Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A look back in the past for a peek at the future?

My wife is a huge fan of the film “You’ve Got Mail,” and so whenever it comes on and we’re both watching TV, I’m stuck with it for at least a few minutes.

Set in the late 20th century, the film documents a budding romance between two people whose names I can’t remember, played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan (note: this was back when Meg Ryan was still attractive). This romance manifests itself through the anonymity of the earliest form of today’s “social networking,” America Online.

Watching it now, the movie seems like it might as well have been filmed a million years ago. In today’s day and age, had Hanks and Ryan not met through a dating web site, they would have at least been directed to each other’s Facebook pages, and instead of fluttering around anonymously in each other’s online lives for months on end, Hanks would have immediately seen Ryan’s vacation pictures from Cabo and known who she was and how she looked in a bikini. (Anonymity has certainly been a victim as the web has developed over the years.)

Anyway, I was reminded by the movie of just how big AOL was at the time — in case you don’t recall, around that time, AOL bought Time Warner. It was the Internet startup with just a few years under its belt that became a superpower in the media industry almost overnight.

And then just a few days ago, Time Warner sold off America Online for virtually nothing, and all I could think was “Wow, AOL still exists?”

So now here we are in the brave new online universe, where everyone is signing up for social networking sites and businesses are scrambling to find ways to figure out how to make money off of them. Facebook and Twitter appear to be winning “the war,” just as AOL did at the dawn of the Internet, and yet neither one of them operates at anything close to a profit.

Because they are not profitable, there’s been a ton of speculation about how they’re actually going to make the leap to becoming profitable. We used to pay $20 per month for AOL (and I hated every second of it), but now when a rumor starts that Facebook may charge $1 per month, 100,000 people sign up for the page “Tell Facebook to take that dollar and…”

AND, remember that when social networking REALLY began to hit critical mass, it was MySpace that seemed to be leading the way. This was only a few years ago. Now, at least from a marketing standpoint, MySpace appears to be slowly deflating like a kiddie pool with a leak in the side.

My point is, while it makes all the sense in the world to direct marketing and PR efforts toward Facebook and MySpace and Twitter right now, we must keep in mind that they are going to have a shelf life, and it’s probably only going to be a few years.

There’s a million things that will, inevitably, do them in. In the case of AOL, it was competition and the expansion of the Internet as a whole; suddenly, everyone had e-mail for free through work or Hotmail.

In the case of the social networking sites, there are a number of things that could send them the way of the dodo. Someone could build a better mousetrap. They can try to make money by overwhelming people with ads, to the point where it’s a turn-off (which is precisely what’s happened to MySpace). They could overestimate the public’s willingness to pay for their services. Or, people could just get tired of it all and move on to something else.

In any event, it will be interesting to see if anyone makes a movie similar to “You’ve Got Mail” about the social networking era we’re in right now. (Perhaps Hanks and Ryan have some time on their hands.) And it will be interesting to see how we look back on that film in, say, the early part of the 2020s. I have a feeling that, as we sit in our jet pods that automatically manage our commute to Mars while we browse the Internet, we’ll think this whole era was pretty darn funny.