Remember AOL? And the plethora of free AOL CDs that filled your mailbox, were inserted into your favorite magazines and maybe even offered at the dry cleaner and the auto parts store? I think Facebook is on its way to becoming the next AOL. Just without CDs.

Chris Hall published an interesting post titled Is Facebook Today’s Internet? Chris contends that Facebook today is similar to the Internet itself circa the 1990s: Everyone’s clamoring to get on. Chris goes on to say, quite rightly, “There is no real customization of Facebook Fan Pages and they all basically do the same thing.”

Similarly, I wrote a piece on Facebook Fan Pages in which I advised people to think of them as company Web pages residing within Facebook. It’s good to be inside Facebook because you have access to its 300 million users and a host of ways for those users to share your content and interact with your page. It’s not so good because, as Chris points out, among other things, options for customization are almost nil. (One expensive option is through custom-built apps but these are beyond the reach of many small companies.)

Add this to the list of ways Facebook is sounding a little like the AOL of yore:

  • Astounding growth in user base with dominant market share
  • Walled garden. (You don’t use apps, you use Facebook apps.)
  • Partially closed operating system. (You can connect with external apps, but only through the Facebook API or Facebook Connect.)
  • Consumers discontent with policies
  • Minimal user customization

AOL, at its peak, had the largest user base of any ISP (Internet Service Provider). Like Facebook, it was the biggest “network” of its day, so users were held captive. Consumers hated Facebook’s Beacon program and changes it made to its Terms of Service. Back in the day, AOL users hated hackers and trolls that wandered the network, and hated even more the difficulty faced when trying to cancel an AOL subscription.

Since AOL had a near monopoly on Internet access, the company didn’t need to worry too much about compatibility. If your favorite application didn’t work with AOL, too bad. It’s the same with Facebook.

Granted, the Facebook Connect and Facebook Apps environments are much more transparent and easier to develop for than was AOL. And we’re talking about two different worlds. But it’s hard not to see that Facebook has become an intellectual property island. Part of its success is due to the limitations placed on users. Graphically, Facebook has a consistent look-and-feel since it has locked up its page layout and design, unlike its ailing former competitor MySpace.

But therein lies the problem. Facebook is too sanitized, too homogeneous. The attributes that made it a success may eventually contribute to its undoing. It may some day be seen not as a social network, but some kind of Orwellian proto-social network.