America Online: A Cautionary Tale

America Online: A Cautionary Tale

On the rise and fall of the quintessential ’90s online service provider—and a warning about today’s social-media giants.


Brandee Barker was having a great time in the back of an Uber as her driver entertained her. It was November 2016, and the former Facebook executive and Lean In flack had just arrived in Ohio to canvass for Hillary Clinton.

“Welcome. You’ve got mail,” the driver said with spirited enunciation and a smooth, familiar cadence.

“No way! Do it again!” Barker cried from the back seat. She captured this exchange and posted it to Twitter, where the video—tagged “#GOTVforHRC”—was widely shared, receiving over 1 million views.

The Uber driver turned out to be none other than Elwood Edwards, the voice actor behind the second-best-remembered sound of America Online in the 1990s (after the crackling modem squeal that announced a user’s passage from the log-in screen). In recent years, Edwards has been indulging the nostalgia many feel for what was once the nation’s largest online service, reciting these lines on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and in the 2018 documentary series That’s So ’90s. When Cleveland magazine caught up with him in 2009, Edwards was working as a news graphics and video editor for WKYC, a local television station. Later, Inside Edition followed up on Barker’s tweet and profiled him. Edwards was paid only $200 for the AOL recordings, he recalled. “Everywhere I go, people say, ‘Do you get residuals? Did you make a lot of money from it?’ And the question is always answered with ‘No.’” His wife at the time was working for AOL, which is how he learned about the opportunity. Edwards recorded all the now-iconic phrases, including such bangers as “File’s done” and “Goodbye,” on a cassette recorder in their living room.

Compressed into that single encounter between Edwards and Brandee Barker is a short history of the mainstream Internet: an old mascot of the 1990s online service, now an à la carte servant through gig-economy apps, chauffeuring a millionairess from the Web 2.0 empire. In many respects, AOL was the Facebook of its day. Another walled garden of proprietary community features, AOL had message boards that functioned like Facebook groups. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) directly inspired Facebook’s Messenger, and Meta now owns the patent AOL filed for its Buddy List graphic of online contacts. AOL, like Facebook, brought a mass audience to the Internet. But that’s where the comparison ends. While AOL positioned itself as complementary to noncommercial Internet applications, Facebook aims to subjugate the Web as another facet of its vast empire.

America Online debuted in 1991, the same year that the World Wide Web opened to the public. With revenue from advertising and subscriber fees, AOL had a market cap that soared past $150 billion at its peak in 2000. Meanwhile, the World Wide Web, invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, then a researcher at CERN, was and is noncommercial and decentralized: Anyone with an Internet connection and a Web browser can visit a website. Its protocols and standards are maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which has been hosted by a consortia of universities since its founding in 1994. Together, these two Internet developments offered a taste of the social media we know today. The Web made it easy to create and share text and graphics; AOL familiarized users en masse with the Internet experience, which had earlier been an esoteric pastime. The World Wide Web populated the Internet with content, while AOL populated it with users.

After hearing Edwards’s greeting, an AOL user in the ’90s would arrive at the main menu, which listed topics to explore, such as sports and entertainment, via blocky hyperlink buttons. Inside were “channels” exclusive to AOL subscribers, made in partnership with cable networks, magazine publishers, and organizations like the AARP. These channels included message boards, chat rooms, and articles. Some offerings revealed the diversity of the AOL subscriber base, including the Gay & Lesbian Forum, the DisABILITIES forum, and NetNoir (“Your Home for Black Interactive Culture & Entertainment”). Other channels appealed to cyclists and Star Trek fans. Many of the defining early interactions on AOL happened on the Romance channel, with online personals and the “Love@AOL” cybersex chat rooms. “AOL is about pop culture, not pocket protectors,” Wired magazine declared in a 1995 feature. By 1996, there were 7 million subscribers.

“Hook up to a world of fun and excitement! It’s free! It’s easy! It’s fun!” read the copy on the 3.5-inch floppy disks that AOL mailed out to prospective customers beginning in 1993. Although the software was preinstalled in many personal computers, the company poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into direct mail campaigns and distribution. Suddenly the disks were everywhere: stuffed in cereal boxes, displayed in supermarkets and Blockbusters. They were an ever-present reminder of the Internet to those who had yet to experience it. AOL offered fun and entertainment, rather than work and careerism. It sold the Internet as a leisurely pursuit, a place to make friends, unlike Facebook and other social media platforms that leverage existing contacts. Users were making friends with strangers in the ether, in frenetic chat rooms and message boards using anonymized screen names. Some even ventured beyond these channels, to the section of AOL called “Internet Connection” with a hyperlink to the World Wide Web.

At the time, online services ranging from AOL to competitors like Prodigy, local bulletin board systems, and other networks were beginning to coalesce around common Internet applications. AOL regarded its proprietary software as a filter to the broader Internet: The World Wide Web was a chaotic wilderness; AOL, however, was user-friendly and marketed to families. It even capitalized on the Web, setting up “netmail” on its own dot-com address, allowing subscribers to check their e-mail at work or while traveling—a convenience at a time when computers were largely stationary.

AOL seemed to have another advantage over the rest of the Internet: It employed hosts and conversation facilitators in its chat rooms and message boards to keep the communities active and engaging. In exchange for their work, the volunteer moderators were compensated with free AOL subscriptions. This arrangement was more favorable when monthly bills for AOL service could be upwards of $100, but after AOL changed its price to an unlimited flat rate of $19.95 a month in 1996, the moderators protested. Some of the 13,000 volunteer “community leaders” founded a webzine called Observers to organize, vent on service changes, and discuss culture relevant to AOL, including a review of You’ve Got Mail. (“Anyone going to the film for its portrayal of life online will be disappointed,” said the critic.) In 1999, former moderators sued the company for back pay, a case that AOL ultimately settled in 2009.

Observers was posted to the World Wide Web. The fact that I can read it now, unchanged from its original presentation three decades ago, is because this content was captured by the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. In contrast, virtually none of AOL’s proprietary content from the ’90s is accessible today. That’s the consequence of a closed model. As the Web grew—from 23,500 websites in 1995 to over 2 million by 1998—the inadequacy of AOL’s offerings became clear.

America Online’s merger with Time Warner in January of 2000 came at the height of the dot-com bubble, and even this juggernaut of a media empire wasn’t immune to the epidemic of collapsing Internet start-ups several months later. In a series of investigations in 2002, Washington Post reporter Alec Klein revealed how embedded AOL was in the dot-com crash. Many AOL advertisers with long-term contracts were start-ups that went bust: An online furniture business, an online sporting goods retailer, and other newly defunct dot-coms owed the company millions. AOL Time Warner covered up these losses to protect its stock price. In 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission charged the corporation with fraud for inflating its online advertising revenue in a complex set of schemes that Klein’s reporting uncovered.

The collapse of online advertising was not the only factor in AOL’s decline. The merger with Time Warner is now taught in business schools as a case study in failed acquisition. The two companies formally split in 2009; AOL was later acquired by Verizon and is now a subsidiary of Yahoo. As it changed hands, the online service spiraled into obsolescence. By 2004, 39 percent of Internet users in America had broadband at home, according to the Pew Research Center. AOL had failed to branch into high-speed Internet, and to this day it delivers only dial-up service (to a reported “thousands” of customers). The chat rooms and forums inside AOL’s enclosure withered after the volunteer moderators exited. AOL’s media partners also moved on. Playbill closed its AOL channel in 1997, citing the difficulty of maintaining separate forums on multiple online services, a common sentiment among channel hosts. Theater lovers on AOL couldn’t hang out at the Playbill message boards on Prodigy, and vice versa. The publication consolidated its audience by building a website with chat rooms and forums accessible to any Internet user with a browser. AOL channels, which for novice Internet users had been helpful guides and interesting gathering places, became a frustrating barrier to the Web, like a trailer running too long when you really want the movie to begin.

The World Wide Web also changed over the decades. In the ’90s, websites tended to be static, as did webzines and home pages. Blogs, social media, and other rapidly updated sites—“Web 2.0”—began to flourish in the aughts. AOL, like its former media partners, migrated to the Web. It still offers a desktop app—software that has been massively streamlined—in addition to its ever-present online ads, and it now dabbles in cloud-based operations, including a monthly paid service to assist users with identity theft and malware.

New Internet empires, from social networks like Facebook to streaming services like YouTube, were founded as websites, offering content without paywalls or subscription fees. But these are private companies, selling ads as AOL did. These “free” services come with strings attached, including advanced tracking applications like cookies and scripts that harvest personal data and monitor user activity across the Web. Yet even with such pernicious tactics, social media companies are not invincible. Twitter as a company, while considerably smaller than Facebook or AOL in its prime, nevertheless shows how fickle ad-backed online communities can be. Immediately after Elon Musk took control of the company in October 2022, there was a mass exodus of users, and advertisers also jumped ship. Brands like Volkswagen, REI, and United Airlines suspended their ad buys, which Musk, in a tweet, acknowledged as a “massive drop in revenue.”

As Twitter falls apart, there’s something of Dot-com Crash 2.0 underway as well, between the insolvent crypto platforms and start-ups like Peloton whose stock prices are plummeting. Unlike AOL, Facebook’s monopoly power will help it weather a calamity in the tech sector. Facebook’s reach, including almost 3 billion active users, extends well beyond North America. Instead of being defined by hobbyist forums and fun, Facebook is entrenched in everyday life. Workplace, religious, and municipal activity takes place on Facebook; users log in to find out whether school is closed because of snow or to buy a kitchen table secondhand. Facebook wields its gargantuan size through regulatory capture and lobbying, including the pressure it exerts on W3C, to enable Web tracking and ads.

Facebook has arguably swung elections. Brandee Barker might have made a difference in 2016 if, instead of canvassing in Ohio, she had knocked on her old boss Mark Zuckerberg’s office door back in Menlo Park, Calif. Bill Clinton had the screen name “clinton pz” on AOL, while his challenger Bob Dole reportedly conducted a cyber chat with voters in 1996—and that was pretty much it for digital campaign strategy back then.

The empire that Elwood Edwards’s Uber passenger helped construct is not merely a walled garden like AOL, but a cage. Plenty of Facebook users, like the AOL users before them, don’t know what a website is: The company has actively sought to muddy the public’s understanding of where Facebook ends and the rest of the Internet begins. Could this change with stricter regulation of the social network, such as a ban on targeted advertisements? What if Facebook users were shown an exit? The World Wide Web is only a click away, just as it was on AOL in the ’90s.

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