Social Media, aka Consumer Generated Media: the latter is preferable to the author in context of marketing.
Social - people being erm, sociable, erm.... people communicating in an unofficial atmosphere
Media - The king of Medes and his Persian enemies predate even the use of the word in latin to describe the written capture surface, the network and the nodes there upon. In his case the papyrus letters, the couriers and the writers and recipients of politcal information and commands.
Social Media is definable by to necessary conditions : distrubtion via a network and dialogue.
In other words, if a blogger bloggs and no one reads it, did they ever really write it?
A Brief History of Social Media
When was the first network available for dialogue? Depends what you see as a network: when was the first electronic network available to enable social media to happen?
According to some commentators, you can trace social media back to the early days of interlopers on the phone network and modem based systems: the phone phreaks and the hackers.
However, if you think about it the very first illicit social media e-comms go way back before then: to the first telegraph operators and Marconni's transatlantic preambles. The official version will be the press release and "only for serious communications" but you can bet these guys along the "railroads" tapped out " hey , how are the wife and kids doing?" in 1845.
There are of course some more alley ways and oddities, like ICQ and messenger, which relate to tweeting today and you can read more on great blogs like this link. Here I give a pretty personal account, your honour, of my honest experiences with Social Media and monitoring there of.
Growing Up WIth Social Media
I can actually say that I have matured alongside social media: back as far as doing a bit of phone phreaking myself in 1986, and seeing my first green-screen e-mail in 1988.
The first sign for me that social media had arrived was when I worked in an early University internet department, mainly dealing with the intranet as it was even called back then. Newsgroups by then were well established, and had predated the www and even internet protocol per se.
Newsgroups were a special area accessible by early e-mail clients like GOPHER and the early Netscape. Despite their unglamerous text based appearance, they were really the most interesting area available through the new browsers to many like me: they were REAL people expressing opinions from around the globe.
For me, these newsgroups encompass all that we would recognise as social media today: discussion, micro blog alerts ( the twitter "glue spots" as I call them), closed or open social contact networks and blogging.
Newsgroups quickly went http/www and became franchised into yahoo who maybe even dominated a while, some other independent http and POP mail providers and then google groups which is maybe the most active today with perhaps the longest living newsgroups surviving in this media.
Bulletins and Jumpers
With http, and it's predecessors from dial up modem days ( one at a time user postings and readings), another type of media surface appeared; the bulletin board and a closely related species, the jump station. The subtle difference from newsgroups was maybe anonymity or lack of e-mail alerts : bulletins were organised like web pages or even forums of today, and gave useful updates or just chatter. Jump stations gave firstly address and telefon numbers to other "communities" and then later www. links. In a way they were like search engines and today you can compare jump stations to Twitter and people posting links in FaceBook.
Newsgroups evolved fully into the forum with threaded and embedded discussion, just as newsgroups had in 1992. Also they mostly still retain e-mail alerts which was ther back in 1995 at least.
The Birth of Social Media Monitoring
Certainly by the time I was working with web sites in all earnest, we had started to pay good attention to forums. I would have at a guess that the FBI were pretty interested in Phone Phreaks. Probably the CIA and KGB were looking into the quirky little communications programmers on the early military and governmental networks made: maybe even tolerating them in order to give themselves some more work to do, or even placing double agents in the loops.
In 1998 I was required to look into a forum and newsgroup the company I worked for had just taken over the DNS address for and advertising revenue. We took pretty good care to walk the legal line then; don't get caught interfering with social media as a host! As soon as you started policing the forums, you took a responsibility to continue doing this. Legal precedents were still in their early days, some lawyers would argue no doubt that this is still and inconclusive area steered by purely case law and libel. Forum rules were to be self policed as has been the standard means of keeping ISPs and hosting companies out of jail ever since.
Anyway, we monitored the forum and reported back to our clients, the advertisers and some other trad' media ones on what people were saying about them. This was done purely on a verbal basis as far as I was concerned.
We also had an internal use only, atomz search engine IIRC, and I guess we could well have started doing stats on brand name hits, certainly we did manual sentiment rating on threads and brands! By 2000 we were delivering crisis management reports and closing forums if anything went out of hand. Redevelopment or loss of original data were the publicised excuses for pulling contentious and libelous issues.
So really there is nothing all that new in social media or spying on SM, it by in large has been done before.