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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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

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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