Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Facebook is the new AOL

Perhaps it was the Caesar salad.

Perhaps it was the Jack & cola.

But something clicked in my non-trendy brain during my dinner at Applebee's earlier this evening. My stunning realization probably already occurred to you some time ago, but you have to remember that I am not trendy so it takes me a little while longer to figure these things out.

So anyways, I was eating my Caesar salad and drinking my Jack & cola at the Applebee's in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (After being on a business trip for a few days, my body often tells me to keep things as simple as possible; I would have gone to Subway, but the local Subway has been closed all day.)

As I ate and drank at Applebee's, I was half-watching the TV out of the corner of my eye. The TV was tuned to ESPN, which was showing the College World Series in baseball. But ESPN had taken a brief break from the game to let the viewers know about the ESPN page on Facebook. That's when it hit me:

Facebook is the new AOL.

Perhaps the Caesar salad (or something else) was bringing to mind Steven Hodson's June 22 Inquisitr post that touched on Facebook's commanding presence:

For Facebook it is all about having the people using its service believe that Facebook is providing them with a home on the web where they can gather with friends, where they can share their stuff, and where they can find out what their friends think of products and services.

OK, so Facebook is a destination, so why am I referring to Facebook as the new AOL? I've already referred to a Jake Kuramoto post in the Oracle AppsLab blog that asked the question

[H]ow can AOL still be #4 on the April 2009 list and still have 104 million uniques in a month?

Now I'm not talking about AOL's numbers (which, by the way, are actually GREATER than Facebook), but to AOL's presence of mind. Although derided today, AOL used to have a HUGE mindshare. When people thought of online, they thought of AOL. In the same way that ESPN and others have a Facebook page today, companies in the 1990s made sure to have their AOL keyword.

But if you want to realize how big AOL was back in the day, remember this.

Perhaps some of us talk about the "Scoble effect," where a mere mention from Robert Scoble can result in a huge spike of interest in a website or a product.

Perhaps some of us talk about the "Oprah effect," where a mere mention from Oprah Winfrey can result in a REALLLY HUGE spike of interest in a website or a product.

But those are small potatoes compared to AOL's power back in the day. Scoble schmoble. Oprah schmoprah. Hollywood made a whole dang MOVIE about AOL. Top that, Ev, Jack, and Biz. MSNBC, in its April 2009 slam of AOL, talked about the movie - and the heyday of the service:

America Online helped me and millions of others find their way onto the Web and into the world of e-mail at a time when only engineers and scientists had the keys to those kingdoms.

The dial-up service wasn’t the first — Prodigy, CompuServe (later bought by AOL) and others preceded it. But AOL was the easiest and most friendly with its digital greetings of “Welcome!” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

As hard as it is to believe now, there actually was a time when being told e-mail was sitting in your inbox was considered exciting, and not exacting.

And who could quibble with the charming 1998 movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? It marked AOL’s heyday and represented a cultural milestone: We were on our way to blending real life — including romance — with technology.

But there's another similarity between the AOL of the 1990s and the Facebook of today that has nothing to do with mindshare. Let's return to Hodson's Inquisitr post that discussed Facebook as a "home" on the web for many:

It is this place that Facebook strives to give the illusion of openness while at the same time making sure that none of the potentially lucrative data they are collecting every minute after every second....

Already Facebook is in position to cause Google a lot of financial pain as more and more traffic is being driven blogs and websites from within the walls of Facebook. The battle of SEO supremacy may already have been lost without a shot being fired. Google’s big guns of SEO have come up against an enemy that doesn’t need to rank anything because its members are more interested in what their friends suggest rather than cold analytically produced results. To top it off Facebook is the biggest part of the web that Google’s spiders can’t crawl.

You see, companies of the 1990s HAD to have that AOL keyword presence to reach the Americans who were on-line. And the content on AOL was inaccessible to those who weren't paying the AOL membership fees. In a similar way, Facebook is developing this whole ecosystem behind its wall that non-Facebook users cannot access.

Just as AOL was the Internet to many in the 1990s, Facebook is the Internet to many today.

But will Facebook suffer from the same decline that AOL has? While AOL still has a large amount of traffic, the numbers of AOL subscribers have dramatically declined:

AOL had about 27 million customers in the United States at its peak in 2002, but is now down to about 7 million, a relative shadow of itself. Some of those subscribers are folks who live in areas that don’t have high-speed service available; others just don’t need or want to pay for it.

Will Facebook suffer the same decline as AOL? Inquisitr commenter Tsudohnimh thinks so:

All the content within Facebook is a closed system. You can't embed videos, you can link to most pics, you can't share content outside of their playpen and this is not a sustainable system.

Facebook's clunky UI and lack of decent blogging features require content production to be done elsewhere and as long as that is the case their walled garden mentality will not work.

But Hodson is not sure:

I might have at one time agreed with the 'not a sustainable system' unfortunately I'm not so sure any more.

Oh, and in case you're still under the illusion that my "Facebook is the new AOL" realization is new and exciting, Jason Kottke was writing about this on June 29, 2007.
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