Once upon a time, about 30 years ago, there was a computer network called America Online. AOL, as it was commonly called, was known for its small floppy disks sent by mail, or sometimes slipped into popular magazines, as gateways to surfing the Internet. The internet already existed, but most people didn’t know how to use it, or even that it existed.
AOL and two of its competitors, Compuserve and Prodigy, provide people with online activities, such as chatting with other people. These services mostly help people bypass difficult aspects of so called internet protocols. As a reminder, computers must communicate through connections that require a dedicated communication line and an IP address, which in turn requires software called TCP / IP, which these computers did not yet have.
Instead, the small floppy disk that AOL shipped allowed a person to plug their computer into their telephone modem and call a server computer that would admit them into the world of AOL or Compuserve or Prodigy.
Still limited services
These services had only one drawback, that of being limited. People couldn’t do whatever they wanted, they could only choose from a small menu of functions, like chat, what the services offered. And the services stayed pretty much the same for years, because it wasn’t in their best interests to change as floppy disks continued to attract people.
The general public didn’t care that services were limited and didn’t change. They were just excited to be in a place called cyberspace. Suddenly, they could send a message to someone in another city, or even another country, and even to people they had never met. People could also adopt a secret identity, and the anonymity made the interaction even more exciting.
Around the same time that AOL, a smart person by the name of Tim Berners-Lee, who worked at a prestigious research organization, released software that people could use to connect from their computers to any computer also having this software. It was the World Wide Web. The software quickly caught the attention of many people and blew them away. With a true internet connection, a person could reach any computer in the world. People saw that they didn’t have to accept the small menu of functions that AOL offered them.
The excitement they felt when sending a message to someone living in another city only intensified. The general public felt that the small place in cyberspace they had lived in until now was nothing compared to the vast universe initiated by Tim Berners-Lee. This excitement has made even ordinary people research how to register with something called an “internet service provider.” You had to understand what was called the “point-to-point protocol”, which was almost like learning science, but was less boring than all floppy disks.
As it grew, the World Wide Web became an amazing place compared to AOL. People found that they could view entire articles and magazines written by people they had never met, even halfway around the world. There was also a constant stream of innovation, with the constant emergence of a lot of software that made “browsing” the web amazing. Users even discovered other aspects of the internet, like the “file transfer protocol”, which allowed them to get a lot of things that no one had ever seen in the form of files.
Programs like “finger” made it possible to see who had been online, which again blew people away. People were so excited about the World Wide Web that they never wanted to go back to AOL, Compuserve, or Prodigy again. These three services have withered away. Most older people kept their AOL accounts because they still had an email address linked to AOL and it was a bit complicated trying to get a new email address. But over time, with the help of the younger generation, even these people have come to use new email services and enjoy the web.
A stranger named Mark
Some people have tried to create another AOL. Notably a venture capital fund, which spent nearly $ 50 million to create a site that would look more like meeting real people, called Friendster. It had some success at first, as people really wanted to meet not only new people, but people they knew as well. Then Friendster’s fate darkened and the platform was sold – for far less money than it took to build it – to a Malaysian online payments company. Most people have forgotten Friendster.
None of these failures discouraged the business community, which created new services. Including a service called MySpace, where people could post information about their favorite music groups. Eventually, a few smart people found a formula and created whole new hangouts. One of them is called Facebook. People got excited about Facebook because it was a place where they could find real people they knew, just like MySpace, but also because it had certain features like AOL, like the Farmville game.
Facebook has started to generate a lot of ad revenue. Advertisers liked Facebook because they didn’t just know who was talking to whom, they also knew a bit about people’s hobbies and interests. Advertisers liked this because they could use this information to “target” their ads like never before.
Facebook is not without its problems
As single people met new people – and old friends – through Facebook, the latter kept growing. His revenue grew from $ 153 million a year to $ 2 billion, then to $ 18 billion, until one day he made nearly $ 120 billion a year selling ads when people do things together. Facebook became one of the most powerful entities in the world because it connected so many people doing things, almost two billion people.
Still, Mark Zuckerberg’s platform is not without flaws. Facebook is indeed a lot like AOL, as the platform limits people by telling them who they can communicate with. And unlike AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy, people can’t adopt just any fun identity, like picklefinger0237. They should logically present themselves as they are, because advertisers like to know who is talking to whom. This appealed to a number of users, who were able to build personality by showing photos of themselves and talking a lot about themselves.
Which is not without concern. Observers have noticed that Facebook and similar services don’t just limit who can talk, and who those people can talk to. They also noticed that the services were manipulating the way people spoke to each other, with computer algorithms. One of the problems with Facebook is that people are no longer in control. They have given Facebook and its competitors so much information about themselves that it is as if these companies own people when they are in cyberspace.
A new horizon to come?
Facebook’s services also don’t seem to do a great job of handling people’s information. Even if they don’t let people talk to whomever they want, Facebook and other services sell people’s information to people they don’t know in faraway lands. And wherever a person goes on the internet, Facebook and its competitors allow advertisers to track them, something people never expected when signing up.
The consequences have become more and more serious. People think they are in a relationship with each other, but in reality they are yelling at each other like in a brawl in the canteen. The reason for the yelling is that algorithmic tools don’t really bring people together, but encourage repetitive behaviors, like making people angry by constantly posting the most inflammatory comments about anything and everything. The purpose of this is all to categorize people’s behavior into convenient categories in order to communicate a clear buy signal to advertisers.
Even people who were excited to create their brand now have doubts. They sometimes suspect that their identity is not real and that they are nothing more than the result of an advertising database that builds them an identity in order to maintain traffic to Facebook and other services. It was almost as if people no longer existed when they were in cyberspace. However, world governments now seem to have realized the problem and that new laws could soon bring order to cyberspace. It’s up to the internet players to build the new web page.