Some ideas about how to go approach writing a history of the Online Social Network, the Virtual World (and MMORPGs)…
The first step is to consider how Tom Standage has made a good case that the first instance of a social network, albeit not online or digital, was the telegraph network. The telegraph was not only a new way of instant communication, a matter which in itself was quite revolutionary at the time. More interesting was that people created new social activities within the telegraphic network: they played chess, engaged in romantic relationships over the wire, and new forms of crime and fraud were created. A similar and probably more marked social role had the telephone network later in the century. Both telegraph and telephone enabled an instant socio-geographical reach not seen before.
However, both telegraph and telephone systems did lack one important aspect of the later OSN: storage, or an internal memory of the social. Both were not able to store the information of the activities between the parties for later retrieval and use. The information about the social interaction was stored in the outer points of the network, in a different media like paper, recordings and plain human memory. As such, both systems depended on the human element to function as a social construct.
With the advent of the electronic networks and computers this began to change. At first computers in the fringes of the networks were able to store and manage the information of the transactions (like early e-mail systems), and then when the storage started moving towards the network itself the possibility of the OSN was created.
The development of an electronic system for the exchange of written personal letters and short messages was the next step. Electronic mail, or E-mail, as it became widely known, was the first instance of an electronic communication designed for human use that was both a social interaction, and stored the information about the interaction, the parties involved and the relevant time and place circumstances. It used a store-and-forward method of delivery.
The first widespread e-mail systems operated using the ARPANET as a transport medium in 1969 and the early 1970s. Before that some instances of e-mail were present in time-sharing computers at MIT as early as 1965. E-mail has remained to this day very much the same in structure, but its social and commercial use, and abuse, has reached enormous proportions in the first decade of the 2000s. It may be well possible to reconstruct whole social models from the content of e-mail messages alone, since e-mail carries the complete social memory within the message.
Tom Standage, “The Victorian Internet”, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Standage