Years ago, I had an America Online account. At the time, there were really only two choices available for anyone seeking access to a national online service(besides the Well which I was unaware of). I didn't like America Online then and I still don't like it now, though may rational for this attitude has changed as I've become versed in the internet.
My primary objection regarding America Online is, I believe, admittedly it's greatest asset. Large "prefab" online service providers offer their subscribers an almost instantaneous feeling of being part of a community, the uniformity of the interface, the "in house" chat areas and more recently the influx of commercial publishing that is for the most part unavailable in such a large scale on the internet all serve to imbue the medium with a sense of being within a physical space with other people. This is something which I often don't feel when "out" on the internet. I have several friends who have nearly abandoned the Internet altogether in favor of AOL. They all appear unanimous in the feeling that the internet is just too vast and impersonal and that AOL offers them a sense of origin and place not unlike the feeling Midwesterners hailing from small towns possess.( When I lived in New York City, my friends and I would often joke about an almost ethereal sense of calm and grounded purpose which transplanted people from the Midwest seemed to bring with them...could this be related to Gateway's success?)
While I have to admit that Aol has done much to improve it's GUI user interface, I just don't like the watched over feeling I get when ever I log on. Whether it's the personalized greeting or the way that New users are "steered" into newbie chat areas, I can't help feeling like I'm being monitored whenever I'm in their system. I've heard all kinds of horror stories about AOL administration "spiking" outgoing email messages that are critical of AOL. I understand that these stories are probably nothing more than that, But I always get this sick feeling whenever I'm in their system that far too many of my content decisions are being made for me. I don't have to like all of the stuff available on the internet, but I also don't want it to go away either. AOL censers what their users get to see while in the AOL system and I don't like that, Obviously many people do.
I also don't like their premium services pricing arrangement. If you want to get all the goodies on AOL you have to pay extra. I don't like this. I don't like it that AOL users are some of the most badly behaved people on the internet - evidenced by the tremendous amounts of spam which I see posted to news groups and list servers. What disturbs me even more is the response I seem to be hearing more and more frequently when I ask people why they prefer AOL to direct internet access: "there's just too much stuff on the internet and it's too hard to find it all. AOL offers me a way to filter out what I don't want in favor of what I do." Balderdash! What AOL offers their users is more of the same television mainstream mass marketing crap which has done so much to further human interaction in this country for the last 20 years. It's slick and shallow, it caters to the lowest social common denominator and it doesn't expose people to different ways of thinking. It is the social equivalent of a mirror and as far as I'm concerned there are way too many media mirrors already in place. The Internet is not hard to navigate. It is full of far more content than AOL and what's more I pay $20 per month for unlimited access and I still get my secure credit card transactions. May be I won't get to read the online version of Time or Rolling Stone, but heck I try to avoid those rags like the local and network news. AOL scares me. AOL is the spectacle. AOL is alienation and subjugation all in one nice toasty little package. If AOL is the wave of the future then I want no part of it.