No more AO-Hell

I canceled my AOL subscription last night. And they were a pain in the ass to the very end, keeping me on hold; delivering wordy, touchy-feely, insincere phone scripts; trying to rope/fool me into a continuing $9.95/month subscription.

No, cancel me. Just cancel me. Let go. I mean it.

After 12 years, I’m history. And so is what we used to call “online,” the era of closed subscription services, the world of walls.

Before AOL, I used CompuServe and also tried The Source and tried to avoid Prodigy. And I worked at Delphi very briefly 11 years ago. They were all part of a world that is over but is taking as long to die as TV Guide.

Gather ’round, young’uns, and I’ll tell you about them olden days:

Way back in 1974, I started working on my first newsroom computer (because I was bored on the midnight shift on the Chicago Tribune, waiting for someone to die a horrible death so I could call cops and their relatives and then write about it; that’s what we called journalism back then). I was the only guy who dared touch the computers sitting there, waiting to be used, and so I became the guy in the newsroom who wasn’t scared of the damned things.

I was newsgeek. Computers changed the way I wrote and I was soon silicon-dependent; I was an obnoxious evangelist for that strange thing called “the cursor” (a concept that wasn’t easy to explain to grumpy editors who always hate change). When I headed out of town for stories, I still had to haul along a portable typewriter (this was our laptop, I told my kids) and a mojo wire (as Hunter Thompson dubbed the early fax machines, which took something like six minutes a page to transmit onto smelly, chemicaly, unreadable paper around a fussy and noisy rotating drum using a 300 baud acoustic coupler). I was so relieved when I got to take a TRS-80 Model 100 and transmit directly with that. I was so addicted to portability that I spent a fortune of my own to buy the first full portable computer, the precursor to the Kaypro and the Compaq, my beloved Osborne 1. But it wasn’t portable enough, so I bought the first battery-operated fully functional (kind of) PC, the Morrow Pivot.

But what really changed my life was not the machines but what I got to do with them when I moved to New York and went online for the first time with that damned accoustic coupler. It was slow, ugly, all-text, geeky. I could ^h in my sleep.

But I quickly saw that I wasn’t just communicating. I wasn’t just reading. I was joining something.

Back then, you had to pay to join and the companies that enabled us to do this made all the same mistakes big companies still make today: They thought it was about content. They thought it was about communication. They thought it was about owning the consumer. They thought it was about walls. They didn’t really understand that it was just about people.

And, of course, the internet replaced them all. When I went to work for Delphi Internet Services as editor in chief in 1994, Murdoch had just bought them (I worked for his TV Guide then) because they were the first service to take consumers to this future-shocky thing called the internet (I heard a sleezy stockbroker on a train one night tell a chump that he should buy News Corp. stock because, “You’ve heard of this internet thing? Well, Murdoch just bought it”). They were text-only and were trying to invent their graphical user interface to compete with Prodigy et al, but I was one of the guys who said nevermind that, try this Mosaic thing. I left Delphi (passing that IQ test) before it essentially imploded under millions of Murdoch’s misspent dollars and came to Advance, where they were debating between AOL and Prodigy for their newspapers. Try this browser thing, I said, and we went onto the internet and never looked back.

I got AOL then and kept it this long only because (a) I needed to keep tabs on them for work — and work paid and (b) I used them rarely for dial-up from bad hotels. But now I’m unself-employed and paying the bills. And I have my Verizon EVDO card, which works even from the wilds of the Poconos.

So I have no earthly need for AOL. I certainly have no need for its content. I don’t need it to communicate. I don’t need it to make a community for me; I can find my own here.

At long last, I canceled AOL. And it feels so good.

So spammers: I now hand [email protected] over to you. It’s all yours. It has been for the last five years. You made that address utterly useless. You didn’t even know I wasn’t there. But I’m gone now. Just thought I’d let you know.