Facebook is not the new AOL


Jason Kottke started the ball rolling for the ‘Facebook is the new AOL’ story by writing a tempting little note in a link post. It turned into a headline, and as the hours zipped by, a host of talented bloggers filled out the body of the story with some really good pieces. Is it true, though? Is the mighty Facebook (and its newly launched platform) really just the evil old AOL mindset in disguise?

Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood is probably the most negative of the respondents assessing Facebook’s platform, saying that “I feel very strongly that we already have the world’s best public social networking tool right in front of us: it’s called the internet,” and eloquently arguing his point. Kottke himself has more praise for Facebook, but also makes it clear that he doesn’t think their platform is the future, while Mathew Ingram goes for a 50/50 balance, concluding hist post by saying, “I like Facebook a lot, and I totally see the value of the news feed and the photo-sharing and so on, and I think the F8 platform is a brilliant strategy. Iā€™m a big Facebook fan. But I really like the Internet too.”

“Facebook = AOL 2.0 because it’s another walled garden” is the accusation. It’s an emotive comparison, a great headline and it paints a good picture – but I think ultimately it’s not true. Here’s why that equals sign shouldn’t be there:

I first got online in 1995 with a 14.4 modem, and at the bottom of the box were a couple of floppy disks containing a free month’s use of Compuserve. By day two of the trial I was spending most of my time in the browser, on the WWW, rather than on the Compuserve boards and member areas. I got fed up with the limited range of information, its shallow depth and the fact it all came from one rather bland editorial perspective. Out there on the web, I could find out anything.

And that was a new feeling then. The idea of unlimited information seemed like a good thing. A brilliant thing – although my parents weren’t so convinced as I took to tying up the house’s sole landline for hours at a time. But the web was great. Slow, certainly, but we had no idea what spam was, what malware was. We weren’t automatically suspicious of .ru sites, and we didn’t have to be ready to rip our headphones off when hitting a new site because a crappy ad was waiting to deafen us.

How times change.

The idea of a walled garden – a place with a reasonable, not infinite, amount of information, where a high degree of relevancy is actually attainable, where you’re dealing with people you know and trust, where ads are controlled and where there’s no spam, is, I think, incredibly attractive. Not to the hardcore, maybe, and not to me so much, but I’m sure you’ve got plenty of friends who are addicted to Facebook and who never used the web much before. Facebook works for them in a way that blogs, Flickr and Twitter don’t. Those services are morally wonderful, open, standard-loving, CC-sporting, RSS-spewing etc, but they’re just not catching on in the way the Facebook is.

The web is very different now to ten years ago; the majority of people go to places they trust, such as Wikipedia, the BBC, the big blogs like Engadget, because when people are foraging for information, the majority will take the most efficient, optimized path that is guaranteed to return a pretty good result – not an uneven, unbalanced approach that sometimes returns amazing results but that other times is simply frustrating and fruitless. The success of platforms like Facebook (it may not be FB themselves) and Wikipedia attest to this.

As Jakob Nielsen says in the piece linked to above, “Progress [when foraging for information] must seem rapid enough to be worth the predicted effort required to reach the destination.” Too often on the wide open web, this just isn’t the case. A walled garden is not as ‘good’ (in both moral and qualitative senses) as the free open plains of the WWW, but this, like so many other areas of human behaviour, isn’t about right and wrong.

3 thoughts on “Facebook is not the new AOL

  1. Interesting thoughts, I must admit my recent delving into all this face book have been quite rewarding, perhaps for the very reason that I’m linking up with friends who otherwise wouldn;t be ‘creating’ web content.
    To be fair, wherever possible I’m using fb-apps that make use of external sites (Flickr, Flixster, Shelfari) where ever possible so I’m somewhat more free of the wall, but then again as you say, in this spam filled world that our internet has become, some of those walls make a refreshing change.
    And if you ever want to see what happens when some of those walls are removed you only have to look at some of the mess on MySpace to see why not everyone has the skills to be ‘free’ !

  2. Yes, I too find myself using FB apps that pull in info from outside – I think that’s another area where FB is quite different to AOL/Compuserve 1.0 – it’s really easy to pull in RSS feeds, and data from other places. I can see why you’re changing the focus of your blog, too – the nice thing about FB is you can keep a certain amount of info private, and use the public blog for more general things.

  3. If I recall correctly my first home internet access was via AOL, although rather like yourself I ignored all the inbuilt front end and just launched IE, (or maybe even Netscape back then!) and got on with it. Ditched AOL for NetcomUK after a while, then them for Free9 during the ‘free’ internet craze, until cable turned up and utopia like access began šŸ˜‰
    I guess the largest difference is people have to choose to use facebook, rather than it being somewhat forced upon people, in the way Compuserve/AOl did, or at least attempted to do, and it’s hardly a lightly contested area either.

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