Might Have Been Facebooks

Facebook and Twitter are omnipresent platforms that emerged almost out of nowhere to attain their current positions. Five years from now, they may be gone or in decline, but they seem to be going from strength to strength at the moment. So how is it that tech giants like Microsoft, Google and (back then) AOL and Yahoo failed to create Facebook, Twitter or something akin to them?

Consider Flicker, owned by Yahoo. It had a dedicated set of users who loved to share pictures, something that Facebook now dominates in a less aesthetically pleasing way. Instead of charging people for more storage, what if it had made unlimited storage free and done some advertising? Add in a chat capability and you have a proto-Facebook. It wouldn’t have taken many more steps to roll in micro-blogging or what we now know as status updates, presto – Facebook!

Or what about AOL chat? From 2000-2005 or so, it was *the* thing, almost what Twitter is now. How hard would it have been for AOL to give users the ability to publish their IM’s to the wider world if they wanted to, and to follow the updates of other users?  Technically, it seems like it would have been a trivial effort. How did Microsoft, with its vast sums of money, not foresee the coming move to social in the early Oughts?

I  don’t know, but it does show that large companies have a terribly hard time in forecasting the future. Indeed, we all do. Maybe some people out there saw what was coming, but my guess is that it was mostly just time and chance that led to the explosion of Facebook and Twitter. AOL and Yahoo were sitting on potential gold mines, and all the while wondering how to get back their pre dot-com mojo. Maybe it is due to the difficulty of executing on new ideas in a big company. Say I am a software engineer at AOL in 2002 and I have this bright idea to turn AIM into what Twitter is, who do I tell? How do I convince the powers in the company that the future isn’t buying Time Warner and creating portals and front pages, but instead is connecting people to each other via a public AIM with status updates? I probably either get shot down or ignored, and the enterprise certainly isn’t going to do a massive implementation on my idea on its beloved core software.

So innovation like that has to come from somewhere else, probably the proverbial college dorm room or Cupertino garage. The same thing is true in a lot of industries. Big companies simply cannot foster the kind of out of the box thinking that produces a Facebook, instead they have to acquire other companies who do their R&D for them. No matter how much they spend and how hard they try, something about the large organization works against real breakthroughs.

4 thoughts on “Might Have Been Facebooks”

    1. It does indeed. Still, that is a change to their core business, not something radically new. And Wolfram Alpha already does this.

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