Bye bye AOL community

Somewhere around 4 years ago, the team that I worked on at AOL, AOL Search, got new management, new management that I did not much care for.  So I looked around AOL and gave some serious thought about what I wanted to work on next.

AOL was in trouble – that much was obvious to any observer.  The Time Warner merger had been a terrible mistake for both companies.  Broadband was eating AOL’s core business, and none of the strategies to address it had worked out.  AOL badly needed some area where it could shine.  And while there were lots of areas that I could have worked, I wanted to be part of AOL’s renaissance – to be in an area that could make a difference for the company.  In my mind, the answer was community.

AOL had practically invented online community for the masses.  It was a leader in that area, and years before there was a MySpace or Facebook, AOL community products like Message Boards, Hometown, Member Directory, and Chat was the way for non-geeks to communicate online.

But in the wake of the Time Warner merger, when synergy was going to save the company, AOL had lost its way.  AOL had stopped paying much attention to those community products.  And so, just when new online community giants like MySpace and Facebook were becoming the darlings of the web, AOL’s community products were looking a little rundown.

But I had worked on the search pieces of several of those community products, and I thought that AOL could still be a player n those areas.  If anything could save AOL, I reasoned, it would be community.  And so I transferred into the community development team.

Alas, it looks like nothing could save AOL.  Anyway, community couldn’t do it, not the way that AOL did community.  Building a giant one-size-fits-all community product failed.  (That would be AIM Pages, which was to be a huge MySpace-style state-of-the-art profile system, on which I was overall architect.)  Because AOL had to have a huge instant hit, and community products don’t work like that.  It takes a long time and a lot of hard work to be an overnight success in the community business – you have to let the systems evolve in ways that users want.  And AOL just did not have the patience.

Meanwhile, AOL let all those good old community products wither further.

After it became obvious that AIM Pages was not going to save the company, AOL tried something new.  Kevin Lawver came up with the idea for Ficlets, and he persuaded management to let him build it as a model of a new kind of community.  Build lots of small, cool, community products, communities-in-a-box.  Go after that long tail.  Instead of building one gigantic community product, build lots and lots of little ones on top of a shared infrastructure.

But it was not to be.  Again, AOL did not have the patience to nurture something small and wonderful.  If it couldn’t bring in millions of pageviews on day one, AOL wasn’t interested.

AOL’s just announced that they are shutting down Ficlets.  This comes about a month after they shut down Hometown, AOL Pictures, and Journals.  AOL is, basically, dropping out of the community business.  They still have some products, the result of acquisitions like Bebo, but the old AOL community products, the ones that were the pioneers in online community, and the new AOL products, the ones that could have led the way to an AOL renaissance, are all being killed.

And that’s just too bad.

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One Response to Bye bye AOL community

  1. cindyli says:

    Sniff… sniff 🙁

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