History is repeating itself as the powerhouse known as Facebook is now the virtual social club and Internet hub that AOL once was.
In 1993, I received my first email address during my time as an undergraduate student at McGill University. At the time, the Internet was just beginning to flourish as individuals like myself were drawn to this new form of communication. I often used a web browser called Mosaic which was out long before the first version of Internet Explorer was released. It was easy to use and laid the groundwork for what was to come.
One common problem that people had back then was finding ways to connect to the Internet. I had the University’s tech department to offer some support in getting my computer hooked up but as a commercial entity, the Internet still had a long way to go. The average potential Internet user, that is, consumers who owned computers, didn’t have an easy way to access this emerging technology called the “world wide web.” These users would often get their local phone company to explain to them how to connect a modem and fill in the appropriate form fields in the network settings on their computers. I assure you that most people had no clue how to do this, even the tech support people. This lead to a lot of frustration back then.
CompuServe was the first major commercial service to provide easy access to the Internet. They made a valiant effort to let consumers connect to the Internet in a more intuitive, or at least automatic way. The system’s ease-of-use helped the company gain massive numbers of clients.
CompuServe Becomes America Online
America Online (later shortened to “AOL” in their branding and marketing) purchased CompuServe to rapidly increase its market share and all of the perks that came with such a maneuver.
At its peak, over 30 million people had subscriptions to AOL. It was used for email, as a social tool, and as a massive marketplace. The e-commerce aspect of AOL became a large part of its usefulness. Users would log in, check their email, play in chat rooms, get personal one-on-one advice, and then use the marketplace to make purchases (or at the very least, use AOL to search for reviews and e-commerce websites to buy products).
AOL as a Social Club
AOL allowed people – friends, relatives, strangers, ex-girlfriends, classmates, work colleagues, you name it – to socialize. The exponential growth of chat rooms probably would not have happened if it weren’t for AOL’s massive influence, ubiquitous nature, and ease of use. The same could be said for instant messaging. The ability to easily send private messages to your friends was incredibly useful. Each AOL user was allowed to create a profile, not unlike current profiles, but in a much more basic way. People would announce their statuses by continually editing their profiles. As an AOL user at the time, I can assure you that the first thing people did when they came across your name in a chatroom or an email was to look at your profile.
The Shift to Facebook
I’m jumping ahead somewhat and leaving parts of this story out, such as the rise and fall of Friendster (Facebook’s predecessor), for the sake of brevity.
In 2004, Facebook started as a way to let college students (the consumers) socialize online. The website eventually grew beyond its initial boundaries and allowed individuals in from all walks of life to use it. The site currently has several hundred million users.
AOL was meant to be a closed system that would make it easy for people to access the Internet. Facebook assumes you have access to the Internet to take advantage of its service. Although the origins are different, their end product are very similar. You can think of AOL is a generation one and Facebook as generation two. Nonetheless, the parallels between AOL and Facebook are noteworthy. Conceptually and functionally, both systems grew to become extremely influential.
- Rapid growth in the millions of users (I believe that Facebook has many more users than AOL in large part because it’s free, as opposed to AOL which carried a monthly fee)
- User-centric concept
- Very easy to use
- Helps to initiate relationships and socializing
- Functions encourage relationship building and maintenance
- Clean, user-friendly design and layout
- Status/profile changes
- E-commerce (AOL shopping vs. emerging Facebook stores – many people want to make purchases right from their Facebook accounts)
One difference between the two systems is that Facebook makes it easier to have a “closed” circle of friends. You can limit who sees what you write, your photos, and videos, likes and dislikes. With AOL, you could simply ignore people you didn’t care about but it wasn’t possible to have a long lasting “club” of your friends.
As with all things Internet, AOL feel and Facebook will eventually tumble as well. Facebook is still in growth mode so it obviously remains to be seen how long it will take for it to be toppled by the next “big thing” that emerges thanks to our rapidly evolving Internet and digital communications world. Make no mistake – Facebook will cede its reign to another entity, it’s just a matter of time, although I do recognize that the longer one stays with it, the harder it is to migrate to a new system (consider your photo uploads, established social network and overall investment of your time). With 400 million users, it is now 10 times the size of AOL at its peak so don’t expect a rapid change away from Facebook in the near future.
Facebook has had many issues with privacy and as such, a number of Facebook alternatives (such as Disapora) have been launched or are in the making that do no intend to have similar issues.