In 1992 America Online (AOL) went public. In 1993 they started mailing compact discs to households to attract new members and get them online. In 1995 they reached 1 million members. A year later that number surpassed 5 million. For the next decade, AOL would become a household name and one of the primary access to the online world. Chills.
What made AOL so spectacular and revolutionary was that it allowed its members to complete any task virtually without having to get off their chairs and leave their homes. Need to buy flowers for mother’s birthday? AOLs got you covered. Need to book plane tickets for your next trip? AOLs got you covered. Need to take your kids to the library to research dinosaurs? I think you see where I am going with this. But don’t take my word for it, check out AOL’s awesome 1995 commercial:
Connecting to the internet through AOL was not without its drawbacks, however. First off, it would require access to and use your phone line which meant households could not make nor receive phone calls. The process of connecting to the internet projected a loud banshee-like shriek that made you cringe, formed goosebumps over your body, and sends shivers down your spine. Also, every so often you would be “kicked off” the internet due to an incoming call. And to top it all off, the company required its members to pay to go online and buy access in hourly increments. But just the sheer endless possibilities the internet provided made all those minor inconveniences well worth it.
But what exactly was AOL? For the longest time, some people believed AOL itself was the internet. It had “online” in its name and people used AOL all the time, so it made sense. But I believe my mentor, Derek Wood, explained the reasoning behind it best in one of our class lectures:
“AOL coupled their service with a robust ‘home page’ experience that felt so all-inclusive, that many people thought AOL was the internet. It had everything they needed – and many people paid for AOL long after they stopped using the internet service part. They just felt so used to it. But – in many ways – it was basically just a web page.”
It really was just a ‘web page’ that acted as a portal to everything the members may want and need. Whether it was completing those aforementioned tasks, searching for today’s news, connecting with other online members, finding out local showtimes, or reading the hottest sports news and celebrity gossips, all of that could be accomplished with a simple click via the AOL portal.
It was pretty ingenious the way this was done. I admit, as a kid using AOL in the early and mid-2000s, I also believed AOL and the internet were one and the same and often used them interchangeably. Over the course of 2006 to today, I was able to differentiate the two, although I am unsure when and how I was able to learn the difference. Our lesson today on AOL made me think about my personal use and relationship with the service and just how amazing it truly was. I do believe it helped shape the way many search engines and websites are created and utilized today and has a rightful place in the technology history books.