In my last post I mentioned how some people with a narrow view of the Internet couldn’t verbally distinguish it from an email message. Obviously that’s a very small subset of folks, but it brings up an interesting phenomena. The Internet has a few primary use cases for a majority of the man-hours that are spent online and, while the percentage of time in each use case has changed, the cases themselves have largely remained the same since the 90s, maybe even the 80s! Of these cases, many of them are coalescing at Facebook’s doorstep.
The Social Web
Socializing on the Internet has taken many forms over the years. Email can be traced back to 1971 and gained popularity as a way of social interaction at universities in the late 80s and early 90s. With the rise of residential Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as AOL, EarthLink and MindSpring email reached out to the general public throughout the rest of the 90s. Then the dedicated email services like Hotmail (now Windows Live Mail), Yahoo! Mail and Gmail began to take over. AOL eventually opened up email service to the general public in an attempt to maintain a foothold in the marketplace. Of these, Yahoo! Mail is the most popular, but the demands on email as a social tool have waned. Email is full of spam; over 90% of all messages sent are junk. Email addresses are in constant flux as people change jobs or move to different ISPs. Facebook Messaging is on the rise and for many people it has replaced email as the primary messaging tool between friends. It’s a closed system, which tends to protect it from spam and people don’t change or abandon their Facebook accounts so address books don’t need frequent updates.
Even some who consider themselves early Web users will probably cite AIM as the first Internet chat program. AOL Instant Messenger, however, is simply a white-label version of ICQ which was created in 1996 by the Israeli company Mirabilis. But even before ICQ there were live chat BBS’ like ISCA and Shadow maintained by university students in the Midwest. Chatting on these telnet based bulletin board systems would appear primitive by today’s standards, but the features available have been mostly consistent with all chat programs: Who’s online, send a message, set your status, and so on. Facebook’s chat system is nothing revolutionary, but it offers the ease of not needing to re-find all your friends on a different system. If you’re friends with someone on Facebook then they are in your chat list. Several chat clients are integrated with Facebook chat including Adium on OS X and Trillian on Windows and the iPhone. Unlike the messaging system, the chat system seems to be partially open to integration.
The Personal Homepage
As early as 1994 there were universities offering web hosting freely to students. Early personal pages were generally a mish-mash of favorite links decorated with tacky animated graphics. Out of the chaos arose a personal homepage hosting service called Geocities. Anyone could host a page in one of the neighborhoods with the caveat that Geocities would advertise on each page, sound familiar? Geocities was eventually purchased by Yahoo! and devolved into a set of web publishing tools. Yahoo! may have missed an opportunity to capture a portion of the social market with this early product by focusing too much on the enterprise and small business customer. There was a gap between what happened with Geocities and the rise of MySpace and it’s possible that market demand for personal homepages was bubbling beneath the surface like so much lava. This could account for the meteoric growth that MySpace initially enjoyed, but it would not last. At least, not in the U.S., worldwide MySpace is still tremendously popular. Here, again, Facebook has taken on the role of defacto home page of most home page keepers.
The Private Community
The Well is widely regarded as the premier example of a private online community. Members of The Well may not have ever known each other offline and were revered and mysterious like a member of Mensa and the Bilderbergers. Online communities like this are not normally so well organized and they usually grow out of technologies that are not necessarily designed to host them. It’s well known that The Well stays a step behind on the technology where it lives. Still, even some of the telnet BBS’ have areas where these communities have formed, but it usually begins in one of the topic oriented discussion rooms that is closely monitored by system helpers. Having moderators helps to keep the conversation on topic. Newsgroups often hosted a wide array of lively communities for a time, until the spam came along and drowned out the conversation with Viking noise. With the closed system, Facebook won’t likely suffer the same fate as newsgroups and having a budget helps to keep the software humming along.
Although these major uses of the Internet are collecting at Facebook there are still several that have managed to escape it to a large degree. Photo and video sharing are available on the platform, but are still dominated by flickr and YouTube which are more specialized for the tasks. Personal blogging has not yet been incorporated into Facebook. This might be due to the presumption that bloggers like their own look and feel, their own domain name and the ability to reap all the benefits of their work. Of course there are hundreds of minor uses of the Internet and probably a few major ones that I’ve missed. But Facebook’s achievement in collecting so many at such a scale is noteworthy and it is now solidly established as one of the gorillas of the web.