Update July 2014:
This post was part of a research project into social media and online communication that I undertook in 2008 and was originally published on my own personal blog Ffynnonweb which continues to undertake a journey across the changing online landscape, observing and chronicling developments in social technology and noting how they impact upon online communities – with a particular focus on opportunities in education known as ‘technology enhanced learning’ (TEL).
A full list of all the posts in the original social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA
Our online journey moves on to the Web…
Microsoft launched its own Microsoft Network (MSN) in 1995 offering ISP and online services to complement the Windows 95 Operating System. The service was included with the operating system and was originally conceived as a dial-up online content provider similar to AOL offering product support, basic email, MSNBC news, chat rooms and newsgroups. The Internet Explorer Web browser offering open access to the Internet was available initially as a download and was later included in the Windows 95 Plus! Package. In 1996, the MSN 2.0 package was released, providing Internet access plus web-based proprietary content which used interactive multi-media applications such as Visual Basic Scripting, embryonic Macromedia Shockwave Flash for animations and MSN Shows which were presented in a TV- like format and it could be argued that they were the forerunner of YouTube videos.
This highly innovative multi-media content proved to be very much ahead of its time however, purely because it was not easily accessible to users on slower dial-up connections (which constituted the majority of subscribers at that time) and therefore slow speeds and unreliable software generated a large volume of complaints and general user dissatisfaction with MSN and Microsoft. By 1998, all these rich features had been abandoned and the now-familiar Internet Explorer interface was being used instead.
In 1998-99, MSN began to develop online services for other users of the Internet (previously it had confined online content and services to subscribers to the MSN Internet Access Service – in other words – those people who used MSN as their ISP). Hotmail and MSN Messenger provided webmail and instant messenging services to all. MSN.com became a web portal offering proprietary Search, News, Webmail, Messenging and the new ‘People and Chat’ section all under one easily accessible roof. In fact, new installations of Windows Operating Systems have the home page of the integrated Internet Explorer browser set to MSN.com by default, ensuring that the user’s first experience of the Internet is provide by Microsoft itself.
Whilst one could argue that this does not offer the user much choice initially, it did have the advantage from a social perspective that MSN Communities and MSN Chat were not difficult for the novice web surfer to find, thus enabling them to quickly meet and interact with other Internet users, perhaps for the very first time.
MSN Communities offered message boards, chat rooms, document storage, photo albums and customisable html pages to anyone who obtained a free Hotmail or MSN email address and signed up. All this was available in your web browser (typically Internet Explorer that was integrated into your operating system) without the need to install or configure any other software. This very simplicity was its USP (unique selling point) and millions of users around the globe created and joined communities and began talking to and learning from one another.
Indeed my own first experience of the social web was through MSN Communities and a great deal of informal learning took place within a specific Community of Practice over a six month period, during which seasoned computer users patiently took the time to impart the basics of the web and computing to an eager but unskilled novice. This proved to be so successful that it initiated a keen interest in web development, graphics and the internet and thus began the ongoing quest for knowledge of the web and all its facets that has led to this research study.
I therefore owe a debt of gratitude to the members and owners of this specific community. Communities have now been renamed MSN Groups but this particular Community of Practice continues to teach and guide Internet and computer ‘newbies’ at the time of writing, nine years after its initial creation and is still visited by me from time to time to catch up with old friends.
In fact, one could almost argue that this community is now a victim of its own success; members become so comfortable in the knowledgeable, but friendly atmosphere that they do not wish to leave and are most reluctant to move on to newer technologies. The technical facilities offered by these communities are now somewhat out-dated and limited in their scope.
When some of the more adventurous members do begin to feel it is time to move on and sample some of the other delights that the web has to offer – in the early days it was individual web sites and forums, obtaining web hosting and domain names which afforded the putative webmasters considerably more freedom than MSN was able or willing to provide – there is a feeling of fear and loneliness mixed in with the excitement of the new challenge, because such pioneers know that they will be striking out on their own and leaving behind their friends and their comfort zone.
Very few other members are willing to join the pioneer in the new venture because, as will be discussed in more depth in forthcoming articles, change can be exciting but it can also be rather daunting and frightening. People tend to prefer the tried and trusted methods of ‘doing things’ and will only accept change if there is no viable alternative or if they can be persuaded that they will be ‘better off’ in some appreciable and measurable way after the change has taken place.
Microsoft themselves know this only too well, because there is always a great deal of resistance to accepting a new operating system for example and it is sometimes only when technical support for the old product is finally withdrawn that the remaining recalcitrant users are forced to upgrade, however unwillingly.
MSN have been rolling out their new Windows Live suite of applications for the Web 2.0 era, which currently comprise Windows Mail, Messenger, Hotmail, Photo Gallery and Windows Live Spaces.
These Spaces provide users with a blog and a photo gallery and were intended to replace the old Communities and provide competition for newer rivals such as Myspace, Blogger and others – which will be discussed in Part 3.
However, Windows Live Spaces have not been without their critics and the further integration within the Windows Live family is designed to offer a more modern complete experience for the user, with planned future developments of Events, Calendar and Windows Live Groups – which will be an add-on to Windows Live Spaces rather than a separate entity like the current MSN Groups.
It is expected that this will then allow MSN to close Groups completely and move their users across to the Windows Live Suite. Groups are already being allowed to ‘wither on the vine’ so to speak, with the closure of MSN and Groups Chat and the lack of advertising of groups on the main MSN pages. They are now quite difficult to locate by chance and users need to know where to look or have the pages bookmarked to obtain entry to the groups section of MSN. By contrast, Windows Live products are prominently advertised on MSN portals.
Yahoo! began life at the same time as MSN in 1995, originally as an internet search engine and has diversified into many areas of internet service provision over the years through a policy of acquisition of smaller companies and incorporating their products into their portfolio. These included web portals, webmail, messenger and egroups which evolved into Yahoo Groups. Yahoo Groups differed from MSN Groups in that they were more of an email mailing list with a limited web interface.
As with all of the larger Web 1.0 content providers, Yahoo! is currently attempting to provide Web 2.0 content for its users and has already added Flickr (image sharing and storage) MyBlogLog (blog tracking and analytics) and Del.icio.us (social bookmarking) to its list of acquisitions.
Yahoo! has also recently announced plans to open up the social network that is
Yahoo! (their terminology). They call it the Yahoo! Open Strategy: Y!OS. The intention is not to create a new Online Social Network but to turn the massive Yahoo! network into a social one. All this comes at a time when Microsoft have recently withdrawn their takeover bid for Yahoo and the company is looking for new directions. At one point, a merger with Google was mentioned but anti-trust regulations make this perhaps unlikely. The Yahoo blog is a good source of information on the company’s latest thoughts.
Speaking of Google, this is a company which has been going from strength to strength since its own early beginnings (also as a search engine) in 1998. The concept of ‘Page Ranking’ however, differentiated Google from all the other search engines that were around at the time and has allowed it to grow into the most used search engine on the web. In fact, the verb to ‘google’ – meaning to conduct an Internet search – officially entered the Oxford English dictionary in 2006.
Although Google Search is the most successful service, Google also provides Gmail ( a web and pop based email service with virtually unlimited storage), and Google Groups (which incidentally now houses a large Usenet posting archive going back to 1981) among many other services.
Google Groups are more like Yahoo Groups than MSN Communities in nature, bearing more of a resemblance to email newsgroups than web-based forums.
Google’s philosophy has always been that its services are freely available to the general public and these are funded through business users paying for advertising within search listings or paid placements in the rankings. The majority of its revenue stream is through advertising – $10 billion in total advertising revenues reported for 2006.
Yahoo, Google and Myspace have recently announced the creation of a new non-profit OpenSocial Foundation which will allow third party applications to be created that may be integrated into the emerging social networks that characterise Web 2.0 and will be discussed later in the series.
The press release announcing the OpenSocial Foundation described it in this way:
“OpenSocial addresses an emerging problem for developers who are eagerly building applications people can enjoy with their friends: before OpenSocial, if a developer built a “favourite photos” application to work on one social network, it would have to be built all over again to work on another site. OpenSocial tackles this problem at its technology roots, providing common “plumbing” that lets social applications run on many different websites without requiring duplicate work from either developers or the websites. The result is a vast distribution platform for social applications, whether they are for sharing photos or playing games or arranging real-world meetings or any number of other activities – everything is more fun, interesting, and useful when users can involve their friends and contacts”
Read the next article in the series:
Web 2.0 Inception
Update July 2014: A full list of all the posts in the original social media research project can now be found on this page Social Media Research: JA