This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Top 11 Technologies of the Decade
A decade ago, it might have taken a new person in town months to make contacts, find places to hang out, and meet like-minded people. Now, with a few clicks of the mouse, you can get the job done through social networking—a communications revolution that began in fits and starts in the late 1990s and reached recognizable form in March of 2003, with the public launch of Friendster.
"The idea was to have the Internet do the work of a dinner party," says Kent Lindstrom, a former Friendster CEO. A user could set up a profile, with personal facts and a picture, and invite friends to join. Friendster's servers would then generate a continually updated list of her friends as well as her friends' friends, mapping relationships out to four degrees of separation. Within nine months, Friendster had a million members.
Around that time, Fortune magazine prophesied, "There may be a new kind of Internet emerging—one more about connecting people to people than people to websites." Indeed, such an Internet has emerged, though, as so often is the case, the first movers have been left behind. The big winner has been Facebook, founded less than a year after Friendster went public. Facebook has 540 million users who spend about 700 billion minutes on the site every month; if it were a country, it'd be the third most populous in the world.
You can live much of your life in that strange, virtual country. Matthias Galica, 26, founded ShareSquare in May 2010 to enable users to print bar codes to "geotag" objects in the real world so they could be followed in the virtual one. The day he moved the business into a loft in downtown Los Angeles, he got an e-mail message through his Facebook account from one of his more than 1400 "Facebook friends" inviting him to join the Facebook group DTLA.
He clicked the "Accept Invitation" icon, which connected him instantly to hundreds of like-minded Los Angelenos. Later that night, at a concert, he used his iPhone to log into Foursquare, a friend-locator service, which automatically posted the message "Matthias just checked-in @Shrine Auditorium" to his Facebook page, prompting an impromptu get-together with another member of DTLA.
"Connections that would've taken months now happen in a space of hours," Galica remarks.