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Friday, May 29, 2009

Time-Warner "Spins Off" AOL

"We believe AOL will have a better opportunity to achieve its full potential as a leading independent internet company." AOL woke up Thursday morning and Time-Warner had left this on its answering machine; the ill-fated merger finally ends with a terse explanation from a Time-Warner spokesperson.

AOL was once a juggernaut on the ISP landscape - the juggernaut, in fact - that outlasted several other early leaders with better reputations (including Netscape and CompuServe, both of which AOL eventually acquired). Forbes Magazine printed that AOL "treats its customers like shit," yet continued growing - back in 1989! While customer complaints abounded concerning everything from Web censorship to unscrupulous billing practices and all points between, AOL continued to conquer until well past the turn of the Millennium. Dial-up networking's (DUN) popularity started plunging in 2002 as broadband access became cheaper and more widely available and AOL never recovered.

"Pride goeth before the fall" was a maxim proved true, as AOL most certainly did treat its customers like shit and few of us had much choice but to take it; again, AOL became the powerhouse it was because of its penetration and saturation. For years, AOL was the only choice of ISPs for many rural residents, nationwide. The direct-mailing campaign, which resulted in every 1990s-era American household having at least one junk drawer dedicated to free AOL CDs, was also a rousing success. No matter which ISP you eventually went with, it was all too easy to grab one of those AOL CDs and get online, especially if you were a tech who "just needed to get online real quick to grab that one thing," etc.

AOL's software invaded every aspect of your computer's file system while simultaneously insinuating itself in your operating system by changing preferences, associating files, and so forth, effectively making AOL an OS within your OS - at one point in its development, installing the AOL software made it your default application for all data communications, CD playback, and more. Followed by illegal billing practices which made it next to impossible to cancel the services, too many netizens found themselves "trapped" by the company.

AOL, which owed no small amount of its success to its adult-themed chatrooms, then decided it was going to be a family-friendly service. Users discovered a floating, gray box which obscured the internal browser window whenever it was aimed at "adult" websites - a box which could not be closed, nor moved aside. Then AOL's Terms of Service functions were automated, resulting in a service-wide crackdown on... flat-out bizarre TOS violations. Users found their accounts disabled on a regular basis, only to discover they had somehow violated the TOS in such nebulous ways as "being off-topic in a chatroom" or "sending too many e-mails in too short a time," etc.

Asshats (aka, AOL subscribers) discovered how easy it was to disable someone's account simply by reporting them for TOS violations - as the service was automated, user's accounts were shutdown until they called-in to have them reinstated. If you had highspeed, you could open separate instances of the program and enter chatrooms and services under different accounts. In this way, many AOL "power users" (aka, assholes) began disabling others' accounts simply by entering numerous TOS reports in short order. They came to be called "TOS Nazis."

AOL's illegal billing practices were exposed on national TV by an irate customer who recorded his attempts to cancel his services. Then, in 2006, AOL released a mountain of "anonymous" search data which was quickly traceable back to those who had made the searches. A true moment in Cyberculture history which has been too neatly swept under the rug, AOL's data "leak" proved just how not anonymous the Web really is... at least when it involves unscrupulous firms like AOL.

Former Google advertising executive, Tim Armstrong, was put in charge of AOL in March. This "spin-off" was known to be a possibility then. Time Warner is going to buy the 5% of AOL it does not already own from Google, then give it back to shareholders. AOL will be a separate company by the end of 2009, ending the Time Warner merger.

© C Harris Lynn, 2009

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