Let us describe for you a tech company. It's riddled with scandal, facing an antitrust investigation, and widely criticized for everything from its terrible interface to aggressive advertising. But millions of users stick with its service, either out of ignorance or convenience, and it's poised for further growth. The key to the company's success is its free services. Sure, it's probably evil, but its messaging program is just so handy, you know? We are, of course, talking about AOL.
Yes, gather round, children, for today we tell the tale of the old tech titan that presaged the current internet Moloch, Facebook. Their tactics were similar, their goals were similar, even their scandals were similar. And maybe, if the internet gods are willing, their collapse will be similar too.
Please enjoy this mandated slice of '90s nostalgia before we get into the ever-popular topic of corporate malfeasance.
Unless you're of a certain age, you only know AOL as a punchline, the source of so many obnoxious free trials CDs that neighborhoods could use them to build a tower to blot out the sun. AOL was estimated to have sent out over a billion CDs, with people accusing them of being a public nuisance and environmental menace, but it worked. When AOL went public in 1992, they had 200,000 subscribers and a market cap of $70 million. By 2000, they had 25 million users and were worth $224 billion.
In 2000, only 52% of American adults were online, and a good chunk of them immediately got malware from using Limewire to download "Creep" by Nirvana. AOL's strategy was to provide both an internet connection and every service an internet neophyte might need -- email, instant messaging, news, maps, shopping, dating. Whenever it looked like interest in their service was flagging, they would add something new, like when they attempted to conquer the travel market. There were dreams of using the newfangled magic of broadband to deliver Time Warner (and only Time Warner) movies, music, and magazines to users.
To some, AOL became synonymous with the internet. Its success saw everyone from CBS to 1-800-Flowers scramble to pay for advertising, because if you weren't marketing on AOL, you weren't really marketing. But its success also saw the company dubbed a "walled garden," the kind of product that's convenient to consumers right up until it becomes too incompetent or callous, at which point it spirals into a prison that users must struggle to escape.
The story of AOL's decline is multifaceted, but in short, it became easier and cheaper to use the internet without their framework. However, their immense arrogance and frequent incompetence sure didn't help. They released the anonymized search terms of 650,000 users for vague research purposes, then immediately had to delete them when everyone pointed out that it was full of private phone numbers and revealing trends, like User 42069 searching both his own name and embarrassing porn terms. They had an employee jailed for stealing a list of 92 million email addresses and selling them to spammers, who blasted out 7 billion messages. They had a customer support scandal when a man attempting to cancel his service spent half an hour on the phone receiving rude scripted refusals. They faced a wrongful billings lawsuit. They faced a lawsuit over the exploitation of volunteer workers. They faced an antitrust battle. Oh, and they did their best to dodge taxes, too.
If any of those old stories sound familiar, that's because Facebook is currently facing an antitrust battle, dodging taxes, and, well, you can take your pick of comparable scandals from the "Criticism of Facebook" Wikipedia page, which has been tagged as "too long to read comfortably." There was Cambridge Analytica and Russian election interference, of course. That time the phone numbers of 210 million users were leaked was notable, as is Facebook's continued inability to reign in conspiracy theorists, hate speech, and bullies.
But while it's tough to pick a personal favorite, we think we have to go with their sloth-like reaction to Myanmar's military using Facebook to stir up support for good ol' fashioned ethnic cleansing. We'd say they weren't on the ball, but that would imply that Facebook even realized they were in a game.
Facebook is far from the only tech company mixing bumbling ineptitude with an open contempt for humanity, but they're the most aggressive in pursuing the walled garden strategy of becoming the only online source that you or your grandma who says she'll Facebook you her Bingo night details ever needs. Facebook has its messenger, a marketplace, movie listings, videos, fundraisers, games. They're expanding in all directions, from buying up Instagram and WhatsApp and Oculus to making a goddamn cryptocurrency to launching Portal, their video chat product / data disaster waiting to happen that's being shilled by the fucking Muppets. (In a good summary of where the tech world is at today, PC Mag called it "a supremely capable video calling appliance you shouldn't buy until we're all convinced that Facebook isn't destroying democracy.")
Facebook, like AOL, wants to be a hub for everything that a user might possibly want, because then that user will spend all of their time in the garden. The biggest difference between the two is that Facebook's core product has no subscription fee, so users are the product as much as they are customers. So it's arguably less a walled garden and more being voluntarily bricked up in Montresor's wine cellar.
The other major difference is that the role of the internet has changed since AOL's "You can get the weather and browse Captain Janeway erotica at the same time!" heyday. And Mark Zuckerberg is treating that immense responsibility like he's playing an unusually detailed game of Civilization. That would make everyone else his subjects -- an appropriate analogy, given that Facebook encouraged websites to use Facebook as their main point of outreach, then slashed the reach of those sites and encouraged them to pay for ineffectual advertising instead. The New York Times lost 8% of its readers in three months, and god help you if you wanted to, say, make profitable comedy videos. You know, hypothetically.
AOL dodged their antitrust challenge, and while even Facebook's co-founders are calling for it to be broken up, it seems unlikely there will be any major changes. It's also more difficult to leave Facebook than it was to leave AOL, both because you can't get cheaper than free (our attempt to launch a social media network where we paid people to be our friends bombed) and because of how deeply embedded it is in the internet, our work, and our personal lives. Facebook's biggest problems appear to be lurking in the long term, as profits are slowing and it's about as compelling to Gen Z as cholera. So if Facebook suffers a slow and nondramatic death like AOL, remember all of this when everyone's telling nostalgic jokes about how silly pokes were. Otherwise, we'll fall for all the same shit again with whatever comes next.
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