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AOL: The original internet giant

AOL, originally known as America online, was one of the original internet pioneers of the 1990s. The Facebook Messenger, WeChat, WhatsApp and Instagram DM and messaging culture of today can be traced back to AOL’s instant messages or IMs. By the mid 1990s, AOL had become the standout company of “The Big Three” internet portals, surpassing Prodigy and CompuServe, and for many people AOL was synonymous with the internet. As AOL CDs liked to point out, AOL was “the Internet & more!”

AOL CDs provided free one month memberships of AOL, 10MB of web space, 5 email addresses and 50 hours of online time. Using dial-up modems to connect to AOL, users had to pay for their time online at local call rates. It would be a frequent occurrence to receive a telephone bill and have charges much higher than you expected. AOL was that addictive!

Computer magazines had this to say about AOL back then: AOL is still the best first-time online experience around.” (Internet Magazine, January 1998)”AOL is an ideal service for family use.” (Practical Internet, July 1997)”One of the things which makes AOL different to the other Internet service providers is its huge and varied content.” (.net, February 1998)

AOL software CD, compatible with Windows 95, Windows 3.1 & Macintosh
Original AOL flyers promoting 50 & 100 hours free internet access.

Despite some tough competition from Yahoo! in the mid 90s and from MSN in the late 90s, AOL remained the most visited website/portal in the world until the year 2000, when Yahoo! finally surpassed AOL in popularity.

Much of AOL’s user adoption came from its aggressive direct marketing campaigns, distributing its CDs anywhere and everywhere, also known as AOL carpet bombing. You’d find AOL CDs in the post, attached to magazines and being handed out at train stations. It’s estimated that between 1993 and 2006, AOL distributed more than 1 billion CDs, and at one point, 50% of CDs produced worldwide had an AOL logo on it.

Original AOL CD packet: "AOL can transform you into an extraordinary person free of charge"
AOL 50 hour trial pack. "Once you've tried it, you'll be a different person".
AOL original CD packet: "How to get onto the Net"

AOL would also become famous for the phrase “You’ve got mail”, which was heard billions of times when users received an email in their inbox. Elwood Edwards, the man behind the voice, has recounted the story of how his wife encouraged him to record the phrase and send it to the future CEO of AOL, Steve Case.

But while many people revelled in the connectivity that AOL offered, not everyone was too pleased with having multiple AOL CDs everywhere. At home, they’d be useful as makeshift coasters to put your drink on. But they were a monumental waste of natural resources and a source of pollution.

So two individuals, Jim McKenna and John Lieberman, created a campaign to send the CDs back to AOL. They created the website “nomoreaolcds.com” with which they coordinated the collection of thousands of AOL CDs. Their plan was to collect a million CDs, drive them to AOL headquarters in Virginia and say, “You’ve got mail.”

Screenshot of nomoreaolcds.com on 4th June 2002.
Screenshot of nomoreaolcds.com on 4th June 2002.

Unknown to many AOL users, AOL was also the home of a thriving, independent application development scene. These applications were called proggies and punters, and weren’t always developed with the best of intentions. Punters were used to boot other users offline and proggies had a range of functions including ‘diss bots’, which allowed you to hurl pre-written insults at other users. Not all proggie functions were combative. Other functions enabled you to say hello to everyone in a chatroom (the ‘sup’ bot) or to scroll impressive-looking ascii art.

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