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Defining Events

The Internet and social media are inextricably linked. Many important events in the history of the Internet that have made it what is today: a key tool for business, commerce, communication, and entertainment. Social media is often used to meet these goals. Here are some of the major events in the history of the Internet and social media.

The Birth of the Internet

We can thank the U.S. Department of Defense for creating what we now call the Internet. In the 1960s it built an internetwork (a network of networks) called ARPANET to create a comprehensive, indestructible computer network that could communicate even when under enemy attack. The development of ARPANET was the first step to creating the Internet as we know it today. ARPANET began as a military-only resource, but it gradually expanded as scientists, computer professionals, companies, and others began to see the possible uses for this digital internetwork.

The World Wide Web

Commercial Internet services and applications became popular in the 1980s, but users found it hard to access information because of poor computer interfaces. That changed in 1989 when a physicist named Tim Berners-Lee developed a way to organize information more logically by using hypertext to link portions of documents to one another. He called it the World Wide Web. This made it much easier to access and use the Internet, and the number of Web sites gradually increased, and then skyrocketed. In December 1991 there were 10 Web sites on the Internet. This number increased to 204 in September 1993, to 19.8 million in August 2000, and to 101.4 million in November 2006, according to Hobbes Internet Timeline. Today, there are more than 1 billion Web sites. 

Development of E-Commerce

As the Internet grew, companies quickly began to see it as a means to reach customers and also make money. Amazon.com, the world’s largest online retailer today, went online in 1995, and many other companies (both “brick and mortar” and Internet-only) launched e-commerce sites. E-commerce has been popular for years, but it has experienced especially strong growth within the last five years or so. Total U.S. e-commerce reached a record $341.7 billion in 2015, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, an increase of more than 15 percent from 2014. E-commerce comprised 10.5 percent of retail sales in 2015.

Napster and Digital Piracy

The emergence of digital technology and the Internet made it much easier to steal or pirate music, copyrighted films, television shows, video games, and digital publications and content. Copyright holders and government officials became concerned about copyright and piracy issues, but many online start-ups argued that they were simply facilitating the transmission of content via their sites—and not actually engaging in piracy or copyright violation. One early example of these legal battles focused on Napster, one of the first peer-to-peer file-sharing sites in the United States. The music-sharing site, which was founded in 1999, allowed users to upload and share free MP3s. Napster was sued by record companies and musicians such as Metallica and Dr. Dre for copyright infringement. A court found Napster in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and despite its attempts to prevent trading of copyrighted music on the site and to launch a subscription-based music-download service, Napster shut down in July 2001.

The Napster story is just one example of a chronic problem on the Internet: illegal use of copyrighted material online. More than $58 billion is lost to the U.S. economy annually as a result of intellectual property theft, according to the Institute for Policy Innovation. Copyright owners are spending a lot of time and money to create digital systems that protect their copyrighted content and to pursue legal action against those who violate copyright laws.

Dot-Com Crash

The Internet became very popular in the 1990s, and many Internet-based companies, known as dot-coms, were founded during this time. The public’s fascination with technology and the Internet, tech stock speculation by the public, the availability of venture capital for tech start-ups, and other factors contributed to unrealistic stock price growth for many tech companies, which created a tech stock bubble that burst in 2000. Stock prices dropped dramatically, and nearly 500 tech companies went bankrupt—causing many people to lose their jobs. Other companies, such as Amazon and Cisco, saw steep declines in their stock prices but managed to hang on until better times. From this debacle tech companies learned that it was not enough to add an “e” or “.com” to their names; they needed sound business plans and management to build strong and lasting businesses. By 2005 the tech industry began to bounce back, but many wonder if another crash will occur in the future.

Growth of Online Content

Internet content, a fancy name for information or entertainment, has been available since the early days of the Internet, but digital companies or traditional media companies that had a presence on the Internet found it difficult to get consumers to pay for many types of content. This has changed to a large extent in recent years. More consumers are now willing to pay to access newspapers and magazines online. Many media companies have erected paywalls or otherwise begun to charge for content that was formerly available for free. The New York Times, for example, implemented a paywall in 2011. The Times has more than 1 million digital-only subscribers. Seventy-seven of the 98 U.S. newspapers with circulation above 50,000 used some type of online subscription model in 2016, according to the American Press Institute. Internet content is big business, and annual revenues for top companies exceed $1 billion.

Introducing Broadband

The introduction of broadband technology in the late 1990s allowed music, videos, and other content with large file sizes to be downloaded more quickly. Since its widespread adoption by the public in 2001, broadband technology has continued to improve and allow people to download content faster than in the past. This technological breakthrough has created new demand for digital content and prompted the growth of new media companies such as YouTube, Apple, Netflix, and Spotify Technology S.A. that provide content produced by other companies or individuals. The number of companies that create original content for the Web is also growing. The current popularity of streaming video is creating serious competition for traditional broadcast and cable video programming.

Emergence of Social Networking

Social networking sites have been around since 1997 when Six Degrees, the first social networking site, was launched. But in the past five years or so, social networking has moved beyond a hobby and become an obsession for many people. With every year, a record number of people are using social networking sites, and more companies are using social media to interact with customers and to market and sell their products and services. In 2010, 970 million people worldwide used social media, according to Statista.com. In 2015, a record-breaking 2.14 billion people worldwide used social media. By 2020, this number is expected to increase to 2.20 trillion.

Facebook remains the most popular social media platform, according to the Pew Research Center (PRC). In 2019, 79 percent of online adults used Facebook. While young people continue to use Facebook in large numbers, many older adults are joining. In 2016, 62 percent of online adults age 65 and older reported that they used Facebook—14 percent higher than in 2015.

Historically, women have been more frequent users of social media. In 2010, 68 percent of adult women used social networking sites, but only 53 percent of men did so, according to the PRC. In 2015, the gender gap shrunk. Eighty percent of women and 73 percent of men used social networking sites. Gender differences remain regarding the types of social media sites used. For example, women were more likely to use Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest, while online discussion forums such as Reddit, Slashdot, and Digg attracted a greater share of male visitors. About the same number of men (26 percent) and women (25 percent) used LinkedIn.

About 80 percent of African-American, Latino-American, and White adults used at least one of five social media sites in 2014: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. Facebook was the most popular of the five. But there were some differences in site preference by race. For example, Instagram was more popular amongst African-Americans (38 percent reported using it) and Latino-Americans (34 percent), than Whites (21 percent). On the other hand, Pinterest was more popular among Whites (32 percent) than Latino-Americans (21 percent) and African-Americans (12 percent). 

Rise of Mobile Computing

Advances in technology have fueled the improved design and usability of mobile computing devices such as smartphones and tablets, which allow users to access the Internet anywhere at any time. This shift to mobile computing has accelerated in the last few years. ComScore reports that “both smart phones and tablets have altered the digital ecosystem as an increasing amount of media is consumed away from the classic Web (computers).” The Pew Research Center predicts that by 2020 mobile devices will become the primary Internet connection tool for the majority of the world’s population.

Key Laws

Congress has passed many laws to build, promote, and regulate the Internet; protect consumers from obscene content or e-mail spamming; and protect intellectual property online. Here are a few of the most noteworthy laws:

  • The High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991 helped build the infrastructure of the Internet as we know it today and prompted technological developments such as the Mosaic Web browser, which made it much easier to use the World Wide Web. 
  • The National Information Infrastructure Act of 1993 imposed federal criminal liability on the theft of trade secrets and on “anyone who intentionally accesses a protected computer without authorization, and as a result of such conduct, recklessly causes damage.”
  • The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 protects Internet service providers (ISPs) against copyright infringement liability if they meet certain requirements. The law requires ISPs to promptly remove copyrighted material from their sites when notified by the copyright holder or its representatives that the material is protected under copyright laws. 
  • The Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000 requires libraries and schools that receive federal funding to use Internet filters and to take other actions to protect children from harmful content.
  • In 2002 a state-led initiative known as the Streamlined Sales & Use Tax Agreement was created by several states and the District of Columbia to simplify their sales tax codes in order to make it easier to collect taxes on sales transactions that take place over the Internet. Currently 23 states are full signatories to the agreement, with more than 20 other states complying with some of its provisions.
  • The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 established controls on the transmission of commercial e-mail. The Federal Trade Commission is required to enforce these provisions. The act is viewed as having been largely ineffective in preventing most unwanted commercial e-mail (known as spam).