Before Facebook, before MySpace, before Friendster, there was Six Degrees and there was … Bloomberg?

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Reader Tara Lazar writes:

I enjoyed your recent article regarding Facebook and the social networking phenomenom. In your article you state the first of such sites was Friendster in 2002, but another service called Six Degrees was active in the mid and late 90′s. Named after the John Guare play (and subsequent movie), the site sought to link individuals through friendship and business relationships to show connections within a larger community, via levels of degrees. When you logged in, a series of network clouds would appear on the home page, illustrating how many people were in your first degree (you were limited to 10), then the second degree, all the way to the large cloud of the sixth. The intention was to facilitate communication between these people–”hey, I’m a friend of Jean who’s a friend of Larry”–to share common interests or perhaps to get ahead in your career. Unfortunately the site lacked personalization features aside from a small profile it struggled to find a profitable angle, so it closed down only about two years after it began. I remember back then thinking if was one of the coolest sites on the Internet, but it had a “so what?” factor. I couldn’t figure out what to do with it, either. Gee, if I only knew then what I know now.

I actually knew about Six Degrees, but figured the Friendster “friending” approach was different enough to call it the first of its kind. But it’s good to be reminded of its role.

Elsewhere, Felix Salmon says that none other than Mike Bloomberg is the father of online social networking:

Bloomberg invented social networking before Mark Zuckerberg was even born. Bloomberg LP was founded in 1981, and Bloomberg saw very early on the huge potential of two-way information flows. Rather than just sending information to his clients, he would allow them to ask specific questions and get immediate answers. Once that was possible, it was relatively easy to allow them to message each other. Long before email really took off, Bloomberg messages were regularly flying all over Wall Street, both within firms and between them.

At the center of it all was an open directory of pretty much everybody on the Street. Everybody had his own page on Bloomberg, could be found very easily, and could communicate equally easily with anybody else on the system, bypassing the phone calls and layers of secretaries which had previously intermediated the conversation. It wasn’t long until a Bloomberg became as necessary as a telephone as a tool for keeping in touch. And even today, long after every firm has opened its systems up to the internet and email, many research notes and messages continue to be sent out on Bloombergs instead.

But people were sending e-mail messages, and posting on Usenet newsgroups, even before Bloomberg started his company, so even if you accept that Bloomberg is a social networking outfit you can’t say Mike invented the concept. What Bloomberg did was introduce Wall Street to the virtues of such communication, and create what was probably the first online “walled garden” and has certainly turned out to be the most successful. The fact that you have to spend more than $20,000 a year just to get into the Bloomberg walled garden has to be seen as a major element of its success. Unlike MySpace and, these days, Facebook, Bloomberg keeps the riff raff out.

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