Facebook: The new Aol…..

AOL-main1Sadly, I’m old enough to remember the dawn of the Internet. If you are too, then you will remember the rigmarole involved in actually getting online. IF, and it was a big if, you could afford a computer at home – mine cost me £3000! – getting online involved completing a paper card form (yep yep, with a pen) and posting it off, in the hope that within a few days you would receive a CD rom from AOL or Compuserve, the other emerging player at the time.

But that was just the start. Before you could actually get online you had to load the disk, then the software and register. Oh, and don’t forget that pesky cable connection, via a modem, into your phone socket. Once you were over that lot, you were then ‘free’ to roam the best of what the Internet had to offer. Which wasn’t actually much, but it was new and exciting so people like me didn’t care. At its peak, AOL alone had over 30 million ‘subscribers’ – which was considered a huge number back then.

Fast forward to the social era. Connecting to the internet is now something we do unconsciously, with the exception of finding a ‘wireless’ signal when we are out and about. Connecting to the internet is no longer ‘theatre’. It’s ubiquitous. We take it for granted. The Internet Service Provider – or ISP as they were known – is no longer the purveyor of connectedness. As a result, AOL’s market dominance has collapsed, falling to just under 3m today. It ceases to occupy the slot that it once did.

In today’s world, ‘social updating’ is the new ‘connecting to the internet’. And the gatekeepers are entities like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. But for how long? There are many online debates about Facebook et al being so big and so pervasive in market reach, that it is impossible to think that they might slip from our consciousness. But history might suggest otherwise.

A little over 2 years ago @johnsumser the HR technology analyst said the following in a 2012 Forecast post on HR Examiner:

“We are in the Compuserve–Prodigy–AOL stage of social media evolution. It’s after Netscape and before Google in equivalent Internet time.”

And he was right. 2 years on and whilst it’s still hard to imagine any of the majors falling from grace, what is clear to me is that “facebooking’ and ‘tweeting’ will ultimately become just ‘updating’ on our mobile devices. Brandnames will increasingly become meaningless much as they did for ISP’s. Take a quick browse through hbr.org and the tech press and you will quickly find articles raising concerns about the ‘sluggish’ user adoption numbers and user fatigue. Latest reports seem to suggest Facebook is even beginning to behave like AOL and start to create a ‘walled garden’ around social activity – see this post from Techeye.

That doesn’t mean I don’t recognise things are very different now. Facebook alone is so intricately intertwined with our personal and work lives on a scale that AOL couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams. This ‘dependency’ means that they may continue to be our ‘operating system’ long after the brand fades. But todays 1bn super connected and integrated social consumers are yesterdays 30 million connected to the internet. Tomorrows 7bn whatever’s (insert incredible, mindblowing “never thought it would be possible” statement here.) will simply be todays 1bn. It’s all relative you see.

The scale of change in the online landscape between 2000 and 2010 was enormous. Incredible even. Do we really expect it to be any less significant over the next decade? I think not…

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