Anti-social networking: The new chic?

Remember America Online, later known as AOL? For over a decade, from 1990s through the 2000s, it was incredibly popular among less-technical consumers, offering them email, dial-up access, chat rooms and other features. Millions of users were under the blissful misunderstanding that AOL was the Internet while tech enthusiasts wrote furious screeds trying (and, mostly failing) to persuade them how lame the service really was.

AOL eventually withered to a shadow of its former self under the multiple onslaughts of free email services, consumer broadband solutions and a steadily widening Web. At the time, I assumed that the failure of this particular walled garden signaled the end of that type of limited service and the triumph of the open Web.


A number of popular social networking services -- many of whom made their names because they could interact with other services, adding their value to the others -- are now pulling in their gangplanks and trying to keep their users onboard their ship and their ship only.

I suppose I could start with Facebook, which is busily trying to be the new AOL (albeit one supported by advertising and vendor deals). But what's more bothersome (because is anyone really surprised that Facebook is trying to be all things to all people?) are recent moves by services that became popular by playing well with others.

For example, late in 2011, Twitter -- whose ecosystem originally encouraged the development of several popular third-party clients such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite -- announced that it was considering changes that would negatively affect those clients. Then, in August 2012, it presented user caps for third-party Twitter clients, along with other changes meant to drive users back to its own site and mobile apps.

More recently, Instagram, the popular photo-sharing site, disabled photo integration with Twitter so that its photos could no longer appear there. (Since then, Twitter has introduced its own photo filtering service.)  And a variety of communications and entertainment ecosystems being developed by Apple, Google, Microsoft and other vendors are becoming more and more isolated and less likely to be using each other's services. (Apple maps, anyone?)

I'm old enough to remember a time when email services were so insular that you could only email somebody who had an account with the same service. It really makes one want to yell, "Kids! Play nice!" It also makes me wonder if Web services are so busy taking sides and making new enemies that they don't see the forest for the trees.

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