CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0

These old-school online services may be shadows of their former selves, but they have a lot to teach today's online communities.

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Yovelle changed the service's name from GEnie to Genie to reflect that General Electric was no longer the owner and, more significantly, changed the pricing structure without prior notification to its members. In protest of the unapproved charge to their credit cards, many users cancelled their subscriptions. Genie, once at a peak of 350,000 members, soon had only 10,000. IDT Corp., which bought Yovelle and with it Genie, was left with a service that was not worth the investment of making Y2k-compliant.

Genie closed its doors on December 30, 1999. Though the service exists in no official capacity today, some of its sysops went on to found AOL forums, Web sites and blogs that have continued the spirit and discussions of Genie's RoundTables.

NEXT: AOL

America Online (AOL)

Founded: 1985 (as Quantum Link); 1988 (as AppleLink and PC Link); 1989 (as America Online)Status: Available at AOL.com

AOL's road to being the largest dial-up Internet service provider in the world started humbly with a gaming site for Commodore computer users in the mid-1980s. Quantum Computer Services provided dial-up access to gaming servers that pioneered the massively multiplayer online experience enjoyed by World of Warcraft aficionados today. Quantum's first service, Quantum Link (or Q-Link), was launched in 1985, featuring graphical chat environments designed by LucasArts and online interactive serial fiction.

These features attracted the interest of Apple Computer and the electronics retailer Tandy. Joint agreements with these companies resulted in branded services using Mac and PC client software: AppleLink and PC Link, both launched in 1988. In 1989, when Apple pulled the plug on its joint venture, Quantum rebranded the service America Online, popularly abbreviated as AOL. A DOS-based version followed in 1991.

From the outset, AOL was focused on a nontechnical audience of gamers, and used a proprietary graphical operating environment instead of text-based terminal software. But there was more to America Online than a pretty interface. It gave its users the ability to build their own networks of contacts.

"AOL allowed users to create their own chat room spaces," says Mike Schoenbach, who was a sysop on then-competitor CompuServe, "and brought instant messaging to a system-wide level with buddy lists. Social online sites that millions of people use today -- Facebook, MySpace -- are very much built upon that online experience."

At the beginning, AOL was playing catch-up to such established communities as CompuServe and GEnie. In 1993, AOL opened up access to Usenet newsgroups, and followed up with the ability to send e-mail from AOL addresses to the Internet at large. At the same time, the company clung to the "walled garden" approach, spending a fortune developing its own content and giving users access to the Internet only where it saw fit. But the writing was on the wall and by 1995, the AOL client software included a full-fledged Web browser.

Despite its missteps, the service enjoyed almost ludicrous growth, fueled by ubiquitous trial floppy disks (and, later, CDs) bound into lifestyle magazines, bulk-mailed into physical mailboxes, and stacked in bins at supermarket checkouts. People were also driven to its forums by popular television. AOL keywords flashed along the bottom of TV screens on such daytime shows as Oprah, where Ms. Winfrey reinforced the common misconception that AOL was the Internet by referring to her AOL forum as a "Web site."

By the mid-'90s, America Online had expanded into foreign markets and officially rebranded itself as AOL. It also became the victim of its own success. AOL subscribers flooding into Usenet became unpopular as "clueless newbies," and there was hostile behavior inside AOL itself as password phishing and spamming spoiled the community experience for many.

But the company still grew, like the Internet market in general. At its peak in 2002, AOL had more than 26 million subscribers, but not all of those were necessarily active members in the AOL community. By then, AOL was favored as a dial-up ISP rather than a community in its own right. When broadband subsequently ate away at AOL's dial-up business, its subscriber base fell back down to around 6 million dial-up subscribers worldwide at the beginning of 2009.

While still enjoying its turn-of-the-century growth spurt, AOL bought a string of technology companies and, in 2001, the media leviathan Time Warner. When the Web bubble burst in the early 2000s, the merged company quietly deemphasized AOL, dropping the AOL Time Warner brand. After 8 years of trying to make sense of the merged corporate structure, Time Warner decided in May 2009 to spin AOL off into its own publicly traded company by 2010.

NEXT: Lessons learned

Lessons learned

So what can the online services of old teach the online communities of today? Here are some truths universally acknowledged:

Give them something worth coming back for

In a 2008 USA Today interview, bSocial Network's Bill Eager identified about 850 active social networks and predicted there would be a quarter of a million within the year. With that kind of competition, it's inevitable that many of today's social networks will go the way of The Source and GEnie.

Tharon Howard, a professor at Clemson University who specializes in sustainable social communities, believes that to prevail, social networking sites must reward their members at a fundamental level. "People need to believe that they will obtain some return on the investment of their time and energy," says Howard. "Remuneration doesn't need to be financial; it needs to satisfy some basic, psychological or emotional need. With World of Warcraft [an online game played with thousands of other participants], entertainment is the reward. And don't underestimate the sense of achievement [users] get from filling LinkedIn's completion percentage bar."

Encourage true self expression

Right from its start in the mid-'80s, the online community known as the WELL had one of the best-defined policies about self expression, and it came in slogan form: You Own Your Own Words. YOYOW was a double-edged sword: There was no fear that the WELL would try to claim ownership over your intellectual property, but you were also responsible for what you said. On the WELL, anybody could trace your real name, so the iconic New Yorker cartoon "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" didn't apply.

Howard Rheingold (an early WELL host) described the attraction of owning your own words from his first experience of the WELL in 1985: "Writing as a performing art! I was hooked in minutes." (As a counterpoint, Rheingold described his wife's reaction in his book The Virtual Community: "intelligent misfits...having a high old time." Both descriptions define the appeal of a successful online community.)

Too bad Facebook didn't follow the WELL's lead. In early 2009, Facebook angered users with its new terms of service that seemed to indicate that it owned users' content -- forever. Its reaction to the consumer backlash was an object lesson in damage control.

First, the company backed off the clauses that sparked the revolt, then it set up a group called Facebook Bill of Rights and Responsibilities to allow its members free and open discussion of the issue. A couple months later, Facebook agreed to let users help decide what the terms of service should be, and the new terms were voted in by Facebook users in April.

Use veto powers judiciously

If members of any community, online or otherwise, don't play nice, someone has to bring them into line. It's best if a community polices itself, but in every playground scuffle, the teacher has to get involved sooner or later.

AOL in particular got lambasted for overdoing it in the mid-1990s, which led subscriber David Cassel to spearhead a counter-AOL movement called, inevitably, AOL Sucks. "Your service can be revoked if you say certain words in public chat rooms," Cassel observed in a posting to the newsgroup alt.aol-sucks in 1996. "Anyone seeing you use such a word can page an AOL Guide, who will appear in the room to monitor its content within 5 minutes. This has been used by ultra-conservatives that taunt gay users into using profanity, then summon a guide to get their access revoked."

Facebook and MySpace are sometimes flagged for doing the same thing. Both sites' terms of service leave the door open for removing postings at their sole discretion (in MySpace's case, expressly "with or without prior notice or explanation, and without liability"). And earlier this year, bloggers raised the specter of political censorship at Facebook after experiencing difficulty with postings containing words like "Gaza" or "Palestine."

It's a perception that needs to be nipped in the bud to avoid the growth of a Facebook Sucks movement. Perhaps Facebook could take a leaf from its own public-relations book (see "Encourage true self expression" above) and put the tough issues on the table for the Facebook community to decide.

Raise prices carefully ... or not at all

Customers want to know up front what costs are associated with the service they'll be getting. Economic factors may require price increases over time, but should only be proportionate to value -- and subscribers should have plenty of notice to changes in either.

When GEnie was sold to Yovelle, its new owners changed the basic subscription plan overnight, offering its users no option to avoid the surprisingly higher charge. Members left the service in droves. Similarly, Prodigy saw its membership dwindle when previously free services became surcharged.

There may come a day when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wants to cash in on its estimated $5 billion worth by selling his social network to the highest bidder. Many Facebook users, accustomed to using its resources at no charge, worry that a change of management will spell doom for the service. One such Facebook group, Keep Facebook FREE, currently has more than 143,000 members.

"If Facebook is sold to a large corporation, there is a major possibility that they are going to start charging a fee to use it," declares the group's charter. "We all need to join this group and let Facebook know that we WILL NOT pay to use it, and if they start charging a fee we will go somewhere else." With 850 social networks competing for a piece of Facebook's pie, that's a threat Zuckerberg -- or any company looking to buy the service -- must take seriously.

Manage growth and let the users manage the rest

Many popular groups grow to the point where the original members look around and say, "It's not like it used to be." Whether it's London punks or Bay Area hippies, fashionable movements attract people who don't really get it, and they make it less desirable for the real fans.

Back in the '90s, for instance, AOL's business plan involved massive growth and marketing. As newcomers flooded in, longtime users found that they couldn't get onto the service, and when they did, their favorite haunts were crowded with what seemed like clueless strangers.

Fortunately, Facebook and other successful new-school social networks have learned from AOL's mistakes. Their services are more stable than AOL was in its rapid-growth phase -- and better designed for crowd control. They let you choose who's in your circle (and protect your privacy from everybody else), so it doesn't matter if the service is 95 percent full of dross -- your five percent is all that counts.

This keeps the longtime users happy while welcoming newcomers. And new users with new ideas and new needs can be a good thing. Give people the platform and the tools and they'll use them in ways that could surprise you, as was shown when microblogging service Twitter emerged as an important communications tool for Iranians during a recent government crackdown on communications following a disputed election. (Twitter wisely delayed a planned service outage for network maintenance during the height of the turmoil.)

"Thanks to its simplicity and its chameleon-like ability to be many things to many people, Twitter in many ways has come to represent the zeitgeist," opined venture capitalist and business blogger Om Malik in April. The knack of giving people the tools they want and then getting out of the way is a tough one to manage, but the online communities that can carry it off will be the ones to survive the ages. Or at least, an age or two in Internet time.

NEXT: Timeline: The evolution of online communities

This story, "CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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