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

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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.