Social networking and the Geocities fallacy

When I take someone through Ning for the first time, 49 out of 50 people look up at some point and say brightly, “Oh! It’s like I can have my own Facebook!” or “my own Myspace!” or “my own Youtube!”. And I say “yes!”, smile, nod, and continue.

But every once in a while, I’ll take someone through Ning and he or she will look up at some point and say brightly, “Oh! It’s just like Geocities!” And I say nothing, fake smile, grit my teeth, and resist the urge to throw myself out of the window.

A Geocities analogy to Ning, or any modern social networking service, is so screamingly wrong that I thought time passing — and more people using social networking services — would fix the small but nagging problem automatically.

I was incorrect.

This week, the meme spread into the Wall Street Journal and into Steve Ballmer’s stump speech — two normally credible public entities, comparing Facebook to Geocities.

First, the Wall Street Journal:

[The] ur-Facebook of 1994 was called GeoCities. And both its rise and fall are a history lesson for [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg as his social-networking site… approaches its own crossroads…

Back then, entries were known as home pages, not profiles. But the basic, expressive elements of today’s Facebook and competitor MySpace, owned by News Corp., were all right there.

“It’s the same as it is today — people want to feel like they’re connected,” says Mr. Bohnett, now a 51-year-old venture capitalist…

“I knew right from the beginning that this was going to be big,” he says.

And then Mr. Ballmer:

Mr. Ballmer also noted that sites such as Geocities, an online community that was bought for $3 billion by Yahoo! in 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, “had most of what Facebook has.”

Rather than throw myself out of the window, let’s kill this silly analogy here and now.

Geocities was nothing like Facebook — or Ning — or any other modern social networking service.

Point #1: if Geocities was basically Facebook before Facebook existed, then Yahoo today would be, basically, Facebook. Social networking services inherently have network effects due to viral growth; the big tend to get bigger (unless they commit suicide); Geocities the hypothetical ur-social network would therefore today be absolutely enormous; Yahoo owns Geocities. Yahoo, some people have pointedout recently, is not Facebook.

But here’s the real point — point #2 — which I will make by presenting three lists.

The Geocities feature set from the 1990’s (complete):

     

  • Personal home pages
  •  

     

  • Image uploading
  •  

(Yes, that was it.)

The Facebook feature set in 2007 (partial):

     

  • Personal home pages
  •  

     

  • Image uploading
  •  

     

  • Friends and the social graph
  •  

     

  • Profiles with structured, indexed profile information
  •  

     

  • Status updates
  •  

     

  • Messaging
  •  

     

  • Walls
  •  

     

  • Pokes
  •  

     

  • Groups
  •  

     

  • Discussions
  •  

     

  • Search
  •  

     

  • Video uploading
  •  

     

  • Events
  •  

     

  • Marketplace
  •  

     

  • Polls
  •  

     

  • Notifications and feeds system-wide
  •  

     

  • Mobile feeds
  •  

     

  • Invitations and contact importing — creating a viral loop that causes users to propagate Facebook to their friends and colleagues
  •  

     

  • A full level two Internet platform featuring…
  •  

     

  • Plug-in API to inject third-party features/apps into Facebook
  •  

     

  • Data access API for third-party features/apps to draw on Facebook data
  •  

     

  • FQL query language
  •  

     

  • FBML markup language
  •  

     

  • SDKs in multiple programming languages
  •  

     

  • Caching for performance optimization of third-party app content
  •  

     

  • Integration with personal profile pages
  •  

     

  • Integration with notifications and feeds
  •  

     

  • Third-party app directory and popularity board
  •  

     

  • Vibrant third-party app ecosystem
  •  

     

  • A rich and ever-expanding pipeline of new developer and user features
  •  

The Ning feature set in 2007 (partial):

     

  • Personal home pages
  •  

     

  • Image uploading
  •  

     

  • Friends and social graphs
  •  

     

  • Profiles with structured, indexed profile information
  •  

     

  • Messaging
  •  

     

  • Walls
  •  

     

  • Groups
  •  

     

  • Discussions
  •  

     

  • Blogs
  •  

     

  • Search
  •  

     

  • Video uploading
  •  

     

  • Music uploading
  •  

     

  • Email and mobile content uploading of text, photos, and video
  •  

     

  • Invitations and contact importing — creating a viral loop that causes users to propagate Ning to their friends and colleagues
  •  

     

  • “Create your own social network for anything” — with over 100,000 networks created so far, and growing fast — featuring…
  •  

     

  • Privacy controls per network — make your network public, private, or anything in between
  •  

     

  • Latest activity feeds per network
  •  

     

  • “Who’s online right now” per network
  •  

     

  • Full content moderation per network
  •  

     

  • Autogenerated branded photo, video, and music widgets for embedding on third-party sites and blogs
  •  

     

  • Autogenerated branded photo, video, and music Facebook modules for embedding within Facebook
  •  

     

  • Autogenerated RSS and Atom feeds
  •  

     

  • Fully internationalized network experience that any user can translate into any language
  •  

     

  • Premium services to easily buy the right to run your own ads, your own domain name, etc.
  •  

     

  • A full level three Internet platform for network customization featuring…
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via point and click configuration
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via custom CSS, HTML, and embeds
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via source code modification of existing network modules
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via source code creation of new network modules
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via comprehensive PHP and Javascript APIs for arbitrary app development
  •  

     

  • Social network customization via a comprehensive REST web services API for arbitrary internal or external programming
  •  

     

  • Sandboxed, scalable server-side PHP script runtime environment
  •  

     

  • Scalable, semistructured, object-oriented content store with full search and indexing
  •  

     

  • Extensive suite of underlying system services for all user and system functionality exposed through REST, PHP, and Javascript APIs
  •  

     

  • Rapidly growing base of network-customizing users

     

     

  • A rich and ever-expanding pipeline of new network, developer, and user features
  •  

This stuff really matters. The heart of a social networking environment is the ability for people to connect and communicate — users love that, and Geocities didn’t have it. Plus, Facebook and Ning are both platforms that allow end users to programmatically add features without the approval or even awareness of the platform provider — users love that, and Geocities didn’t have it. Plus, Facebook and Ning both have increasingly sophisticated multimedia and mobile capabilities — users love those, and Geocities didn’t have them. In short, other than the ability to create a web page and post an image, Geocities had none of the functionality of a modern, sophisticated social networking service like Facebook or Ning.

Now, I assume that the Wall Street Journal reporter in question is smarter than his story. Or perhaps his story was really that if you call up the founder of Geocities in 2007 and ask him if he invented social networking in 1994, the answer is yes — although I assume Mr. Bohnett was simply quoted out of context. (By the way, I also invented social networking — one year earlier, in 1993! Mosaic let you have a personal home page and display images… QED.)

Mr. Ballmer, on the other hand, may be spinning. Why would I suggest that? First, he is currently negotiating to acquire a major stake in Facebook at a very high valuation, and may be trying to talk the price down — I’m just speculating. Second, hours after Mr. Ballmer’s statement in the UK, Microsoft announced, guess what:

…a MySpace-style social-networking site [for music]…

The defense rests.