At the dawn of the Internet, we took our Information Superhighway seriously. We were in awe of these new forms of communication. E-mails, instant messages. From the pixelated, black background screens of the original Prodigy interface to NetZero’s ill-fated free dial up program, no single
company has had a rise and fall quite
so grand and all-encompassing as America Online.
The company that became America Online was founded in 1983, but didn’t acquire its name until 1989 during a rebranding. This rebranding was spearheaded by marketing wizard Steve Case,
who was on the verge of turning AOL into a 90s household name. To do so, he focused on selling the service and product to an audience that was wholly unfamiliar with computers, reaching out to an as-of-yet untapped demographic. A large portion of his success with this marketing strategy can be attributed to the fact that the software was the first of its kind to utilize a graphic user interface, which allowed a point-and-click method of log-on as opposed to entering commands at prompts, a process that apparently proved too complicated for most Americans.
AOL continued to grow in popularity because of its ease-of-use platform and the service’s emphasis on communication. The online-obsessed generation generally saw astronomical phone and internet bills, as the service operated on a pay-by-the-hour basis. AOL users and wallet-weakened parents of AOL-addicted kids rejoiced in 1996, when the service switched to a monthly fee of $19.95. However, that relief was short-lived when the service’s affordability caused an explosive membership expansion, crippling the servers that connected users. Any person who owned a computer in the 90s has a distinct memory of the frustration caused by repeated busy signals, and the elation when–after dozens of attempts–the modem connectivity signals finally echoed through the chambers of our homes. It took years for AOL to stabilize its connectivity issues, and during that time many users cancelled their accounts.
In their heyday, AOL boasted a colossal member count of 30 million. While AOL’s software and services were perpetually challenged by other companies, their popularity in the 90s was inarguable, due in no small part to their multifaceted marketing strategies. In 1998, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in a movie called "You’ve Got Mail." Named after the infamous e-mail notification signal from American Online, the movie was little more than a two-hour advertisement for AOL disguised as a romantic comedy. Its release spawned a rise in AOL stock and an explosion of online dating.
While AOL has since suffered a corporate identity crisis, the company’s impact on the lives of those who experienced the 90s is undeniable. From the dozens of free CD-Roms that showed up in our mailboxes, in magazines, and on grocery store check-out counters, to the release of the "Buddy List" and instant messaging system, AOL revitalized long-distance communication and turned personal interaction into a text-based pastime. Somewhere, in the back of every former AOL user’s mind, is their very first screen name and favorite chat room, as well as the knowledge that we were all there for the toddlerhood of online communication as we know it today.