Review: Secret History of Social Networking

“It’s a phenomenon which seems to have come from nowhere, but in fact computer-based social networks have been around for decades. In this three-part series the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones traces the hidden story of social networking, from the early days of computing and the 60’s counter-culture through to the businesses worth billions today…”

This series was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service in three weekly parts from 26 January 2011. The podcast is still available from the BBC website.

Rory Cellan-Jones traces the roots of social media from the counter-culture of the 1970s through early bulletin board systems such as Community Memory, a series of terminals in Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay area, California’s The WELL and the first networks on the World Wide Web, finding out how a geeky hobby became a mass phenomenon.

Forty years ago, hippies and hackers came together to produce the first attempts at online community. In part one, Cellan-Jones visits the scenes of the first online bulletin board systems, follows the trend through to the arrival of the World Wide Web, where the mass audience now flocks to online social networking.

Interviewees include:

  • Lee Felsenstein, co-founder, Community Memory
  • Larry Brilliant and Stewart Brand, co-founders of The WELL
  • Howard Rheingold, early WELL user, author of The Virtual Community
  • John Perry Barlow, early WELL user, co-founder Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Marc Weber, founding curator, Computer History Museum
  • Andrew Weinrich, founder,
  • Jonathan Abrams, co-founder, Friendster.

In part two, Cellan-Jones tells the story of the social networking scramble of the early 2000s through Friendster, Bebo and MySpace and finds out how Facebook emerged from college campuses to become world’s biggest social network, tempting entrepreneurs into the social networking space.

With big growth comes big controversy; privacy, security and targeted advertising. Cellan-Jones finds that even young people are becoming more cautious about what they share online.

Interviewees include:

  • Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO, Facebook
  • Chris Cox, vice president of product, Facebook
  • Chris DeWolfe, co-founder MySpace
  • Julia Angwin, Wall Street Journal reporter, author of Stealing MySpace
  • Michael and Xochi Birch, co-founders, Bebo
  • Wayne Ting, co-founder, Campus Network
  • David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect.

In Part three, “the social networking game isn’t over yet,” Cellan-Jones looks at the sites of the future and asks where the social is heading, visiting micro-blogging company Twitter and entrepreneurs looking to elbow their way in between Twitter and Facebook.

Is the future of social networking in localised sites geared towards narrower special interests, limited online circles of closest friends, or in sites that allow users to keep control of their personal information?

Interviewees include:

  • Biz Stone, co-founder, Twitter
  • Dennis Crowley, co-founder, Foursquare
  • Reid Hoffman, co-founder, LinkedIn
  • Dave Morin, co-founder, Path
  • Brian Hughes Halferty, co-founder, Kiltr
  • Johan Stael von Holstein, co-founder, MyCube
  • Daniel Grippi, co-founder Diaspora*
  • Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology, Lincoln College Oxford
  • Natalia Morari, Moldovan journalist and activist
  • Larry Brilliant, co-founder, The WELL
  • John Perry Barlow, early WELL user, co-founder Electronic Frontier Foundation
  • Lee Felsenstein, co-founder, Community Memory.

The ‘Secret’ History of Social Networking isn’t actually all that secret, but I suppose it makes for a catchy title. Cellan-Jones is a keen but calm host, clearly excited by both the topic and his guests, but in the best traditions of BBC journalism, keeps it tightly reined in.

Given three episodes to breathe, the content is well structured, a good balance of history, analysis and comment from key players. Cellan-Jones leaves most criticism alone and the seamier side of social networking, both of users and the entrepreneurs or corporates running things, is left untouched.

This is a breezy tour of forty years development, but the BBC format-police have clearly shaped this to be a little more conventional and pedestrian than the social networking hip-cats who are interested in the subject – an essay on social networking for the technically-disinterested? Cellan-Jones is hardly at the cutting edge of BBC presenting and his light-programme BBC style is both strength and weakness of the three shows. AJS

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