DisruptionTechnology

Facebook = AOL 2.0?

By July 7, 2011 No Comments

With today’s announcement from Facebook that they have embedded Skype’s video  conferencing service, and the subsequent arrival of all my friends pictures on both left and right panels of my Facebook wall, and the beta launch of Google + I am moved to dust off an old blog post from my personal blog on the subject of the internet and how IMHO Facebook was taking us down the (walled) garden path.

Useful as a history lesson perhaps, or a check on my powers of prediction 😉

Old post begins here…

As some would know, I recently dived back into the seething biomass known as Facebook. I’d abandoned the service (committing ‘Facebookicide’) in 2008, after being stalked by one too many lesbians from Queensland to be their latest collected trophy-friend (me, a trophy?).

From where I sat, it appeared to be a massive online home for the bewildered.

Lured back into the water in 2010 by online community guru @venessapaech and the Lonely Planet strategic thinkers, I am amazed to see how it has grown. So much so, that my initial conclusion is that we are now dealing with a serious platform leap from college dorm to a new core of the internet – and another prime example of the tension between different perspectives on the web as a democratic platform, versus a closed, proprietary commercial network.

There has always been someone who attempted to dominate the shabby collection of servers, wires and users we call the internet. Its not surprising – human history is peppered with rising and falling empires, and this new digital land grab is much the same. If you’ll pardon the quality of the research, here’ s my potted view of the history of that race between the open and closed camps. As always, Wikipedia is a better historian than I’ll ever be, so many links go to them!

ARPAnet (1958 – 1988): apparently originally inspired in the Cold War period (in particular Sputnik’s shock factor in the technology race), this loose confederation of military and academic servers and connections was the seed of the internet and the classic ‘closed’ network.

Minitel (1982): ultimately nearly 25m French people were connected to Minitel, a governmental postal/telecom collaboration to supply citizens with access via a terminal to information directories, booking services, message boards, stock prices and chat services. The network was tightly managed and closed to anything not endorsed by the state – a position the owners far too long into the life of the internet as it developed in the 1990s. That said, the announcement it would be finally killed off in 2009 was met with public outcry – and still 1m banking transactions a month are done on the historic terminals.

AOL (1983): the first major money making walled garden on the internet in the English speaking world, founded on online games and communities (including popularising chat on the internet with ICQ), rising to 30m users over the next 20 years then famously blowing it all in a merger with Time Warner in 2001. Who could forget the rain-storm of direct marketed CD-ROMs that came in fancy tins and packages tempting you onto their network? And once you were in, they had you under their control. Most AOL users right through the 1990s thought AOL was the internet, holus-bolus.

The actual Internet (1988): the year the military and the commercial networkers joined up, including emerging private sector networks Compuserve, UUNet, PSINet, CERFNET, and Usenet. Still a bunch of list servers, technical people and a minimum number of tools to connect people without IT degrees or an interest in ham radio.

World Wide Web (1991): with the term coined by CERN’s Tim Berners-Lee, this was a layer on top of the internet that enabled sharing of resources beyond the list and text heavy document and email platform. It was classicly ‘open’ – anarchic in some ways with the emphasis on interconnection to make the world a better place through sharing.

The web caused a boom in browser software (and with Netscape Navigator in 1994 the beginning of the get rich quick internet startup decade), the lens you needed to see everything that was out there, no matter who or where it was served. Unless perhaps you live in China or the new Australia.

MSN (1995): Microsoft famously ‘got the web’ in the mid-90s, and MSN was their attempt at a walled garden, which basically proved they did not get the web at all. Their ongoing efforts to keep people within their domain included Hotmail, Messenger, MSN Explorer, and to some extent Internet Explorer as a non-standard browser. MSN has around 10m members today (note: fact to be checked), and has morphed into Windows Live as Microsoft’s attempt to stay relevant to a generation of users that prefer to Google, Twitter and Facebook.

Broadband WWW (c2005): without doubt the expansion of high speed wiring to the many nodes of the internet changed the game, and saw the emergence of traditional media players showing video, images and enabling collaboration and sharing in ways that dialup constrained.

Mobile WWW (c2008): 3G wireless in wide supply and a new generation of intelligent phone handsets once again changed the nature of the internet, initially slowing some things down but causing simplification and refocus about what it meant to be connected 24 x 7 x 365. Without doubt the earlier incarnations of the wireless web contributed to the acceleration of internet users to an estimated 1.6b in 2009.

Facebook (September 2006): starting small and purposeful, this College white pages site has emerged as a global player, with enough functionality and interconnectivity to keep an ‘internet’ user within it’s 4 walls for hours a day. On its way to a self-professed 1 billion members by 2012, it already has 400m members across the world and 200m highly active contributors. <editor’s note: today’s claim a year later is 750m members>

Remember it took the internet 2 decades to get 1b members!

The combination of Facebook’s fast-growing community plus hardwiring to platforms like iTunes and news media (via Facebook Connect) is further enhancing the rush back to a new type of walled garden. My beloved iPhone is a simple example – Facebook actually wraps an unbranded Safari browser for links external to Facebook, and I am rarely more than 1 button away from my news stream.

At the same time, people are searching, chatting, messaging, piping in their Twitter streams, their Youtube favourites, their Amazon book reviews and their Flickr photo collections. And spending on average 6.5 hours a day connected to the site. Soon there will be word processing, spreadsheets and proper search, and your homepage on Firefox or Chrome will be http://www.facebook.com.

Advertisers on TV and the web are starting to end their 30 second commercials with ‘See us on Facebook’ rather than making us remember their torturous www.thenextbigthing.com URL or go to a site generation Y probably can’t even use because of its overdesigned 1990s based navigation and complexity. Businesses are starting to consider internal Facebook networks to replace Microsoft’s 20 year old Outlook email and messaging, and a growing number of tools like Yammer are emerging to fill the gaps.

Now, the traditional website concept is unlikely to go away, and no doubt history will show that something succeeds Facebook. But for many people, Facebook will be the new AOL – you can check out, but you can never leave.

Call me a hippy, but I think I liked the Tim Berners-Lee vision better.

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