It has been said from the start but with the availability of a proprietary application platform it became so glaringly obvious that this spring the rumor became insistent – Facebook increasingly looks like the new AOL :

“Fast forward to Facebook 2007 and see similarities: If you want access to their big base of users, develop something in their proprietary language for their people who live in their walled garden. Strangely, many young facebookizens aren’t very net savvy (Facebook *is* their internet) & they have little desire to go beyond the walled garden — just like the old AOL users. There’s even a proprietary Facebook messaging system (kids don’t use much open internet email).”

But it is really Jason Kottke’s “Facebook is the new AOL” followed by “Facebook vs. AOL, redux” that made the rumor grow into a swell in July :

“Facebook is an intranet for you and your friends that just happens to be accessible without a VPN. If you’re not a Facebook user, you can’t do anything with the site. Nearly everything published by their users is private. Google doesn’t index any user-created information on Facebook. All of the significant information and, more importantly, interaction still happens in private. Maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about the web’s future moving onto an intranet.”

Steve Rubel sums that up : “Facebook gives nothing back to the broader web. A lot of stuff goes in, but nothing comes out”.

In a comment to Jeff Atwood’s “Avoiding walled gardens on the Internet”, Alex Chamberlain makes another parrallel with an historical precedent that seems lost to many among the current generation of Internet users :

“I’ve had the same uncomfortable feeling about web-based message boards. Prima facie, the walled-garden model violates the principle that information wants to be free.

Think of how Fidonet helped to open up the insular world of BBSs. Think of how Usenet was designed to be inherently inclusive (just start a news server on a Net-connected machine and all its users instantly join the “conversation”) and eternal (because decentralized). Now, Usenet is irrelevant to all but a tiny online subculture, BBSs are dead, and the traffic that those media would have borne is now happening on Web-based message boards, whose owners can edit content, forget to pay for their server space, or shut down for good at will, and whose content (more important) is essentially invisible to Google unless you know the secret password (the URL of the site’s archives). Balkanized again !”

Just as most of them are using stupid proprietary instant messaging networks instead of Jabber, they are now deliberately walling themselves in again. As Matthew says :

“Facebook is reinventing the wheel a little in an attempt to give anybody and everybody their very own web presence. Except it’s not a web presence, it’s a Facebook presence, bound by Facebook’s rules. The experience feels forced and leaves me wanting more. [..] I want to be able to find you on Google, read your weblog and browse your Flickr photos”.

But it is not just the users who drink the Facebook Kool Aid… As the RSS blog mentions, even developpers are falling for it :

Everybody is going nutty about the Facebook platform. They are writing custom widgets for Facebook. They are saying that Facebook is the greatest because it support proprietary widgets. WTF ? We already have an API for widgets, it’s called HTML. We’ve been embedding widgets in MySpace for years using HTML. Why does Facebook need a proprietary widgets API ? It’s called lock-in. A walled garden. The work you do on your Facebook widget doesn’t port to other social platforms. In this case, platform means proprietary. When the euforia fades, just how many $billions are going to get spent by 3rd parties to better the Facebook platform ? This is nuts !”

Yes, many developpers are happily coding for a closed platform. And they are definitely locked in as Richard MacManus explains in “How Open Is Facebook, Really ? :

“Facebook ultimately is a closed, proprietary system. Primarily this is because Facebook doesn’t use existing Web standards for mark-up or database language. Instead of using HTML and SQL, Facebook uses two “variants” – called FQL and FBML. The official reason for the variants is that they offer more functionality and integration within the Facebook environment – which is no doubt true, however it also of course means your apps can only run in Facebook. As Andreessen noted, the upshot is that “Facebook’s own code and functionality remains closed and proprietary.”

But Facebook now has such an influence on the mass market that it can’t be ignored and even people like me can’t resist taking a look if just to see what all the fuss is about. So here is my Facebook profile… Oops ! That’s right. The walled garden thing. Forgot about that. You have to be a member… Screw that !

So welcome to Faceprison ! Nice clean interface conveniently packaged in a proprietary walled garden from which your data shall never escape.

A little search later I find that the word “Faceprison” has been by used by Neil Dixon who last June posted feelings similar to mine in “Facebook – a very big claustrophobic bubble” :

“There is one element to Facebook that makes the alarm bells ring for me, in contrast to almost every other major social network: you have to be logged-in to do anything, anything at all. Nothing is visible or accessible to the outside. Even notification emails about messages, etc., force you to log in to view them. Everything is designed to get you inside, and keep you there.

Facebook to me feels immediately claustrophobic, a state of interweb virtual bondage where the only safeword is ‘logout’. The sterilised, razorwire-topped walls are (currently) unscalable and the locks are more sturdy than Broadmoor. But even in a physical prison you can have real visitors: in Facebook, your visitors have to join and become part of the exclusive hive themselves, trapped squirming in its peer pressure driven, shallow society.

I fear the worst for those lost souls in particular who will suffer a similar fate to those of us who took up AOL in the early days”

Users never learn and history repeats itself. Have fun poking each other to digital death ! Or go read Ethan Zuckerman’s “Web 2.0 and the web serf” and understand why friends don’t let friends sink their data into proprietary bottomless pits.

Well… I can’t conclude on such a dark note, so I’ll cite the more hopeful outlook of Jason Kottke about Facebook :

“Faced with competition from this open web, AOL lost… Running a closed service with custom content and interfaces was no match for the wild frontier of the web. Maybe if they’d done some things differently, they would have fared better, but they still would have lost. In competitive markets, open and messy trumps closed and controlled in the long run. Everything you can do on Facebook with ease is possible using a loose coalition of blogging software, IM clients, email, Twitter, Flickr, Google Reader, etc. Sure, it’s not as automatic or easy, but anyone can participate and the number of things to see and do on the web outnumbers the number of things you can see and do on Facebook by several orders of magnitude (and always will).

At some point in the future, Facebook may well open up, rendering much of this criticism irrelevant. Their privacy controls are legendarily flexible and precise…it should be easy for them to let people expose parts of the information to anyone if they wanted to. And as Matt Webb pointed out to me in an email, there’s the possibility that Facebook turn itself inside out and be the social network bit for everyone else’s web apps. In the meantime, maybe we shouldn’t be so excited about the web’s future moving onto an intranet”.

As Jonathan Kahn writes, “microformats and OpenID will kill Facebook’s business model“. Information wants to be free !