Top 10 Powerful Moments That Shaped Social Media History Over the Last 20 Years

Do you remember your first social media profile? Or, how about your first social media post?

My first profile was on Myspace, my first friend was “Tom from Myspace,” and my first post was something like, “Myspace is awesome!”

The rest is history.

Social media has changed and evolved so much since the early days, it’s almost hard to believe how far we’ve come. How people use social media has changed as well. Gen Zs (now beginning to enter the workforce) only know a world with social media, compared to their counterparts – Millennials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers – who can still fondly remember back to the days of snail mail and dial-up modems!

Here’s a look at 10 powerful moments that shaped the social media history.

Let’s dive in!

10 Powerful Moments That Shaped Social Media Over the Last 20 Years

Top 10 powerful moments that shaped social media history

There have been so many wonderful moments over the last 20 years on social media that it was quite a challenge to boil them down to just 10! But since we’re celebrating the positive impact of social media on people’s lives and on the world for this campaign, these are all particularly meaningful and important moments in the social media history.

Feel free to jump to a certain moment(s) in the social media history!

Let’s count down to the top moment in the social media history!

10. The Birth of Facebook


Facebook, the social media network that has an incredible two billion monthly active users (nearly a third of the earth’s population), is the only network that I’ll mention in this post for moments-sake. Given its sheer size, the impact it has made on families, friends, businesses, and world events, I felt as though I might be remiss without a mention of Facebook somewhere!

It’s amazing to imagine what the world might be like if Facebook had never captured the hearts and minds of so many people the way it did. One of my favorite Facebook moments, in particular, is during an early 2004 interview on CNBC with Mark Zuckerberg:

The anchor asks: “Now there’s a new form of cyber match-making, college networking websites. Is this perhaps the next big thing? The Facebook. Mark, if someone was to put the question to you about the magnitude of what you’ve launched; how big do you think your product or service is?”

We all know the rest!

A short six years after this interview (2010), Zuckerberg would go on to become Time’s Person of the Year along with many other accolades along the way. Facebook has changed the way we interact and communicate on all levels and only time will tell if another network will come along and take its place in social media history.

9. Miracle on the Hudson


It was January 15, 2009 when U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York and struck a flock of birds on the way up. Moments later, both engines were lost and Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, along with his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, were asked to pull off the miraculous landing.

When the plane finally landed safely in the frigid Hudson River waters, all 155 passengers on board were safe. The “Miracle on the Hudson” has been called the most successful ditching in aviation history.

But something else happened that day… Jeff Krums tweeted:

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey told CNBC in 2013 how that changed Twitter and the way people get news.

It changed everything. Suddenly the world turned its attention because we were the source of news—and it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat using the service, which is even more amazing.

One small tweet began the Twitter revolution. Hundreds of millions of people now turn to Twitter as a source of news, a place to build a following, a place to share your stories and connect with others.

Twitter is also the platform that our co-founder, Joel Gascoigne, successfully built Buffer on back in 2010! This powerful moment in social media history has a special place in our hearts.

8. Going “Viral”


How many of you have sat around with friends or family and binge-watched several classic YouTube videos in a row? I know I have!

What is now one of the largest social media networks on the planet (more than 1.5 billion people log in every month), started with a few viral hits and began a trend that today we might call, “going viral.” This launched YouTube into a massive entertainment hub – complete with TV streaming, movies, music videos, tutorials, celebrities, vloggers, and of course, viral videos.

Let’s take a look at three early videos that helped to shape the viral side of social media history:

Charlie Bit My Finger (Published: 5/22/2007 – 851,140,074 views)

“Chocolate Rain” (Published: 4/22/2007 – 113,787,749 views)

Numa Numa (Published: 12/11/2006 – 26,800,130 views)

Honorable Mention: “Lazy Sunday” 

In December of 2005, the first “viral video” appeared online under the name “Lazy Sunday.” It was the second-ever SNL Digital Short aired and featured cast members, Chris Parnell and Andy Samberg. Following its appearance on SNL, the video appeared on YouTube and was viewed more than five million times until February 2006 when NBC Universal asked the site to remove it.

7. Ellen’s Selfie (and #NuggsForCarter)


Ellen DeGeneres’ selfie that took the social media world by storm is the epitome of everything that is awesome about social media.

First, it is the fact that this photo is in “selfie” form which has come to be a staple of how photos are taken and shared across social media platforms. Two, it shows just how light-hearted, yet powerful social media can be. A smiling group of beloved actors, actresses, and performers has the ability to touch the lives of the more than 3,400,000 people who retweeted it and the millions more that saw it. For more than three years, Ellen’s selfie held the title of the most retweeted tweet of all time.

That was until Nevada teenager Carter Wilkerson’s plea for free chicken nuggets from Wendy’s went viral.

The world watched as #NuggsForCarter swept Twitter like wildfire – eventually passing Ellen’s selfie as the most retweeted tweet of all time. And although the #NuggsForCarter tweet never quite reached 18 million, Wendy’s still awarded Carter free nuggets for a year anyways. A win-win!

In my experience, we as social media managers tend to take social media very seriously. But if we can learn anything from Ellen’s selfie and #NuggsForCarter, it’s that social media is meant to be a fun and sprightly place for people to share stories, connect, and be themselves.

If you’d like to hear more about the “Nuggs Guy” and how entrepreneurs and small businesses use social media, check out episode #47 of The Science of Social Media where we chat with Paul Jarvis

6. NASA’s #YearInSpace


Named one of the most influential social media campaigns of 2016 (and maybe of all time), NASA’s #AYearInSpace demonstrates the wildly powerful ability of social media to document the human condition.

What made the mission so unique is that NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly has an identical twin brother he was to be compared with (physically) upon his return in hopes to uncover what happens to the human body after long exposures in space.

Astronaut Kelly tweeted continuously using the hashtag #YearInSpace, which was followed closely by millions of intrigued spectators. While tumbling around in zero gravity aboard the ISS, he even hosted an AMA session on Reddit!

This was a powerful moment in the social media history because we were able to experience space first-hand from the comfort of our own homes. People from all over the world chimed in using #YearInSpace to express their support, marvel in the wonder of the cosmos, and share an interconnectedness of human activity.

5. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge


The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was a wonderful testament to the power of social media to make a charitable impact on an important cause. Since 2014, largely due to social media, the ALS Association has raised more than $115 million for research towards Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

It drew the attention of hundreds of thousands of people, including celebrities like President Obama, LeBron James, Lady Gaga, Sergey Brin, Sheryl Sandberg, and Bill Gates. Within the first 15 days of the campaign taking off, the ALS Association had received $15 million in donations from 307,600 new, first-time donors.

What followed was an interesting study into viral content and how organizations might be able to repeat this virality in the future. And while no definite conclusion was made from Facebook’s study and visualization, many attribute the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge success to former Boston College baseball player, Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 (helping to explain the concentration).

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Graph

The Ice Bucket Challenge can help to act as a guide or blueprint for achieving viral success via social media. As TechCrunch author, Sarah Perez writes, “Simply ask the selfie generation to once again turn their cameras on themselves, but infuse that act with a higher purpose” and you have a recipe for success.

4. #BlackLivesMatter


Over the past several years, social media has become an important communication tool for political groups and social movements to organize and take action. One of those social movements, #BlackLivesMatter, has become one of the largest in the social media history. Used more than 12 million times, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter is the third most-used Twitter hashtag around a social cause.

Analysis of #BlackLivesMatter Hashtag

#BlackLivesMatter is an incredibly powerful example of how a social media hashtag can ignite action in the real world and be tied directly to a major movement. The implications for something like this are huge considering that we are all only becoming more digitally connected by the day.

A quote from Bijan Stephen in WIRED helps to sum it up perfectly:

“In the 1960s, if you were a civil rights worker and you needed to get some urgent news out to the rest of the world, you would likely head straight for a telephone. If you’re a civil rights activist in 2015 and you need to get some news out, your first move is to choose a social media platform.”

3. Arab Spring


I’ll never forget the digital marketing course I took in college that examined social media’s impact on the Arab Spring. It was then, back in 2011 as a student, that I realized the true power and potential implications of social media. Up until that point, I thought social media was only for sharing pictures with friends and family!

There has since been a strong debate over the role and influence that social media played in the Arab Spring. Researchers at the University of Washington examined more than three million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content, and thousands of blog posts and found that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.

Arab Spring Map Overview

“Our evidence suggests that social media carried a cascade of messages about freedom and democracy across North Africa and the Middle East, and helped raise expectations for the success of political uprising,” said Philip Howard, project lead and professor at the University of Washington. “People who shared interest in democracy built extensive social networks and organized political action. Social media became a critical part of the toolkit for greater freedom.”

2. Community Support during World Tragedies


Social media can mean the difference between a few minutes or even a few seconds, and in unforeseen often-desperate situations, a few seconds can mean the world.

Moments after the tragic events in Brussels, friends and family members turned to Facebook and Twitter for information regarding anyone they might have known to be involved.

Following the Boston Marathon bombings, one-quarter of Americans looked to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites for information, according to The Pew Research Center. Boston community members offered complete strangers a warm bed, food, and a shower when roads and hotels were closed (via a simple Google Doc).

Boston Marathon Google Doc

Social media also provides essential communication channels after these tragic events. Thinking back to Paris in 2015, social media helped to give many people a feeling of comfort, of solidarity, and of solace knowing that they would not have to face this alone. It acted as a support system even though we were all thousands of miles apart.

1. Natural Disaster Relief


One of the biggest strengths of social media is the speed at which it can disseminate important information to a large number of people in a very short amount of time. For example, after a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, non-profits and relief groups used social media to mobilize rescue efforts and support the community in various ways.

According to a CNN report, social media – Twitter specifically – became a pivotal tool in the fundraising efforts that raised millions of dollars in aid for the country. By the end of the week, the use of social media helped to raise more than $8 million in relief.

Haiti Earthquake 2010

Photo: Yale Economic Review

Haiti is just one of many cases where social media played an integral role in disaster relief. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan (2011), Hurricane Irene (2011), Superstorm Sandy (2012), and the earthquake in Nepal (2015) are examples of the power of instant communication. During Sandy, 10,000 Instagram photos (#sandy) were uploaded per second, many complete with geo-tagged locations!

Social media provides real-time, first-person information so that people and organizations can make informed decisions about where to focus their efforts. A critical piece in ensuring that relief is provided where and when it is needed most.

Over to you

It’s quite hard to fathom that social media is only 20 years young and that the majority of growth and innovation has happened over the last few years. It’s even harder to believe that we’ve likely only just begun! As the world population continues to increase, communities become more connected, and the internet becomes available for more and more cities around the world, we will undoubtedly witness a deeper integration of social media into our everyday lives.

This list doesn’t even begin to cover the hundreds of amazing moments throughout social media history. And so it’s up to all of us to celebrate its positive impact on our lives whenever we can. Let’s encourage each other to not take this incredible tool for granted!

Here’s to 20 more years of powerful, wonderful, and world-changing social media history (and beyond!)

Feeling inspired? We’d love for you to share your story!

How has social media positively impacted you? On June 30th (#SMDay) and throughout the rest of 2017,  share your social media story with us using the hashtag #impactofsocial! We’ll be retweeting some of our favorites and picking a few winners to receive some special Buffer swag.

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