Which would you rather be: Serf@aol.com or email@example.com? I would have thought there was an easy answer to the question posed by EarthLink's latest advertising campaign. But I've learned better.
Back in 1996, I helped my boyfriend's father, Curt, get online -- by arranging a six-month subscription to AOL. We thought it would be an easy way to give him a taste of what the Net was like, and that he would quickly graduate to the wide-open Web. After all, Curt didn't know much about the Internet then, but he had had a home computer for ages and engaged in some distinctly non-newbie activities, like defragging his hard drive and editing his digital photos. Curt is a smart man, a retired executive who now teaches management courses at University of Michigan. I figured it would be relatively simple to "upgrade" his Net connection after he got his feet wet. Boy, was I wrong.
I've learned from Curt and others like him that it's not just the stereotypical newbies who like AOL. Among AOL's 20 million subscribers there are some technically proficient people who honestly prefer the proprietary network. It lets them log on from practically anywhere without long distance charges; it makes it easy for them to customize their view of the Internet and funnels right to them lots of information they regularly go online to find.
"There are some things that AOL offers that are very cool, and that AOL had before almost anybody else -- like chat rooms, buddy lists, instant messaging and even things like being able to check the status of an e-mail you've sent to another AOL member, to see if it's been opened yet," says Leslie Miller, a technology reporter at USA Today who first got online in 1985 -- through Quantum Link, Steve Case's first online service. She's had an AOL account since 1994.
Paradoxically, the proprietary service so aligned with the technologically illiterate is a great place to study new technologies. "I use it as a way to know where things are going -- if they implement something I know it's going to be widespread," says Beth Cataldo, former executive producer of Microsoft Sidewalk San Francisco -- someone who's worked in the tech industry for more than 10 years and used AOL regularly since 1993. "I like to see what horses they're betting on. Like when they bought When.com -- it was a big endorsement for calendaring software."
Still, there are many of us who don't easily accept all these arguments; we continue to work over our friends with AOL accounts, hoping to show them the light. I mean, I find it hard to believe that people would choose to stick with AOL, even once they know that it puts an artificial -- and highly commercialized -- filter on the great wilderness of the Internet. And, just like the EarthLink ads project, part of me feels certain that if my friends really thought about it, they would associate themselves not with a giant corporation, but with a more independent-minded organization.
So, like lots of people I know, I found myself on a mission to convert a friend from AOL to a standard-issue ISP. I wanted him to have unfettered access to the Net.
"Why are you sticking with this teeny window to surf in, with all these ugly colored buttons?" I asked Curt in November -- more than three years after I had unthinkingly set up his AOL account. "The screen's all cluttered up."
But Curt likes the all-in-one view. "They put a lot of effort into putting everything I want in one place," he tells me firmly. "Here I have computing, entertainment, health, local news, news from Time. Sure, I can get that on the Internet, but it's right here on one page. It gives me local information. Here it says it's 23 Fahrenheit. That's my weather."
I couldn't see how different that might be from creating a personalized page like MyYahoo, but Curt was genuinely pleased with his experience. And it was easy for him to create this personal screen -- just as easy as setting up our original account. I don't think it's more difficult to configure a similar profile on any of the Web portals, but since the early days -- when regular Netizens had to practically code their own bulletin board posts or navigate unwieldy text-based e-mail systems -- AOL has had a lock on perceived ease-of-use.
"AOL made it a lot easier for people who didn't know much about computers," says Fred Heutte, a computer consultant and Web community builder, talking about the service's initial appeal. "It told you how to hook up this box called a modem, and what the necessary incantations were to get connected. And it was a good choice for a lot of people to contact their families. These people were smart, competent people in their field, but their eyes would start to glaze over if you tried to explain how to send a binary file."
This sounds just like Curt. He's competent when it comes to technologies he wants to mess with -- like his digital photos. But, given a choice, he has opted not to mess with setting up an Internet account with an independent ISP. It's not that he's not capable; it's that he hasn't seen a compelling reason not to let AOL make it easy for him. "They've really improved it over the years," he argues. "They keep close attention to what bugs people, and fix it."
Of course, that hand-holding approach works for a lot of people -- and other ISPs, including EarthLink, are trying to emulate it.
"We've created a special booklet, 'Getting the Most Out of the Internet for AOL Graduates,'" says Garry Betty, CEO of EarthLink, "where we tell people what they did on AOL, and what they can do on the open Internet with EarthLink." The tactic seems to work. Two years ago EarthLink managed to sign up 20,000 new members in just a few weeks during a "Get Out of AOL Free" promotion that offered a free account for a limited time to anyone leaving AOL.
But once people make the switch, not everyone stays. "We get 30 percent of our customers directly from AOL, but we lose 10 percent of those customers in the first 30 days," says Betty. "They run into a snag -- it could be anything. These people often aren't very familiar with computers." Betty hopes that EarthLink will hold onto more newbies with Earthlink 5.0, its new client, which deliberately mimics AOL, with integrated e-mail and browsing.
The latest EarthLink ads, which compare firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org to email@example.com, capitalize on the more savvy Net population's view of America Online as a gargantuan clearinghouse for the lowest common denominator of surfer.
"I still feel disdain when I hear an aol.com e-mail address," says Cynsa Bonorris, a programmer at Web development house Construct. "It's residual from the early days of the Internet -- how completely lame the newbies were compared to the nerds on the Web. They didn't go through the same trial by fire to get online, like figuring out how to set up Winsock on their PC."
Curt feels no shame about having an AOL address. Most of his compatriots use AOL too. When I consider that, I start to realize that my crusade to spring him from AOL is rooted, at least somewhat, in an insidery notion of what being online is supposed to mean. (As Huette puts it: "It's like the platform wars -- Windows vs. Unix, or Linux vs. FreeBSD. We all want to convert others to what we know.") Slowly, though, I'm starting to get it: For Curt and millions of others, being online may mean something different from what it means for me.
But I'm not done yet.
David Cassel, a computer consultant and journalist who runs the AOL Watch mailing list, calls AOL a giant marketing machine that "puts a benign face on exploiting consumers."
He says that one of the company's irksome traits is deluging its members with advertising. "You know how when you log off, you get this message, 'Please wait while we update your software?'" says Cassel. "Well, they don't tell you, but what they're really doing is downloading ads to your hard drive, so that the very next time you sign on, you get hit with -- boom! -- an ad. You get ads in your mailbox and in your chat room and an ad in the status bar."
AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose denies that claim, saying that the software updates are limited to tools and graphics -- never ads. The ads are downloaded while users are connected, she says, but ads are not stored on their hard drives.
In any case, AOL is famous for its pop-up ads, which are the first thing members see when they log on. And observers are wondering if the technique will make its way to Time Warner's online properties, if and when the AOL Time Warner merger goes through.
Curt, however, is unfazed by all this talk. "AOL sends me lots of ads, but I don't look at any of them," he says. Hmm. That's the same thing a lot of people say about ads on the Internet or commercial TV.
Some of AOL's fans do voice complaints about the service. "Some things about AOL are really maddening -- like the long waits when you need customer service, the large amount of spam you get if you fill out a profile in the membership directory and the way you sometimes can't connect because too many other people are already logged on," says Miller of USA Today.
"In some ways, they almost can't win, because some of the things that are the most irritating to some people are things that AOL has done to try to prevent some of the problems that annoy others -- like automatically logging you off if you're 'idle' for too long," Miller continues. "But I think most of the problems are factors of its size -- 20 million people is bigger than most giant cities, and there are bound to be some traffic jams and other inconveniences."
It turns out Curt, too, had a complaint about AOL: its influence over where people decide to spend their surfing time. "When you do a Net search, it searches through AOL first, and then provides links to the Internet," Curt complains. "They're going to control how I get on the Web -- that's the part that bothers me."
I seize upon this opening. "So, you've thought about switching?"
He has, but there are lots of reasons why he still won't really consider it; for one thing, the hassle of changing his e-mail address. He defends his inertia: "I have a phone that I use every day, and even though there's a better phone out there, am I going to go and switch phones?"
But the biggest disincentive for Curt to switch turns out to be, curiously enough, cheap phone calls. Through a deal with Tel-Save, AOL offers its customers cheap long distance phone rates. "I don't even look at my phone bills anymore," he says.
It seems kind of bizarre that my crusade against AOL would end with a discussion of how much it costs to call Canada. But that direct appeal to the pocketbook is something I simply couldn't counter with ideological arguments.
It's undoubtedly true that AOL has been influential in making the Internet a bigger place. "I'm not a cheerleader," says Cataldo, "but the big issue is, how are we going to get all those people out there using the Internet? They've provided a guideline on how to bring people to technology."
The question is, will the rest of us ever be content to let people brought online by AOL stay on AOL?