market was created by Duleepa “Dups” Wijayawardhana, Dr. Michael Mannion and Niall Brown as a sort of virtual currency, tracking your social value on the web.

It was the culmination of a round of drinks in 2008 in Montreal. Gathering some of the best experts in gaming, business and math, they created a site that takes an algorithmic analysis of networks you are part of and translating that into economic terms like your share price. Once an invite-only site, it’s now open to the public and free to play.

If you’ve been hanging around social networks the past few months, you’ll notice people playing Empire Avenue and building up their “social capital” through it. While the site doesn’t reveal statistics about itself, it did raise a cool $1.2 million in financing recently, which means we will be seeing a whole lot more of Empire Avenue soon. And, yes, Empire Avenue is important to social media marketers.

Did you learn anything new here by looking at the history of these popular social media websites? Any other tidbits you’d like to add? Please share!