LISTSERV: The Original Social Media

The Original Social Media

Top Gun was in theaters. Prince's "Kiss" was on the radio. Alf was on television. It was 1986. The Internet was in its infancy. The World Wide Web would not be invented for another three years, but the original social media had already emerged in LISTSERV®.

Eric Thomas created LISTSERV as a weekend project while a college student in Paris. This original idea formed the basis for social media as we know it today. Eric was studying electrical engineering but was more fascinated with the world of IT than with his own studies.

"It's a creative process that is not the same as painting or drawing, but you also start from a blank sheet and write your program," Eric said. "I can write a program for anything. It's up to me. My imagination is the limit."

Up until this point, email was only available to those with access to the Internet or BITNET, which was mostly college faculty, students and government workers. Email lists existed but were not automated. To be added to a list, the person managing the list had to manually do it. There were other problems too – for instance, messages from lists based in other countries could take days to be received.

Eric set out to automate this process. What was just a weekend project resulted in the creation of LISTSERV. Little did he know that it would take over the next 29 years of his life.

Within two months, 20 universities had started using the program, and in the mid-90s, there were more than 10 million users. LISTSERV became the industry standard for email list technology, which it remains to this day.

"I like creating powerful things," Eric said. "I wasn't thinking, 'When I'm old, I am going to be rich because I made a lot of money starting an IT company.'"

Eric Thomas

With LISTSERV, email lists were simple and easy. People with common interests were networking and sharing content. This revolutionized the way people interacted.

LISTSERV became the earliest form of social media before the phrase was coined, and it continues to evolve. Today, there is a bevy of social media sites, and between Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and now Periscope, it can be hard to keep up.

While these newer tools may look and seem different from LISTSERV, they don't stray too far from genesis. As with LISTSERV, many were started by college students, and they all add to our social media experience.

"I didn't realize what social media would be, or what LISTSERV would be," Eric said. "I just created a way for people to network through the Internet."

Today, social media is a full-fledged industry with large companies, IPOs and analysts. Eric was also one of the first to turn his networking program into a business. In 1994, he founded L-Soft, the business side of LISTSERV, with just $3,000 and a laptop.

"For about a year, all I did was program, eat and sleep," Eric said. "It was a huge amount of work because I had nobody to help me, but I felt I had to do it. I couldn't let my baby die."

The company would face many challenges over the years. At first they were monetary, then growing fast enough to meet the demand, and then came the dot-com crash, but despite all of this, LISTSERV has continued to thrive, powering everything from email newsletters and marketing campaigns to influential profession-based networks.

Social media is hard to define because it is continuously evolving. But the fundamental human goals of networking and interacting have remained the same. LISTSERV was the first to provide a forum for like-minded people from all over the world to share, discover and connect. Social media was at the core of LISTSERV's creation and is a part of its future as the software approaches its 30th year.

Theresa Sintetos is the newest member of the L-Soft marketing team.

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