Is Facebook the new Hotmail?

Remember when you first signed up to Hotmail? Wasn’t it exciting, being able to send email, and get email, and send more email? Emma and I fell in love, in no small measure, through the medium of Hotmail. We’ve kept the messages to this day.

Originally launched as ‘HoTMaiL’ exactly fifteen years ago today, it was acquired by Microsoft little over a year later for a reported $400 million having already accumulated over 8.5 million users.

It went on to surpass 30 million users in just 30 months, driven in part by one of the first examples of ‘viral’ marketing – a short message appearing at the end of every email sent that simply read “Get your private, free email at http://www.hotmail.com”.

Seen in the context of how much less widespread Internet access was at the time, Hotmail’s growth stands up as the same kind of cultural phenomenon we’ve become accustomed to in the past few years with the rise of social media.

Hotmail’s imperious rise, putting it on a par with the other major webmail provider, Yahoo! Mail, was such that for several years it was hard to imagine anybody keeping pace, let alone successfully playing catch-up.

And yet, for Emma and I, those first emails are pretty much the only reason either of us would log into our Hotmail accounts today. To revisit those first innocent exchanges back when our love, like the Internet, was still new, and young, and waiting to be discovered.

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It was Gmail that changed things. Launched by Google in 2004, this signalled their entry into the webmail space. It’s difficult to remember now exactly why Gmail was so much better than Hotmail. It just was.

First up, they took on spam. Which isn’t to say they got rid of it, they just found a way to deal with it so that you wouldn’t have to. This came around the time millions of Hotmail users were coming to terms with the fact that signing up to all those mailing lists, well, it might have been a mistake.

More broadly, the Gmail ethos was anchored in the simplest of conceits – search don’t sort. Speaking to the single greatest strength of the Google brand as it was then, here was their explicit permission – encouragement even – not to tidy up after ourselves.

Sure, they were creating a platform and audience for their commercial products, but even their advertising bucked the trend, being less garish and condescending than your average common or garden banner ad.

On top of all of which, Gmail’s invite-only mechanic was visionary, making the service deeply aspirational at a time when Hotmail was stagnating, robbed of whatever novelty it might have once had to offer.

I guess that was Gmail’s magic formula, as far as I was concerned anyway: get rid of the clutter; save time and legwork; treat us like customers, even if – as Rushkoff points out – we’re actually the product.

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Now take a look at Facebook. Facebook spam – those posts that pop up in your feed promising some titillating treat carefully conceived to appeal to each of our lesser angels – is a particularly hardy variety.

Even when you report it as spam half a dozen times its still seems to come back, like some nasty weed that leaves its root in the ground no matter how many times you yank the head off.

Then there’s the quasi-spam, the stuff you opted in for but that’s built up over time, and now threatens to overwhelm you. Think ‘Pages’. Think ‘Apps’. Think ‘Groups’. Think ‘Friends’.

Not all of them mind. Just the people you ‘friended’ without stopping to ask the question, with whom you’re now trapped in a clumsy binary, tethered together by guilt, curiosity and common courtesy all intertwined.

Finally, ask yourself how Facebook makes you feel. Do you feel like the customer, when you read that facial recognition software is now picking you out in other people’s photographs, without you even being consulted on the matter?

Wouldn’t you rather they were contributing to the debate about the more sinister applications of such technology, showing a little cognisance of the fact that a global social network also has the potential to be used as a global surveillance network.

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Nowadays Hotmail is like a garden I neglected over a dozen winters, such that I feel a twinge of fear at the mere thought of venturing back into it. The good news is that moving home’s much easier on the web, playing to our nomadic instincts, giving us room to breathe. We can leave a Hotmail behind, let it be reclaimed by nature, as we move on to pastures new. The same is equally true of Facebook.

Of course, there will be some who are slow to follow, others who settle down. As of August 2009 ComScore was reporting that Windows Live Hotmail was still winning the webmail wars, with 364 million users, with Yahoo second (280 million) and Gmail third (191 million).

That’s only part of the story though, and likely less than half. Gmail has the greatest traction in precisely the same markets where Facebook was recently reported to be faltering – markets where the platform is mature, and users may finally be ready to shop around.

Ready to look for something, well, better?

  • Emma

    But do you remember the ridiculous password you gave me when you first set up my email account? (Don’t write it here as, 13 years on, I have still not changed it to something more sensible.)

  • jan light

    Knowing Dan either extremely funny or very rude, or both….