Two media brands that I hadn’t thought of in a long time reappeared in the news recently.
One of them popped up when Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the brothers accused of the Boston Marathon bombing, did an impromptu press conference on his lawn in Montgomery Village, Maryland, last Friday. At one point, he was asked how he heard about his nephews being involved and when he first saw their pictures. He replied:
I saw them only this morning when I was contacted by reporters. When they said, “Have you seen the pictures?” my wife opened the internet and on AOL I saw a picture of Dzhokhar.
My immediate reaction was surprise. AOL is still in business? And there are people who use AOL as the homepage on their browser, so it’s the first thing they see when they “open the internet”?
I was an early adapter of AOL, back in the days when users had to tie up a home phone line to dial in to a local access number, wait 30 seconds for my modem and theirs to complete a noisy digital handshake, and hope to hear “You’ve Got Mail.” It had lots of forums, was the first place I discovered the Gardner brothers behind The Motley Fool, and had full-color graphics. It was slow compared to today’s high-speed connections (think of a Model T on the Autobahn), but it was a source of lots of information and the first online community most people shared. Companies fell over each other in their efforts to establish AOL pages to connect with the public, much as they do now with Facebook and other social media. But at the time, AOL was pretty much the only game in town. CompuServe, which I’d been using since 1986 as a text-only service to access its forums, couldn’t compete with AOL’s graphics and news sources — nor could Earthlink, Prodigy, or other competitors.
I thought AOL, with its monthly fees and constant mailings of floppy disks to entice you to subscribe had faded from public view like those other companies. Particularly after its disastrous corporate merger with Time Warner, which was supposed to create a model of cross-platform synergy, combining content from Time’s print empire and Warner’s movie and music empire with AOL’s online reach. All it succeeded in doing was destroying the value of the stock without giving the content providers the marketing monster they craved.
Whenever I search my contacts list for someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time, and I see that the last e-mail address I had for them ends with “@aol.com,” I assume it’s outdated — surely, by now, that person has migrated to something more current, like Gmail or an address ending with their current ISP’s domain. But there are still three or four who maintain an e-address with that now-free suffix, part of a group that apparently includes a family of Chechen immigrants in Maryland.
Tomorrow: the other media brand that recently reappeared on my desktop.
Updated 11:58pm…According to a Business Insider story earlier this year, AOL is still making a lot of money off people who pay for access to the service every month — via slow dial-up connections — even those who have internet service from another provider. Hey, 1995 called and it wants its 3,000-baud modem back!