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The Digital Skeptic: Facebook Isn't Much More Exciting Than Email

Tickers in this article: FB GOOG

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If investors are getting that deja vu sort of feeling from Web 2.0 giant Facebook (FB) , it's because the second-generation Web is turning out to be just like the first. Just glance down at any computer, tablet or smartphone with an "email" icon on it and right there, before your eyes, will be perfectly apt model for the past, present and future business potential of Facebook.

Think about it. Technically speaking, both technologies are about the same. They deployed in roughly the same way. Instead of the decades of slowly emerging Internet Web standards, sharing protocols and server technology that enabled Mark Zuckerberg to share faces and friends on Facebook, email started as private, text-based communication tool like, say, FidoNet and CECNet, then evolved into modern, commercial email systems in the early 1990s.

Similar to how Ivy Leaguers tried to look cool by using early versions of Facebook at the turn of millennium, tech hipsters back in the Age of Prince vied to be equally chic by sending email.

I had a great laugh several weeks back when I was chatting with Sree Sreenivasan, the chief digital officer at Columbia University. We remembered how we seriously considered spending $50 of our own money back in the day to junk our business cards and get new ones with email address printed prominently on the front so we wouldn't look like dorks.

And, just as with Facebook, email quickly caught the attention of financiers slinging the next hot tech play to investors. Back in the late 1990s, the now-and-forever goddess of geeks, Mary Meeker, hyped the near-magical transformational business potential of email.

"E-mail is the 'killer application' of the internet today," Meeker and Chris DePuy wrote in their famous Internet Report back in 1996 . In fact, the two -- then at Morgan Stanley (MS) -- were so passionate about the wonders of electronic mail that these were the few portions in the report that were set in bold.

Like Facebook, email created a Hollywood hit: 1998's You've Got Mail , starring a spry Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It earned a respectable $250 million worldwide, according to, which is actually more than the $224 million fetched by The Social Network , David Fincher's brooding take on Facebook's launch.

Keep in mind that the market rollout of Facebook and email are far too similar to be accidental. Facebook and email both hit a billion users roughly a half-decade after initial commercial deployment. And Facebook is on track to follow email in terms of global penetration. The Radicati Group , the Palo Alto, Calif.-based research group that studies mass messaging, including email, estimates that there will be 4.3 billion email users by the end of 2016.