Rick Knight asks, “Is history repeating itself?”

A long time Internet user feels a sense of deja vu.

Rick Knight is a graphic designer with decades of experience in social media. He’s also joined Peer’s early adopter program.

Even before the “InterNet” (remember the camel case, or intercap, formatting of “internet”?), I was dialing into a Macintosh-centric BBS in Baltimore or pointing my screeching modem toward The WELL (where I once chatted with Billy Idol about music and cyberpunk). I was a UseNet and CompuServe user. I had a GENie account, participating in the Macintosh forum, then moved on to explore Delphi for a bit–which, after 36 years, still exists as Delphi Forums…amazing! There was ICQ. There was a time when technologies like Listserv and IRC were invaluable. There was the cartoonish Prodigy. And, then, the soon-to-be-dreaded AOL.

Yes, Google, Amazon, Facebook…all are abusing users and user data. But we’ve seen it all before.

We must be wary of Amazon and Google as well. While their leveraging of user data may not be as overt, it is very real, and perhaps even more profound. Maybe they just haven’t been as thoroughly exposed, caught in the same kind of trap. All that said, it was AOL…AOL was Facebook first. AOL didn’t fail to dominate the online landscape for decades because they weren’t willing to exploit users and user data…they failed because the company’s leadership lacked vision.

AOL and their illusion of safety, selling dial-up access directly to their version of the internet, restricting access to the “real” internet, as they feared open access to the web. And all those disks. They were–the disks and AOL itself–ubiquitous. AOL’s success established a purely profit-centered approach to what would become social media. Prior to that, online services seemed more community driven, and grew more organically. Yes, the folks who established these systems wanted to make money, but that wasn’t their raison d’être.

Like self-serve gasoline heralded the death of customer service, AOL represented a sea change, altering the future evolution of social media. The signs of social media’s eventual pitfalls were on display by the time–perhaps before–the term “social media” was popularized. And, let’s not forget that AOL established customer-hostile business practices later used by companies like Comcast.

In 2005, a significant part of AOL’s business plan was to steal from customers. When users contacted AOL to cancel a subscription, customer service representatives would first employ a variety of “retention” tactics. Failing that, they would inform the customer that the service was canceled but would continue charging the customer’s credit card. New York’s then-Attorney General, Elliot Spitzer, finally put a stop to it.

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), featuring the then-innovative “buddy list” feature, was WhatsApp…but in 1997. AOL plus AIM would have created the sort of market dominance Facebook enjoys today. Unfortunately for AOL, their leadership siloed and starved AIM. AOL was a subscription platform. AIM was free. They hated AIM. Over time, AIM added pre-Skype voice chat, a file transfer feature, stock and news tickers…and…chat with a mobile phone?! How could the leadership at AOL leave all this on the table? Bizarre.

AOL stumbled–at least in part–because they thought they were an ISP for far too long.

AOL often made changes for no good reason…from a user’s perspective, anyway. AOL frustrated users by repeatedly and arbitrarily altering the user profile feature until they eliminated it altogether.

AOL software intentionally caused significant difficulties for users attempting to use third-party Internet service providers.

AOL software was once under investigation for installing software without disclosure and modifying browser preferences, toolbars, and icons.

In 2006, AOL released a file on one of its websites containing 20 million search keywords for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period between March 1, 2006, and May 31, intended for “research purposes.”

An AOL employee was convicted of stealing America Online’s 92 million screen names and selling them to a known spammer.

AOL was exposed to have participated in the NSA’s massive electronic surveillance program, PRISM.

This feels pretty familiar, yes? How did we not see this as a harbinger of a coming social media dystopia? I don’t know.

I remember predicting, some years ago, a return to–if not a walled garden–a user- or self-imposed gated community. A curated internet. It’s not without socio-political precedent, is it? People exchange freedoms for some perceived security, convenience, or comfort.

History repeating itself? Information like this leads me to wonder: do users need to be protected from themselves? Will users always make the wrong decision? What is the answer? Connected blogs? A peer-to-peer Tumblr-ish platform? Some sort of bolted-on WordPress connectivity? Or have we already seen the answer? Was it…AIM after all?

I don’t have the answers. But I have the questions. And I’m considering them. That’s a start. Right?