Thursday, August 25, 2011

Facebook is the new AOL

In 1991, a cascading series of events led to what was, for me, a huge aspect of my life. It went like this:
  • Because I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a new Apple Macintosh computer— the original LC, with a 13" (not 12") CRT monitor and the brand-new, first-ever ink-jet printer, the StyleWriter. (So +5 points for me, for my Mac-user street-cred.)
  • As a new college freshman, I happily employed the use of my new credit card, pitched to me by someone on the front lawn of the student union during the first week of classes, to purchase a Zoom 2400-baud dial-up modem.
  • Included in the modem box was a floppy disk for a new online service, America Online (abbreviated AOL, which always bugged me), which I also used my new credit card to sign up for in early 1992.

Yes, as it turns out, I was a charter-member of AOL's online service. Charter, as in, within a few months of first accepting users. My username then was BigEd3 ("BigEd" was already taken, and I probably could have had "BigEd1"— but I liked the number 3, 3 being part of my number on every jersey I wore in high school).

AOL was far better than the other options, most of which long ago became defunct: CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie were all much earlier to the scene, but lacked the savvy and attractive style of AOL's early offerings. I actually tried all four— and later was a pretty committed CompuServe user (after it had essentially adapted versions of AOL's best attributes)— but at first, AOL was the real thing. It had a graphical interface, for starters; the others were command-line based (think of Dos— if you even know what that is— and imagine trying to consumer internet-like information and communications in that environment). It also had things like chat rooms (before they were so creepy), Instant Messaging, and the infamous "You've Got Mail!" e-mail.

Back then, AOL and the others were closed systems. They were envisioned as a sort of self-contained online community, which they effectively succeeded at becoming. As this was long before the mainstreaming of the internet or anything online, these were communities comprised of geeks, nerds, and tech-wizzes, but they were still communities. And they were entirely self-contained; for a year, my e-mail in AOL allowed me to e-mail other AOL users, and no one else. After then, I could send and receive e-mail to others (appending the requisite to the end of my username), but very little else outside of the AOL world.

Little by little, AOL shifted from being a closed-system online community to becoming essentially a conduit for internet content. Now, it is something of a "start page +services" competing with Yahoo!, Google, Microsoft's offering du jour, and others. AOL was a monster in the online/tech world, but now they are merely a subsidiary entity in a (much) larger corporate environment. While AOL was once the largest service by a vast margin, now declaring an AOL e-mail address will garner snickers from some.

So much of what I see in Facebook today reminds me of AOL. Like AOL, it has emerged as the online community of choice by most, despite neither being the first on the market (MySpace, of course, pioneered the social networking concept) nor absent of competitors (Google+ merely being the most recent). Like AOL, it existed as a completely closed system for a while, and users were content because they lacked any real vision of what more openness could offer them. Like AOL, it began opening up starting with e-mail; an announcement was made months back that non-Facebook-users would be able to send "" e-mail to users, and vice versa.

Also like AOL, Facebook has some in-system aspects that are popular enough to remain closed for now, but which I suspect will eventually open up. Case in point: Instant Messaging / Texting. AOL was a leader in the Instant Messaging realm, and many people still have and use an AIM (an acronym for "AOL Instant Messaging") ID. At first, though, you could only use their IM service if you were a subscriber; then it was only if you used their interface (but non-subscribers were allowed in). Now, anyone can get an AIM ID and use it through whatever client they wish. Likewise, Facebook has just announced a new app for mobile phones that will allow users to employ Facebook's servers to send and receive SMS and MMS messages on their phones— thus saving texting fees. Of course, you have to be a Facebook user to make use of the app. (The inconsistent element here is that Facebook users are not paying subscribers as AOL users were. Or maybe as AOL users are— do people still pay for the "privilege" of an AOL e-mail address?)

One of the points made in the news piece is what actually got me thinking about this parallel: Brian Cooley of CNET responded to Robert Siegel's question in this way:

SIEGEL: What are some potential downsides, though, to Facebook?
COOLEY: Well, when you install anything from Facebook, you get that sort of - that tinge of invasiveness. That's something where Facebook is a, let's say a contentious entity. Whereas most of us will look at email and texting and we'll see that as, yeah, those are just generic utilities - I don't feel like there's anybody in there promoting it or bringing it to me in a way where they want something, where they have an ulterior motive.

My point is this: I've been doing this long enough that I can remember when e-mail wasn't just a "generic utility"— in fact, it was very brand-specific and tied to a particular service. And I would guess that we're not too far out from the time when such SMS/MMS conduits, whether offered through Facebook, Google, a phone service carrier, or something else altogether, will also be considered another part of the "generic utility" category.

The interesting thing is that so much of Facebook's rise and success shares markers in common with AOL that we might do well to ask: is this just a strange coincidence? Or is there a pattern emerging of how internet-based companies experience their start, surge to success, then ebb into obscurity?

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