Social networking is a hot topic on the internet these days, and yet, social networking is nothing new. Remember BBSs (electronic bulletin board systems) and Usenet, chat rooms and threaded discussions? Respondents to a recent Pew Internet survey of several hundred longtime internet users said such features were among the most appealing things that drew them online. And they considered them every bit as much a "social networking" experience as today's Facebook users would say they do social networking online. As one respondent noted, "I started my online life on a state-wide time-shared mainframe computer in the 5th grade in 1972, and we were 'social networking' on it by 1976."
In our survey, we asked these long time internet users why they first went online. The majority of respondents noted "to communicate with colleagues." When asked what their favorite application was at the time they first went online, most said email. This is not much different from what we found in a survey in February-March 2007: 56% of respondents reported sending email yesterday -- the day before they were contacted in the survey. This is a good reading for the number of internet users who were using email on an average day during the survey period. As my colleagues, Mary Madden and Susannah Fox have noted, "…the beating heart of the internet has always been its ability to leverage our social connections."
Indeed the Project's findings since it first began to do national surveys of internet users has shown that the popularity of email use has not changed much, even as the size of the internet population has grown and its demographic composition has changed.
The bottom line is that social networking and its associated applications are a big part of life online.
Read the full report A Portrait of Early Internet Adopters: Why People First Went Online--and Why They Stayed on the Pew Internet and American Life Web site.