AOL celebrates 35th birthday in May 2020

AOL, formerly known as America Online, was founded in 1985. It turned 35 years old on 24th May 2020.

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December 24, 2020 1:05 am

AOL was my first gateway to the internet in the 1990s. It almost seems like a different world but there were similarities to today’s tech in that there was a thriving independent app development scene on the portal.

Progs / Ascii Art

Instead of apps, they were called progs or proggies. Some that come to mind were HaVoK, Pepsi and FateX (by Magus and Fungii). I first came across them while visiting different chatrooms and seeing users demonstrate some interesting capabilities such as ascii art. I’d go into a chatroom and there’d be someone who would use various characters on their keyboard to produce, line by line, a nice picture (check out the image below). At first I thought these were some very talented people but I soon realised that each ascii submission in the chatroom would be followed by a signature, mentioning the name of the prog.


They were full of features. Some chat rooms were very popular, especially those where you could get your hands on proggies. A ‘room buster’ would let you specify the room you wanted to enter and it would attempt entries every second until you eventually got in. Some even had a TOS (Terms of Service) ban feature, claiming that you could terminate another user’s account just by inputting their username and pressing a button. I have to admit I tried it a few times and I’m glad to say it never worked.

Warez / Mass Mailers

AOL set the scene for advancements in internet technology. The IMs of AOL were embryonic of today’s WhatsApp culture. AOL also contributed massively to the warez scene, where people shared and downloaded pirated versions of films, music, software and other copyrighted intellectual property before applications like Napster, Limewire and Kazaa took off.

The operation was very slick for the mid-to-late 90s. You’d go to a room named Warez, where someone would be running a mailing list bot. You would then write a specific line in the chatroom; I can’t quite remember what it was, but it was something like “/send list xyz” and within a few second you would receive an email from the person running the bot. The email would contain a numbered list of all the items available for download. It could include music, e-books, video games, proggies etc. After scanning the list, you’d go back to the room and select what item you wanted. Again I can’t remember the exact line that was used, but it was something like “/send item #233 list xyz”. Once again you would get an email or several emails depending on the size of the item you had selected, and you’d be free to download it. All I was interested in at the time was downloading progs, many of which didn’t work after waiting forever with the download speeds of the 1990s. Some of these mail bots would run 24 hours a day. It was very sophisticated for its time and there were multiple rooms running like this. On a side note, I wonder how AOL staff couldn’t find these rooms. They were meant to be cracking down on this stuff but it was happening right in front of them.


Phishing was occurring on AOL too. My first experience with it was when a random user with a name like User142734 sent me an IM saying my account was under review. For maintenance purposes, I needed to confirm my password. As someone totally new to the internet and a naive teenager at the time, I sent my password. It was only a few minutes afterwards that it hit me that this could be something suspicious. I immediately changed my password and was guarded about my account details ever since that experience.

Another time someone sent me a similar IM and I threatened to report them. They replied that nothing could happen to them because they were using a “<><" account.


And then there were punters; a different category of progs. Punting was the ability to boot someone offline by sending them IMs with HMTL code that would overload their PC or connection’s resources. Bear in mind we were using 28.8k modems back then. Some of the punters that come to mind are Sprite, Da Masta Punta, Boot Final and Boot Special. The first time I got punted, my immediate reaction was, “How did they do that!?” You’d soon learn to turn your IMs off if you’d be visiting prog-related chatrooms 🙂 There were even some punters that kept a record of every user you had punted, and gave you the option to post this list in a chatroom. I always found it funny to see Steve Case, the CEO of AOL at the time, in some people’s lists :’)

Overhead Accounts

I remember wanting to get an overhead account because some progs had features specifically for them. Overhead accounts, or OH accounts as they were called, were a rare type of account that was a step up from a regular user account, supposedly reserved for AOL staff only. You could instant message others even when their IMs were turned off, which for the progs community essentially meant you could punt users whose IMs were off 🤣🤣 You could also scroll non-stop in a chatroom without getting kicked offline. Some progs had amazing scrolling ascii art features for OH account holders. It was like a chatroom format of a flipbook animation 👌

I often felt proggies enhanced the AOL experience. Without them, AOL was a bit… lacking.

Josh Wright
December 23, 2020 12:36 pm

AOL will be remembered for a lot of things. An internet pioneer, the disastrous merger with with Time Warner and direct marketing. Lots and lots of direct marketing!

If you were around in the 90s and 2000s, you couldn’t have missed AOL CDs. There were, quite literally, everywhere. PC magazines would have them stuck on the front cover, they’d be sent along with the regular post and people would be in train stations handing them out 2 or 3 at a time to anyone who walked by. It was an effective strategy because AOL secured hundreds of thousands of sign ups, but it was also a monumental waste of resources. I remember having at least 5 AOL CDs in my house at any one time. There’s also a stat quoted on the internet that says at one point, half of global CD production was attributed AOL CDs 😜

In 2002, two guys were fed up with the barrage of AOL CDs everywhere and started collecting them. They even asked people internationally to send their CDs to them. Their aim was to collect 1 million AOL CDs, and drive and dump them at AOL headquarters in Virginia, USA. They promised to go to AOL with a million CDs and say, “You’ve got mail.” 😂😂😂

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Anna Alonso
December 22, 2020 11:10 am

Time flies when you’re on the internet, haha. AOL is a big part of internet history. You could say that the instant messaging culture that flourished on AOL was the precursor to today’s messaging on WhatsApp, WeChat and Facebook Messenger. A memorable aspect of AOL is three words, “You’ve got mail.” Those three words, a simple audio notification recorded by Elwood Edwards in 1989, became one of the most recognized phrases in the world. It became so synonymous with receiving email that even a film by the name “You’ve Got Mail” was even released in 1998 starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

Elwood’s story is one of those ‘never would’ve guessed it’ stories. He recorded the phrase without too much thought and was paid only $200. I say ‘only’ because although $200 is actually quite a lot for recording a short phrase, no one expected it would become an iconic, everlasting phrase that so many people associate with the early internet.

Elwood has done a few interviews and jokingly says that had he known how popular the phrase would become, he could have retired then and there. Funnily enough he still gets recognized for his “You’ve got mail” recording. A few years ago he was an Uber driver and the passenger recognised his voice! She had to ask him to say the phrase!