An Important Lesson for 14-Year-Old Mark Zuckerberg

AOL Paid Big Bucks for a Messaging Service in 1998 Because It Had High Engagement and Young Users. Sound Familiar?

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Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg Credit: Guillaume Paumier

Over the weekend I noticed a link to a nearly 16-year-old New York Times article appearing over and over in my Twitter feed. The piece, written by Saul Hansell and published June 9, 1998, is titled "America Online to Buy Internet Chat Service for $287 Million." In fact, the piece gained so much Twitter momentum that it turned up in the top 10 on The Latest, "an automatic list of the latest and greatest links from Twitter," by Saturday afternoon. (Background on The Latest here, courtesy of my colleagues at Creativity). Then I found a whole discussion about it on Hacker News, with more than 100 comments, also on Saturday.

Hansell reported back in 1998 that ICQ, the instant-messaging service that AOL had just bought, was an attractive acquisition target "because it appeals to a much younger and more technologically sophisticated audience than the mainstream America Online brand." And also because of high engagement: "ICQ users spend an average of 75 minutes a day on the service, compared with fewer than 10 minutes a day for highly touted search and directory services such as Yahoo and Lycos," Hansell paraphrased AOL's then-president Robert Pittman as saying.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. Fast-forward 16 years to Facebook's deal to buy WhatsApp, for similar reasons. (I did the math: Facebook founder-CEO Mark Zuckerberg was 14 years old when AOL bought ICQ. Was he paying attention at the time?)

The resurfaced Times story, now circulating as a comment on Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp, may end up being retro-prescient. After all, Hansell wrote, "There is some skepticism that chat services, no matter how popular, will turn into big money makers."

Anyway, bookmark this post; I'll update it in 2030 once we see how everything turns out.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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