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Is Facebook Really "the New AOL"?

By: Mathew Ingram

Jason Kottke has expanded on his one-liner (referred to below) and agrees with Scott Heiferman's comparison to AOL's "rainman" platform from days gone by.

Steve Rubel has also written a post about the same topic that is well worth reading.

Original post:

It's probably inevitable, given how quickly Facebook has been growing and infiltrating people's lives, that it would start to get criticized for all sorts of things. But one of the criticisms that strikes a real chord - at least with me - is the notion that Facebook might be "the new AOL." The latest mention of this meme came in a squib at Jason Kottke's blog, but there have been other mentions of the idea in various different places recently (including the comments on a post at Brad Feld's blog).

What does that phrase "the new AOL" mean? Maybe for some people it means that Facebook is going to eventually merge with Time Warner, thus destroying about $50-billion in market value, but for most it means that Facebook is in some sense a "walled garden." In other words, it has some nice content and features, but it tries to maintain those in some sort of segregated way, in a location that is part of the Internet but at the same time not part of the Internet. I wrote about this particular issue as it pertains to Facebook in this recent post but it's still on my mind. In the comments on that post, Nav and Joe Thornley make the point that Facebook simplifies things that people could otherwise do on the regular Internet with blogs and Twitter and Flickr and so on, but don't have the time or the inclination.

Scott Heiferman, co-founder of Meetup and Fotolog, says in his post on the subject that Facebook's Platform project reminds him of AOL's "rainman" platform - a set of API-like tools people could use to build the Web 1.0 version of widgets. Marc Andreessen says Facebook platform is smart because in any fight between a platform and an application, the platform wins. But what happens if there's a fight between a platform and the Internet?

Obviously, you don't have to dial up to a special phone number to use Facebook, or install special software, or pay a monthly fee. And you can pull in content from elsewhere (Flickr photos, etc.) using the API and various widgets. But you still have to do things like click on an email to go to a page where you log in (every time), and then click somewhere else to read a simple message, which I have to say is a gigantic pain in the ass.

Is Facebook just a stage in the evolution of the Internet, the way that AOL was - a kind of democratizing force or "Internet kindergarten" of sorts, that will eventually give way to a truly open platform? Don't get me wrong, 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. I'm a big Facebook fan. But I really like the Internet too :-)


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About the Author:
Mathew Ingram is a technology writer and blogger for the Globe and Mail, a national newspaper based in Toronto, and also writes about the Web and media at and

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