When an entire generation of computer users first poked our doe-eyed faces onto a young internet, many of us were greeted with a single, encompassing, monolithic face peering back: the AOL Home Screen. To call it a young internet isn’t even fair – it was a mature, thriving AOL. It was ubiquitous, it was powerful, it was everything – and it ended up destroying itself, too flawed by design to last. And nobody’s learned a lesson.
How do we know nobody’s learned shit since the days of the 56k Hindenburg? News like Warner Bros’ decision to rent movies – starting with The Dark Knight – directly through Facebook. News like Rovio putting Angry Birds onto perhaps the only platform other than my dead grandfather’s typewriter that doesn’t yet support it – yup, Facebook. Which is just, really, wonderful! If there’s one thing the internet is lacking right now, it’s yet another fucking place to rent a movie for 48 hours for several bucks or play god damned Angry Birds. And it adds up – Facebook is reaching its tendrils into every single thing we like about the internet, far, far beyond the actual reasons we rolled up to Zuckerberg’s site in the first place. IMing? Check. Email? Check. Photo sharing? Check. Apps? Check. Location check-ins? Yup. Twitter ripoff status updates? But of course! What Facebook hasn’t stuffed into its maw by its own will, it’s given developers plenty of incentive to do so themselves. The consequence? Over a decade after the web portal stopped making sense, Facebook is trying to assemble itself, like some ill-conceived Voltron, into the next.
After AOL began its decade-long implosion, gradually descending out of relevance, the real internet sprang up in the fertile mush that’d been left behind. AOL was hemorrhaging money like a hemophilic boxer, but the rest of us were having too much fun with the tools we’d be introduced to by this collapsing corpse to notice. IMing, emailing, video, websites, games – AOL didn’t invent any of these things from thin air, but it brought them all together in one convenient (when you had a dial tone), hideously-90s Mecca. It was easy! It was slow! It was familiarly and comforting – and stifling. AOL’s vision of the online world was what AOL deemed worthy of its walled topiary garden. It was closed – locked up tight. Integrated tightly, but, in retrospect, really pretty mediocre.
Mediocre, because you can’t be good at everything. You just can’t. Whenever it’s been attempted, it’s been awful. Take Google: emperor of search, indomitable online cartographers, the gold standard in email – and yet responsible for Buzz and Wave, two of the biggest shit sandwiches in the history of the internet. You can’t have (or make) it all. Which is why the the internet is great – we get to choose! Sites specialise! Want a trillion clips of obscura? YouTube! Want gorgeous music videos and mini-docs? Vimeo! Want to stream moves to every box and handset under the sun? Netflix is terrific!
Which presents us with two troubling prospects: redundancy and horribleness. Facebook, realising it has at least a few daily minutes of the attention of the most attention-impoverished step in our species’ history, wants to be everything. It wants to be Netflix, it wants to be your Xbox, it wants to be Foursquare, it wants to be Gmail – Facebook wants to be the internet. It’s planting the garden, and it wants the nice wall. But we don’t need, and shouldn’t want, a parallel internet. It’s wasteful. It’s restrictive. It’s – ta da – redundant. We already have too many ways to communicate and share and stream and locate each other, a surfeit of services that need to be thinned out, not mirrored.
And a Facebooked internet is destined to be bad. Look at Facebook IM – a standard that’s driven a spear through the already moribund AIM. Glitchy, unreliable and ugly – after years of existence. The more Facebook tries to consolidate, the further it spreads itself, and the less we should come to expect from them.
No one site should have all that power – the ability to reconstitute itself as a second web. The internet, as said, is about choice. Strange, complicated, eclectic choice. The internet shouldn’t be any one person’s vision, no matter how well Jesse Eisenberg played him. The notion of Facebook becoming a new generation’s AOL is a scary and sad one – the former because of how much they’re giving up to one site, and the latter on how much they’re missing out on from all the others.