America On-Line (AOL) for What It's Worth

I accessed AOL one dreary morning using a "FREE 10 Hours!" disk I'd been ignoring ever since I bought my last modem. The Windows installation worked fine, though it wasn't very nice about letting me choose where to put the AOL files. Then I logged on to AOL itself following instructions almost as delightful as the gray skies outside. Two phone calls later I was officially introduced to my first on-line commercial and the wondrous landscape of AOL unfolded before me.

AOL has worked hard to make the connection process as painless as possible, but that only serves to highlight more unpleasant aspects. The fake name and address I used was accepted without a second thought, but the interface had serious words for me when I tried a fake credit card number. Obviously they've got a large list of all our card numbers sitting in a database somewhere. Joy. It also gave me a hard time about choosing a login name, without telling me why. However, using an absurdly obvious four letter password was no problem at all. In other words, AOL cares a lot about getting paid, but not a damn about who you really are.

The introductory screen has advertisements. These are easy to ignore. The AOL Department screen gives options to go to a variety of places such as Entertainment, Newspapers/Magazines, Hobbies, Games, Chat etc. Most of these give lists of products that are easily available in print form. I had several opportunities to read Elle magazine, a particularly popular choice. The download statistics for various models were in the hundreds and thousands.

Ten hours not being a lot of time, I didn't read any of the magazines in detail, but I don't really see their advantage in price or format over the in-print varieties. Sure, it's possible to download huge GIF's, but the ability to browse is easily imitated by going to Borders Book Store. Plus, once the articles and ads have been looked at, they go away to AOL-land. Log off and nothing is left but fleeting memories and a few grubby pics of Ms. Taylor in a 2-piece.

The Chat forums are equally unimpressive. I was introduced to a whole bunch of newbies (not that I have anything against them) who mostly talked about how cool this was and engaged in minor flirting. Many of them could have benefited from a couple of minutes of instruction. Why doesn't AOL route new users automatically into a FAQ? They don't seem to mind being heavy-handed and control oriented in other areas.

To me AOL most closely resembles something like the Yahoo Web Site, except with fewer choices and very little non-commercial content. Furthermore, AOL sites are all dead-ends. I have to go back to the main menus to switch around, and most screens look the same anyway. The net effect (no pun intended) is to present a very sanitized and packaged view of the world. And I can easily imagine new users logging on and getting the impression that this is the internet. Yippee! (Now where's all that pornography I keep hearing about...)

Of course, give it a few years and there's a good chance that AOL and several dozen other package providers will be the internet. They provide several services and models that answer many of the questions that the present net leaves unanswered.

The Corporate Net

The potential exists for services such as AOL, Compuserve and Prodigy to stop capitalizing on the popularity of the internet and to become the internet, or at least the slickest, most useful and visual aspect of it. It's hard to argue that AOL is easy to get around in. Also, by providing access to brand-name services (magazines and companies), AOL presents a recognized value. In the internet of the near future, which undoubtedly will involve payment for access (my opinion), having a recognized, easily found and valued commodity will be more attractive than slogging through web pages and ftp sites of unknown or poorly known quality. This has not been true to this point because the net has been something of a frontier and a matching attitude has gone with it. But with the advent of more widespread use, attitudes will become more mainstream.

On the other hand, there is some movement towards solving navigation, quality control infrastructure and other problems on the internet without top down corporate control. Or at least less obvious control. Netscape is making its bid to standardize web documents by popularizing its browsers, the EFF is working to create some kind of legal framework, and independent, non-profit pricing schemes are being proposed for infrastructure improvement. Unfortunately, I don't think these initiatives are moving nearly fast enough, nor do the involved organizations have enough clout, to beat out mega-corporate interests.

So, perhaps I should give AOL and its kind a second chance. I might as well learn to put a positive twist on something that may just be inevitable. You see, I have no idea how to discontinue service and they have my credit card number.