PLANET FACEBOOK
The week of May 3, 2015
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How Facebook is like 1990s-era AOL

By Simon Owens

There was a long span of time during which the tech world assumed Facebook would be just another Myspace. That’s because nearly every social network invented up to and including Myspace eventually peaked and then waned, losing millions of users in a matter of months, eventually existing as little more than a punch line to jokes. The thinking went that once a social network reached a certain saturation point where it no longer was considered “cool,” its influential users would abandon it for some new shiny object.

Facebook internalized a different lesson from Myspace: Never rest on your laurels. Mark Zuckerberg recognized that Myspace’s real failure was its attempts to maximize revenue at the expense of user experience. Facebook capitalized on the data collected from its millions of users to iterate and adapt its platform so that it continued to be indispensable for those who used it. And when users began to desire features it couldn’t offer, it would acquire companies that could offer them.

Though there’s still some hand-wringing about Facebook losing teen users, it’s widely assumed now that the company is here to stay. Now, our focus has shifted to trying to understand the role Facebook will play once it’s reached full saturation within the developed world, a benchmark it’s quickly approaching. That’s why we’ve witnessed Facebook’s attempts to appeal to a wholly new market: the developing world. We saw this with Zuckerberg’s announcement in 2013 of the launch of Internet.org, a nonprofit focused on bringing internet connectivity to the developing world. And then earlier this year Facebook launched a “lite” version of its mobile app meant to function in an environment with poor Internet connectivity.

Moves like these are seemingly paying off. It announced in July that its Asian userbase had grown by 26 percent in the past year. Other parts of the developing world saw 25 percent growth. Though Facebook’s ability to monetize these new users is likely minimal, it’s becoming firmly entrenched in countries that are very quickly growing their middle class via expanding economies.

Mark Zuckerberg recognized that Myspace’s real failure was its attempts to maximize revenue at the expense of user experience.

But as more of these users migrate online, we’re finding that their view of and interaction with the Internet is very different from ours. Surveys of those living within the developing world about their online habits returned curious results: A significant number of people who claimed they’ve never used the Internet also claim they regularly use Facebook. What this means is that users are spending nearly 100 percent of their time on the Facebook app without recognizing that it’s part of a much larger internet ecosystem. In a survey commissioned by Quartz, people currently living in Indonesia and Nigeria said they rarely ventured outside Facebook. “In both countries, more than half of those who don’t know they’re using the internet say they ‘never’ follow links out of Facebook, compared with a quarter or less of respondents who say they use both Facebook and the internet,” Quartz wrote.

While reading this article, I couldn’t help but think of my own introduction to the Internet via 1990s-era AOL. Back then, AOL was a walled garden you signed into, and after that excruciatingly long waiting period of dial-in, you were presented with a welcome screen offering several categories and options for navigating AOL. At the bottom corner was a little icon that simply said “Go to Internet.” It’s so tiny that I circled it in red below:

Venturing into the “Internet” felt like entering the Wild West (this was pre-Google, when it was a lot more work to discover things on the open Web if you didn’t know where to look). I rarely found myself visiting the Internet, and instead stayed within AOL’s wall where I could enter chat rooms (as a 13-year-old, I especially enjoyed the “adult” chatrooms), instant message with my friends, and send email. What more could I want?

In a survey commissioned by Quartz, people currently living in Indonesia and Nigeria said they rarely ventured outside Facebook.

But eventually the Web became more organized and navigable, and suddenly I and millions of other users realized we didn’t need AOL’s walled garden after all, and there was a multitude of wonders awaiting us in the form of blogs and forums and email you didn’t have to pay $30 a month to use.

It’s curious that we are voluntarily returning to that walled garden with our adoption of Facebook. Yes, it’s certainly a leaky garden with easy access back out into the Web, but it’s still a very closed system with uniform design and strict rules about what is and isn’t allowed.

Part of the reason for this could be that in the developing world many people can only access the Internet through their phones, and navigating the open Web on mobile is still a clunky experience even on a nice, expensive phone. In such an environment, the structured offering of a Facebook mobile app is much more welcoming and easy to use.  Just as ’90s-era AOL provided some welcome structure to guard against the Wild West nature of the Internet, Facebook simplifies a mobile experience that isn’t conducive to the open Web.

Of course, with the rise of phones with larger screens, responsive design, and HTML5, the question now is whether users will continue to remain within Facebook’s walled garden or if, like Internet users in the early 2000s who began to abandon AOL in droves, mobile phone users will venture back into the open Web. Given the increasing worry over the amount of leverage and control Facebook has on our lives, I can’t be the only one who, while grateful that Zuckerberg is working to expand Internet connectivity, also hopes that this new Internet connectivity isn’t to the sole benefit of Facebook. Although I enjoyed the chat rooms and instant messaging offered up by AOL, my life is indisputably richer due to the introduction of the open Web.

Simon Owens is a technology and media journalist living in Washington, D.C. This article was originally published on his site. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or Google+. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com.

Photo via Spencer Means/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed