The Real Driving Force Behind Social Media :: Might Surprise You

Previously, I mentioned the question I received during the HighEdWebDev conference. I was asked the always difficult question, “So, what’s next? What is the next thing on the horizon?” Again, if I knew (if any of us knew), we’d invest in it and reap the rewards. I did not have the answer, because I don’t know what is next.

It did remind me of something that I’ve thought about for a long time. The relatively unsung true driving force, in my opinion, of social media’s growth. Surely, the overall contributors are the users. But the initial force was (and continues to be) a relatively small group of young people that had an idea, a lot of curiosity, and the ability to write code.

The developers of the various open-source platforms would be excellent candidates for honors as The Real Driving Force Behind Social Media. Most were college students when they spawned their ideas.

I’m talking about the people that launched WordPress, LiveJournal and CivicSpace, for instance. Aside from Tim Berners-Lee, who did start it all, these people have been the agents of change: Matthew Mullenweg of WordPress, Brad Fitzpatrick of LiveJournal and Zack Rosen of CivicSpace Labs (blog) are the best examples.

Another is Drupal. and the remarkable story of then-student, Dries Buytaert.

In 2000, permanent Internet connections were at a premium for University of Antwerp students, so Dries Buytaert and Hans Snijder set up a wireless bridge between their student dorms to share Hans’s ADSL modem connection among eight students. While this was an extremely luxurious situation at that time, something was missing: There was no means to discuss or share simple things


It was only later, in January 2001, that Dries decided to release the software behind as “Drupal.” The purpose was to enable others to use and extend the experimentation platform so that more people could explore new paths for development. The name Drupal, pronounced “droo-puhl,” derives from the English pronunciation of the Dutch word “druppel,” which means “drop.” (Source: Drupal Handbook)

I hope you’ll note that these people were in their early 20’s, for the most part, when their creations began to take shape. Dries’ story mirrors those of Matt, Brad and Zach in many ways. They are all very remarkable people.

I’m not suggesting that only young people have spurred the social media movement, but these particular young people have had an impact on so many lives, so many corporate choices of online communication, and even a driving force in the revolution of political and grassroots organizing and fund raising.

It is these people, or overall, the entire opensource movement, that have really driven social media’s growth. Hey, without the tools … it would not be happening. Most interesting of all, each of their creations actually grew out of a desire to communicate with their own small group of personal friends while at college. Any wonder why the term “friend” is now so pervasive in social media software applications?

Later, as the applications grew and matured – like their inventors – these individuals had the vision to go opensource and share with the world. Just look at all that has happened since.

I don’t know, but to me – these people are relatively unsung heros. I think they deserve their time in the limelight.

If I were looking for any latest greatest thing, I’d watch for another bit of software from people like this group. We don’t know where they are, nor what they’re doing to connect with their friends at college, but I’ll bet we’ll see more of these types of developing platforms out of similar young people.

There are others out there, too. Who are your choices for The Real Driving Force Behind Social Media group? I’d like to see. Leave links to the latest greatest you’ve found.


0 thoughts on “The Real Driving Force Behind Social Media :: Might Surprise You

  1. Robert

    I like that, Todd. Thanks.

    Looked at the site and it is VERY social and media driven, indeed. A kind of mob-gaming or mob-fun?

    The Light Saber and Pillow Fight seem fun, but maybe dangerous. 🙂

    Comments show very clearly which events are a success or crash-n-burn.

    Given the audiences and how many are already participating, you could be right. This could catch on … the next dodgeball?

    The more I think about this, it would make a great cinéma vérité type of story. Lifetime, A&E … not reality TV, because it deserves better. Some program that would follow several events and then do an hour … that would be great.

  2. Robert

    Excellent examples, Rusty. Thank you.

    Facebook’s Harvard sophomore (now dropout) Mark Zuckerberg is a terrific illustration. He, too, was just tinkering to create a tool for his friends and that led to the site everyone seems to want to own (or participate in), these days.

    Digg is good, too. Kevin Rose was 27 when he launched Digg in Dec. 2004. He spent $200 to hire a PHP programmer in order to begin the site. Today it rivals SlashDot and draws in millions. Very social.

    Twitter’s co-founder Biz Stone “…also helped make Xanga, Blogger, Odeo, and Obvious.” Stone is 33 today, so he was in his 20’s when getting started. That’s a great example, too. Evan Williams (27 when co-founding Pyra labs) also co-founded Twitter and Blogger.

    Meg Hourihan co-founded Pyra Labs (Blogger) and co-founded Kinja. She’s young, too, at 35. Pyra Labs was founded in 1999. So, she was in her late 20’s.

    Flickr, another good example of social media. The founders were sorta young. Caterina Fake, 37, and her Web designer husband Stewart Butterfield, 33, where in their late 20s, early 30s, when Flickr launched.

    Two more great examples … 6A’s Mena and Ben Trott were both born in 1977 and founded Six Apart in 2001. So, they were in their early/mid 20’s at the beginning of their efforts.

    75,800 sites running Drupal isn’t necessarily a large number in comparison to others, but sites like The Onion and the United Nation’s End Poverty campaign reveal the depth and breadth of their impact. Check out Dries’ site and you’ll see that all kinds of interactive efforts, from Playboy, MTV, Sony and Ubuntu to Hillary Clinton, are all using Drupal. Drupal is in school sites, news sites (consumer generated to traditional old media). These are all interactive, in their own ways. I think the scope of Drupal’s impact is a bit hidden. Also, if it weren’t for Drupal, would we have CivicSpace and the other political / grassroots iterations? I don’t know.

  3. Rick Murray

    Hey Robert,

    While I truly admire the geeks behind all this, I personally believe that the real driving force behind social media are the people that use it.

    Technologies, platforms and the like will come and go, but innovation is a constant, abuse of and boredom with the platform du jour are inevitible, and people will always migrate to the next great thing.

    This isn’t about advances in technology; it’s about an evolution in human behavior that’s being enabled by technology. And the behavioral evolution is both seismic and permanent.


  4. Robert

    Hey Rick,

    Yeah, I agree. In fact, the more I’ve looked at this post, the more I have been thinking the phrase I should have used was The Real “Enabling” Force behind social media.

    Even that, of course, doesn’t do it justice. The true enabling will take place when management allows and encourages staff to pursue the conversations.

    You can have the platforms and technologies, but if management won’t let you use them … well, they are useless to you.



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