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 someone's trying to rebuild the Death Star.
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.
Now, I hear you: Facebook is different from AOL in at least two major ways. We're not saying these two things are exactly the same. Facebook is social, and we believe in a social internet because you can't fake the kind of content and recommendations that come from your friends. That's the engine in Facebook's growth. And secondly, Facebook is far from being as closed as AOL was, since it's a platform other companies can use. AOL didn't have either of those. But Facebook's still mediocre! Even if they're outsourcing a lot of that mediocrity (Dark Knight movie rentals) while keeping some of it in house (All of Facebook's messaging and whatever clones of popular services they're currently building). Even if it's your friends who are spamming you with next generation super pokes.
It's also mediocre, because no company online can be good at everything and so it's always ugly when they try. Which is why the the internet is great—we get to choose! Sites specialize! Want a trillion clips of obscura? YouTube! Want gorgeous music videos and mini-docs? Vimeo! Want to stream movies to every box and handset under the sun? Netflix is terrific!
But no. Facebook, realizing 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. Will you let it?