How long does it take for a new electronic communications system to be regarded as a social medium? It seems about half a century.

I’m currently reading a book on the social history of the telephone, and the parallels with the emergence of computing are fascinating. From the phone’s inception in the late 1870s, it wasn’t until the 1920s that telephone companies started to market their services as a way for consumers to maintain social relationships with their friends and family. Up until that point the telcos had seen their offer as being a serious tool for serious business, and actively discouraged subscribers from idling away the hours on the phone.

Compare that to the history of computing. If we ignore mechanical systems and take the birth date of modern computing as being in the late 1940s, then it took until the latter part of the last decade for “social” to be seen as a truly serious application for computers. The first wave of personal (micro) computing was about serious application like education and keeping accounts. Frivolity was in many ways frowned upon even despite the way that gaming was probably the first “killer app” in the 1980s.

Sure, the internet wasn’t particularly accessible domestically until the 1990s, but I certainly remember idle chit chat being looked down upon on corporate networks when I started working in the early 90s. Heck – I didn’t even have an external email address until 1995. And we don’t even need to think about the “block it at the firewall” attitude that still exists in many corporates to this day when it comes to social networks…

Maybe it’s an unfair comparison, but the gestation period of sociability in both arenas is at very least an interesting historical coincidence.

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