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We Are Coming Full Circle From AOL to Facebook: What Can We Learn?

By Josh Woodard on January 8, 2016


A Quartz study from last year, building off of previous findings from Helani Galpaya and Christoph Stork, reported that majorities of people in the world’s 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 7th most populous nations agreed with the statement that “Facebook is the Internet.

While this may seem surprising to some, it is actually not that much different than the early experiences of many Americans with the Internet 20+ years ago.

Remembering my first time

My first entrée to the Internet was through the ImagiNation Network in the early 90s. Not long after that I joined America Online (aka AOL) as well, along with millions of other Americans.

In 1990s America, AOL was the Internet for many people. A good number of those people almost certainly did not realize that there was anything online outside of AOL, much like many people new to the Internet feel about Facebook.

Of course, one could access the Internet outside of AOL using its embedded web browser. It did not (mostly) die as a platform because people suddenly woke up to the world of the wider Internet. Rather, it faded away because people in the US began to have access to broadband Internet service that was cheaper and faster than AOL dial-up.

From whence we came, so too shall we return?

Even though Quartz found that almost all Americans know that Facebook is not the Internet, it remains what Pew Research Center calls a “home base” for a significant number of American Internet users.

Anecdotally, at least, I’ve also noticed that more of my contacts – including myself – rely on sending messages to each other via Facebook chat rather than email, and an increasing number seem to also be getting at least some of their news from the site as well. In other words, many of us treat it like it is the Internet, even though we know it is not.

Which has me wondering if there is something inherently more attractive to people about one-stop, curated online experiences, than the unstructured world of visiting various websites for different purposes using a browser.

This is not in any way a judgment statement about either of those two experiences. Although if the former is somehow more uniquely attuned to what draws the attention of a significant portion of Internet users, then it is potentially telling about how to best engage with people online.

In a digital world with an increasing amount of content and noise, are platforms always going to ultimately win out over individual sites? And if so, should international and community development practitioners be proactively exploring shared and open platforms (such as MOTECH), and generally eschewing individual websites and apps as a matter of standard practice?

What are your thoughts?

How did you first get online? How do you see that different from today? What could be a better way? Share your experiences with me in the comments.

This post was first published on LinkedIn and you can read more here.

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Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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8 Comments to “We Are Coming Full Circle From AOL to Facebook: What Can We Learn?”

  1. Mike Carter says:

    My first experience was with Compuserve 1.0 I remember getting the package and struggling to get online through dial up using Netscape ( I think). I also remember using a phone acoustic coupler to attach to the telephone to allow access. Happy Days 🙂

    • Glen Burnett says:

      This reminds me of a conversation I had with a guy in Lebanon, when we were trying to recruit for a position there. He told me that all the memebers of the educated classes read both the conservative and the liberal newspapers, so you would get both of them by advertising in the largest newspaper.

      If Facebook is all about information, and they are the main curators for it, it shifts how we as a society get our information. But this isn’t changing the newspaper, this changes the delivery trucks.

      For all the revolutions that have been able to take place in the last few years because of facebook, you also have numerous cases where they have knowingly manipulated data to test how users would react. This means they ultimately are looking out for their customers, who are the advertisers, not the users. I continue to be confused at the level of anger people bring against governments around privacy, while they blindly place their privacy faith in a for profit private entity with a history of abusing that privacy.
      In any case, you also need to look at churn rates for Facebook, which does not have a permanent hold on its users.

  2. gawain says:

    I think this is an important issue with potentially big implications. Read this, from the “grandfather of Iranian blogging – to get a perspective.


  3. Catherine Robins says:

    Keep in mind that access to Facebook in most (if not all) of these countries is provided free of charge on smart phones through deals struck by Facebook with local internet providers who are subsidized. In India this business strategy has raised concerns about what is clearly a violation of net neutrality. The question of who controls initial access goes beyond the issue of an internet “home base.”

    During our first use of the net in the early 90s it was clear that search engines (such as Mosaic and Alta Vista on DOS) were just that; they were understood to be means of accessing a broad range of information sources, not the sources themselves.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      Thanks for sharing, Catherine. For the record, Free Basics, as Facebook is now calling it, is currently available in less than 40 countries globally. But the debate around its potential violation of the principles of net neutrality is an important one for us to be having.

  4. maud says:

    My first experience with internet was dial-up, to a work intranet, then Aol, regretted that the portal died away, always kept my ad…
    Still, I’m still partially responsible for the dying of Aol portal, as I for search started using google and still do.

    Now I have my friends, only selected friends, on Facebook.
    Other friends and the rest of the world I communicate with through mail…allows me to separate my world