Saturday, February 7, 2009

Evolution of the Online Social Network

Like a great many other people my online social networking presence has moved in recent years from AOL to MySpace and on to Facebook.

Letting go of one site or technology is sometimes difficult. You get comfortable and familiar with the process at a location and become very reluctant to let go.

You also set up things like photo albums, icon pictures, favorites lists, friends lists, and many other features and so letting go feels like you wasted a lot of time and effort. But eventually the fact that things simply are better at another location is going to catch up with all of us.

I first got online over a decade ago, when we purchased our first home PC in late summer of 1997.

At that time, AOL (America On Line) seemed like a miracle. You could interact immediately with people all over the world, and organize your friends and family together in groups that allowed you to easily interact with one another.

Sharing pictures, videos, and ideas in programs from email to chatrooms to IM's (instant messages) allowed me to reconnect with family members that I had lost touch with, and develop new friendships that never would have happened without this new technology.

The AOL service was the standard for years, and frankly I couldn't imagine anything coming along that could be better than their product.


Still, throughout that decade of AOL, I wondered what would eventually come along to knock it off it's lofty perch or pose a serious challenge. After all that is the nature of things. Coke vs. Pepsi, Microsoft vs. Apple, every big champion eventually gets a worthy challenger to its crown.

About a year ago someone turned me on to MySpace and I jumped on to see what all the fuss was about. While I found some of the features interesting it just didn't seem like any kind of service that was going to bump AOL from the top.

MySpace just didn't have the interactive capabilities of AOL's chatrooms and IM's, though it did provide a better feel of being your 'home' on the web. One thing that it did have in its favor was that it was a 'free' site, providing users an internet home with free webspace.

Then something major happened when AOL suddenly began to break down. For whatever reasons, probably financial, they began to dismantle their online empire. They first dropped their monthly fees, which had ranged from $9-20 per month depending on your level of service.

The AOL service then shut down its chatrooms and began to remove other services, finally dropping their free webspace services in October of 2008. Anyone who had setup a web page with AOL had to find a new home, and I was severely affected.

Over the years I had developed my own personal web page at www.mattveasey.com, and had used the AOL software called 'Easy Designer' to build its content. I also had become the webmaster for an Irish-American organization, the Philadelphia Emerald Society, and had their web page setup with AOL. Finally I had websites developed for my old softball team, and a fantasy baseball league in which I participated.

When AOL suddenly announced they were shutting down this access, I had to move all of the information for all four sites to a new server.

Thankfully someone pointed me towards the folks at Google, and I found that their capabilities were even better than AOL had been, and the moves proved far easier and quicker than I thought.

With my own internet website presence now at Google, the only thing remaining with AOL was their IM service which is now free and still a solid, reliable product.

In recent months I began to explore the Facebook social networking site more closely and found that the more I looked, the more I liked.

Facebook combines the personal 'home' site feel for individuals with the interaction of the old AOL world with 'friend' lists and groups, chat ability, picture and video sharing and many other features.

So now I have my answer to that old question of what was going to knock AOL from its perch. What did the job was simply the complete developing across the web of the services that AOL had previously offered by other providers who did it better and offered these services for free.

The websites at Google, the home feel of MySpace, the combination of everything at Facebook, and many other developments have ganged up to first drive AOL to drop their fees, and then eventually to the status of secondary player. F

or my money the Facebook service is at the top of the online social networking world at the moment, and they provide an outstanding product that is likely to remain at the top for at least a couple more years.

But as we have all learned in developing technology from VCR's to DVR, from albums to CD's to digital music, from television to computers, from Pong to Guitar Hero, as from AOL to Facebook something new will come along eventually that will cause us all to pick up our web presence and move on to greener pastures.

None of us can possibly imagine where the future will place us a decade from now in our online lives.

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