A Review of America Online


As one of the most popular commerical online services, America Online(AOL) has become the glitzy, flashy, slick embodiment of surfing the Information Superhighway. With its streamlined graphics and icons moving from one place to another requires n o more than a simple click from a mouse. This pure simplicity has allowed for a wider range of users; users who fall along different educational and economic background and my not be completely computer literate. A lowest common denominator factor, much like television, becomes the model for creating a interacting community that actually is embedded in a world of advertising.

AOL is completely an advertising haven from its plethora of print magazine titles, television networks, television shows, and celebrity spotlights. Visting MTV online may seem like something exciting, but what the content comes down to is basically trans cripts of interviews, shows, upcoming schedules, concerts, etc. that are just repackaged from their broadcasts. You can download an interview with Pearl Jam which would take about twenty minutes and probably wouldn't look as good as it does on television . Which is probably the whole point. Having a presence on AOL is probably better than any advertisment in "TV Guide" or complementary copy in any magazine. MTV wants you to tune in, not necessarily get "plugged in" as their motto goes. Likewise for ma gazines, who are hoping for a new venure for subscriptions.

AOL new users may be caught up in the novelty of all this and most likely aren't noticing the issues with content. They become mesmerized by the idea of the technology that they aren't realizing the fact that most of AOL lacks in substance. What survive s is the infamous chat rooms that have become a cross between bar room pick-ups and telephone party-lines. As these chat rooms have many different topics, none of them really seem to go further than general saluatations/introductions and chit-chat.

Access is difficult to AOL and sometimes it takes a good three or four tries before I can get in. It is especially difficult at night. There is an overabundance of phone numbers for 2400 baud connections and only one for my area in 14,400. It's just no t surprising that there is no demand for higher speed modem lines because their users don't realize their benefits (ie. faster service, Slip/PPP accounts). I had to download an updated version of AOL which took a painful 25 minutes at 2400 baud because o nly then could I use the 14.4 phone number. All this aside, every time I logged in there would always be a message on the corner of my screen telling me to wait while they update the art. This also happened as I accessed most of the different locations from online magazines to the news of the day. To me the icons and images were trivial, I just wanted to read the news and I knew that if I just read it via tin or the Web it would be much faster. I didn't need all the flash. Maybe it is because I learne d how to use this technoloy in a unix environment, I've found myself more in control with the plain o' unix prompt rather than fancy menus. Also, the Web has definitely changed the direction of the Internet only in the past year. AOL says it will soon p rovide WWW access, but will they limit it to only a certain number of places like Prodigy?

What I have found different in AOL over the past year and a half ago is its access to the Internet. What would be a blank screen and a unix prompt, AOL presents menus, icons, and headings to guide any beginner to search for things and topics of interest in the Internet. As the domain of AOL has its own look and interface, the Internet as we know it is a completely different place. But AOL users don't know the difference because they see it all as one. Because of its mere simplicity could the Internet fall to the hands of these users who don't understand the foundations of nettiquite? People already are starting to define going on the Internet, by their usage on AOL. Without being pretentious, it is this mass commercialization that people seem to flo ck to. AOL is the most popular commercial online service that provides access to everyone much like The Gap has everyone wearing its khakis. It becomes something that everyone needs and has. Therefore I pose this question: As the Internet grows and bec omes a type of mass market community, will this spawn more specialized commercial services that cater to just business, intellectuals, students, singles, etc.?

AOL is a fun place in the beginning. But if you already know what else is out there, it has a lot of limits. It will be interesting to find out what direction and place these commercial online services will have as the Internet progresses into the future.


Natalie Zee
Online Review 3/24/95