April 22, 1995

John Hanke

AOL: Life in the Burbs

AOL: Life in the Burbs

I got my first taste of the net via AOL. As a mac user its nifty graphical interface appealed to me. The command line interface that characterized the "old" net seemed decidedly outdated. AOL's slick GUI, like the mac itself, beckoned, proclaiming itself the new way to explore the online world. A naive owner of a brand new 14.4 modem anxious to get on line as quickly as possible, I loaded up the free AOL software so generously provided by my modem manufacturer, signed on, and gleefully spewed out my life history and, most importantly, that Rosetta stone of modern life, my credit card number, and, bam, within fifteen minutes was a certified member of the AOL family.

That was September 1993. After six months of the "real" net courtesy of UCB, I see a certain parallel between my AOL days and the small town where I grew up. Safe, friendly, easy to get around in, but insanely BORING! I recently spent some time on AOL to see of things had changed and generally to reacquaint myself with my old neighborhood. Just like a recent visit to my real home town, I was surprised at how little had changed.

What I was starved for when I signed up for AOL, and what I wanted out of the service, was a venue to interactively discuss thoughts about the impact of technology, computers, the net (as I knew it), etc. on the world. I thought that once online I would be rubbing electronic shoulders with industry cognoscenti like Mitch Kapor and Guy Kawasaki and participating in debates about how technology would shape our collective futures. Here is what I got:

TNBABE: did anyone see 90210 last night? Brandon is so cute.

CHZWENER: let's talk about something. anyone have a topic?

BIKRMAN: BABE, M/F?

bob29873: HEY, I AM NEW. WHAT DO YOU DO HERE?

RUSH34: rush in on now. any dittoheads out there?

TNBABE: BIKR, F, what's it to ya? want to go for a ride?

CHZWENR: i want to talk about something. what shall we discuss?

bob29873: NICE TO MEET ALL OF YOU. HOW DO I SWITCH OFF MY COMPUTER?

RUSH34: impeach clinton!

BIKR29873: BABE, my engine is revving. let's go private and talk dirty!!

This can go on for hours. I have watched 45 minute "discussions" about what to talk about. I searched in vain through many of the dozens of chat rooms availabel on AOL for one where anything remotely interesting might be said by anyone. The "Newsroom" looked promising at first glance. It purported to be a venue where current events were to be discussed and debated. Unfortunately, the discourse was generally along the lines of:

lostnspace: Isn't it terrible what's happening in Bosnia.

DITTO: NUKE 'EM!!!!

deepsouth: this would never happen if our children were allowed to pledge allegiance to the flag.

I logged in to the newsroom several times hoping it would get better. It didn't. Another brief glimmer of hope emerged when I found the "Author's Lounge." Surely writers must have something interesting to say. That's what they do for a living right? The fading allure of the on-line world brightened once again. I envisioned myself in a virtual cafe, the 20th century equivalent to the smoke filled cafes of Paris in the 20's, crowded with writers and artists debating and discussing... well whatever it is writers and artists debate and discuss. Unfortunately, the room was almost always empty when I checked. On one occasion, however, it was bustling with activity. The intense chatter sent lines of text scrolling up my screen in a blur. Tom Clancy was in the room! The next half hour was filled with a fascinating discussion that went something like this:

want2Bwriter: are you really tom clancy?

TomClancy: yes, and i hate answering that question.

want2Bwriter: yeah, but how can i know for sure that you are the REAL tom clancy?

TomClancy: i am. please don't ask me that again. anyone here like guns?

want2Bwriter: write something from one of your books so I know you are REALLY tom clancy.

mercfighter: tom, what do you think about the exit wound produced by the new black scabard 500 flesh dissolving cop killer round?

It was around this time that I gave up on AOL altogether. I kept my account to exchange e-mail with the one other person in the world I knew that had an e-mail account and logged on occasionally to see what was new, usually lurking in a chat room for 15 minutes or so and watching the inane being discussed for $4.95 an hour.

It was with this somewhat jaded perspective that I greeted my newfound net access at UC last fall. Administrators told me that the B-school "lived" by e-mail, that it would become an integral part of my life, that I could also have all sorts of other access to newsgroups and internet chat channels, etc. Six months of net exploration have put my first, tender AOL encounters into some perspective.

First, let me say that I did not find the online community of my dreams on the "real" internet. I did find billions of newsgroups cluttered with flames and ill-thought out comments on everything under the sun as well as an occasionally useful and interesting post. Later I found billions of Web pages filled with inane and useless links to other inane and useless Web pages as well as a few surprisingly well executed, interesting, and informative sites. Despite a signal to noise ratio that rivaled AOL's, I did find many things of value on the net-- data nuggets buried in the muck.

With this new perspective, AOL began to look more like a cyber suburb than the cutting edge frontier which I first imagined it to be. The net might be likened to the slightly dangerous but edgy and hip SOMA district of SF while AOL is more akin to bright but boring Walnut Creek. AOL's crisply presented "Departments" remind one of strip malls designed with a facade intended to resemble the clutter of downtown storefronts-- interesting from the outside but painfully bland from the inside.

The differences probably have much to do with how people obtain access to the net in the first place. The "real" net is/was populated by academics and engineering types who received free access through a university or technically oriented business. AOL is a mainstream product marketed to consumers through mainstream channels. The similarity of AOL to a suburb is not surprising in this context-- it is people in the suburbs who are subscribing to AOL.

Despite all of the bad things I have said about AOL, I still use it occasionally. Just as I sometimes visit stores in the burbs when I need cheap consumer goods (hey, who hasn't been to a Price Club at least once!), I visit AOL to download virus-free shareware and browse the latest issue of MacWorld. Like the suburbs, AOL is undoubtedly abhorrent to some-- brightly painted, cordoned off, and hopelessly un-hip. However, also like the suburbs, such protected enclaves are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. I recommend getting what you can out of them-- good, clean software and mainstream media nuggets-- and going elsewhere for intellectual stimulation.