The fact that 1 billion people around the world are now on Facebook, and using it so habitually, is… incredible. For those of us who were using picks and shovels to build the Internet three decades ago, it’s validation of what we believed would someday happen.
Take a walk with me down memory lane, and I’ll explain why.
When we started AOL in 1985, only 3% of households in the U.S. were online — and they only were online for about one hour per week. This was in part because the services weren’t yet that interesting, but it was also because they were expensive.
People typically spent $6 or more per hour to be connected. If that were still the case today, Facebook users worldwide would collectively be spending more than $1 billion per day to access the service for the 10.5 billion total minutes spent per day browsing photos, status updates and the like.
In the early days, cost was a big impediment to adoption. But that wasn’t even our biggest barrier. The fact that modems were viewed as “peripheral” to personal computers was our ultimate hurdle. Back then you went to the “peripherals” section of computer stores if your wanted to get connected. Thus, we set out to convince PC manufacturers to build modems into computers and install our software on them so they could go online as soon as they turned on their computer.
It seems obvious today, but it took us four years before we convinced skeptical PC manufacturers that it made sense to do this.
Explaining “online services” to a skeptical world became clear when I did my first TV interview, talking (somewhat nervously, I can now admit) to PBS’s Computer Chronicles show in 1987.
It’s worth noting that it was illegal for companies like AOL to connect to the Internet in the 1980s. AOL, The Source, CompuServe, The Well, Delphi and the few other pioneers were referred to as the “online service” market in the 1980s, as the Internet was limited to non-commercial users such as governments and universities. It wasn’t until 1991 — six years after we first offered services — that we were able to connect to the Internet!
Soon, more people became aware of what the Internet could offer, and our growth accelerated. Our easy-to-use design, simple pricing and aggressive marketing led us to rapidly gain share against formidable competition from companies like Prodigy and Microsoft.
During those years we believed in the “3 Cs” — community, content and commerce — but never wavered from our belief that community was the killer app. Community features (chat, IM, etc.) always accounted for the majority of our usage. Instant messaging use took off when we introduced the concept of a “buddy list” and then a “status update,” leading us to launch a separate service — AOL Instant Messenger so everybody could participate, whether they were AOL subscribers or not. (Needless to say, a decade later Twitter took the idea of status updates to a whole new level.)
The bottom line was that while AOL offered many services, the concept of community was always for us the soul of the medium.
Which brings us back to Facebook.
One billion users is an important milestone in the history of the Internet. I’m proud of Facebook. But I’m also proud of the pioneering efforts made by those who started on this journey many years ago.
So while applauding Mark for his tremendous success, I’d also like to use this milestone as a way of thanking those pioneers for believing — when few did — that it would be possible to make the Internet part of everyday life.
BONUS: Retro AOL Ad From 1995
AOL disc image a Mashable illustration, original photo courtesy of Flickr, raymondgilford.com