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 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.

  • Let me guess, AOL's spam filter is very efficient at finding spam and making sure it arrives safely at your mailbox.

  • dfrisme

    I still have an AOL account, because my father uses it for his email. He is in his late 80s and change is hard… I also set my mother up an account. She has never used it. Ever. I think I have logged on her screen name maybe 3 or 4 times in the last few years. Here's the kicker. She still gets dozens of spams a month. So someone *cough* AOL *cough* has sold her name to the spammers.

  • peter

    I also had a very bad experience with AOL when I tried to cancel three years ago. I called on the last day of the billing cycle. They said they've a computer glitch that day but that my request to cancel has been logged in and I should call back the next day to confirm. I called back the next day and after all the pitch of free usage for 6 months and then just 4.95 a month after that and blah, blah, blah…I was finally released from AOL prison. So you thought you're free of AOL, right? Wrong. I checked my credit card's statement next month and there it is: the regular charge of 29.95 per month. I called AOL and they insisted I canceled on the first day of the billing cycle so I'm billed for the whole month. This dispute went on for a month with endless phone calls and emails and I finally gave up. Now every time I get solicitative junk mail from them touting how they value customers like me and want me back, I just snicker. And I laugh heartity at the demise of AOL/Time Warner and the down fall of Steve Case.

  • Nelson G

    Welcome to the internet, Jeff Jarvis, and not the Internet according to AOL.

  • 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).

    Talk about nostalgia! I used one of those drum-faxes as a communications geek/typist at Aviation Week & Space Technology back in the early 1980's. I was amazed by it. But hey, my model had a "fast" setting that traded quality for time–a lightning-quick FOUR minutes. Beat that!

    And the Trash 80–how we came to love thee.

  • szmike

    I remember two years ago when I cancelled my AOL account after ten years of being a member. As soon as the connected me with retention, before he could get a word out, I began the conversation with, "I am cancelling my service. You will not save me with any offer you can provide. Cancel me now and this will be a short, pleasant call. Waste my time bombarding me with offers I will only refuse, I will make this call so unpleasant you'll be bitching about it to your co-workers for weeks."

    He laughed at that one and my account was cancelled in less than a minute.

  • I want to write an ode to the Osborne-1 (serial number 2463) and the Source. and the Chicago users group that put up a BBS on an Altos running MPM. To Ward Christianson for the MODEM protocol, and to whoever wrote OTERM, the freeware telecom client for the O-1.

    In 81 we formed an Osborne users group in Portland – 6 months later we were ALL working in the microcomputer industry. I'd been working for a typesetting shop (remember those?) and started doing telecom typesetting and text processing using the O-1 – Oterm for downoading (whee! 300 baud!) and Vedit for prgrammable text processing. Productivity of the shop went WAY up – since I could do 90% of the typesetting in one day. The O-1 also pinch hit as a teletype console for the DG mini the shop ran on, again running Oterm.

    AOL? I'd been with them from the beginning, and cancelled a couple of years ago. They just looked at how long I'd been a member and cancelled me in less than 5 minutes.

  • Does your EVDO card really work out in the boonies?

  • My brother's EVDO card works in the northwest Pennsylvania boonies (and trust me, parts of it are quite boonie). Of course at 56k or so, as I recall. In metro areas naturally it's dsl-like.

  • Oh–and Kaypro, anyone?

  • cardeblu

    Although we basically quit AOL several years ago when we got broadband cable, I still keep the $4.95/mo version of it (for 3 hours a month, I think). I keep it for a few reasons: as a backup dial-up for work in case the cable goes out, so I can use it as another email address other than my main one for sites like this–checking it once every week or two, and there is one AOL message board that has a group of people with whom I've posted for about 8 years that I visit every once in a while just to see what's going on.

    I really don't understand the animosity a lot of people have for AOL. Sure, they suck at a few things sometimes but generally provide a fairly good service for others.

  • Am I one of the few people who has never, ever had a subscription to AOL…or Prodigy…or Compuserve? I've just never understood the real purpose for such services, except perhaps getting the computer-inept online.

    I was using home-grown ISPs for years until I finally got Optimum Online when I moved to Jersey.

  • vnjagvet

    Jeff and Greg B:

    I'm another Osborne user circa 1980. I used it until 1983 or 84 when I got my trusty Dataview 25.

    Finally I got my lawfirm to connect all our offices with a Wang system. Used it for WP and accounting functions, and generally tying together four smaller offices all over the country with the main office with rudimentary database functionality. You won't believe the Wang support techies that said it couldn't be done.

    Now the internet makes it all so easy.

    Like Jeff, I am self employed in a bunch of business ventures looking for cash. But it is so much easier now than just five years ago.

  • Sphaeron

    "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)."

    Back then? That's still what they call the evening news in my area.

  • Rich Drees

    Just getting ready to ditch AOL now. The biggest pain in the ass is transferring all my bookmarks and address book from the AOL browser. Unless there's some tricks anyone wants to share… ;)

  • How were you paying $9.95, Jeff? Mine shows up on my credit card as $23.95 every month, without fail.

    Years ago, AOL decided to comp my subscription because I was advertising clients on the service. I didn't spend for a few months, and one day got an e-mail that my account was moving back to "paid status." One morning I woke up and found I couldn't get into my account. Plus, my dad's website, which was hosted on their servers, completely disappeared. Evidently, they lost my billing information somehow and when my account came off the comp list, they just killed everything. Took much phone-wrangling to get things reactivated and my dad's website back up and running.

    AOL has offered to comp me again, but I keep paying for fear of another fiasco like the one described above.

    Surprisingly to some, I do find some use for having an AOL account. Mostly dial-up in hotel rooms while traveling. And believe me, I do still run into plenty of hotels without wireless or broadband access.


    p.s. – I miss my Trash-80.

  • The only time I have an AOL subscription is when I'm traveling in Europe or when I'm working on getting a free MacMini.

  • midwich

    Wow – when did the layout/look of this site change? I'm probably the last to revisit and notice, but have to say I very much like the text changes – *much* easier to read now, very easy on the eye. Not entirely convinced by the picture at the top, but hey no matter :)

  • midwich

    PS interesting piece – I first went online in 1994 and remember Mosaic well. I downloaded that year what was claimed to be the first video clip with it from some research institute, still have it too. Took forever, but as it's sporty girls riding bicycles can't complain.

  • As an ex-CompuServer (and one of the early ones with a five-digit user login) I was never seduced by AOL. The web is supposed to be unforseeable and random, not controlled.

    AOL will eventually fall; it could hardly evolve given its present state.

  • brendan

    Goodbye, Dell. Adios, AOL. Bernie was right: this country is falling apart.

  • Jeff, if you think the era of closed subscription services is over, I urge you to reread the Brand X decision at the FCC and the Supreme Court, and consider its implications. Brand X will allow a cable broadband provider to discriminate among websites its users can access. If the cable company providing broadband doesn't like the message BuzzMachine is putting out, it can block its customers from accessing it. If it wants customers to download music and video from its website and not Apple's or Netflix's, it cat divert the customers to its own download site as if those others don't exist. This power will soon be extended to telco DSL providers, if FCC Chair Kevin Martin has his way. Thus, 94 percent of Americans receiving broadband Internet access (DSL and cable) may not have access to the entire Internet, but a "proprietary" or closed Internet that is very much a "walled garden" — like America Online was in the olden days, pre-Internet. Their goal is to make sure that their Internet access service does not compete with and cannibalize their subscription TV businesses. Sure, there are some who say the market will never let this happen. Alas, broadband access is not a competitive market, as that 94 percent DSL and cable figure demonstrates. Maybe someday, but not today. Which is why, at Creative Voices, we're advocating principles of "Net Neutrality," municipal broadband, unlicensed spectrum, and other approaches to ensure that citizens have access to the whole Internet, not just Comcast's proprietary version of it. Best, Jon

  • Chancy

    I am proud to say I have NEVER used AOL or any other subscription service. I have DSL with Bellsouth and for an alternate email address I use Yahoo free service. I have been an active internet user for about 8 years now and cannot see the need for an AOL

  • Christopher Fotos,

    With a 300 baud modem and two double density 51/4 inch drives. I hauled that sucker from Toronto to Maui and back, twice….

    But a friend of mine went all out and got the Kaypro 10. 10MB hardrive. We all laughed and wondered what your could possibly do which would take 10MB.

  • pdq332


    This was a really cool article! I don't really care about Spamerica Online, but the old computer stories made my evening.

    My earliest computer was the Apple II, and at my age I was more into programming. (My father refused to let me have a modem, explaining that he did not want me to get in any trouble with bulletin boards. Doesn't that sound quaint, given what is on the internet these days?) The Apple II had two graphics modes: "Lo-Res" (80X40?) and "Hi-Res" (300X200?) and if I remember correctly it had memory mapped video, a simple implementation of BASIC included in ROM, and PEEK and POKE and access to disk BIOS. It rocked! I so wish I still had that computer, but it unfortunately went into the trash long ago. It made programming easy and fun.

    Later when I was working as an undergraduate in a physics lab, we had a PDP-11 that ran data acquisition, and if it crashed we had to boot it from a paper tape. This was in 1988, and it was already considered very old. There were endless admonishments: "Be careful with the paper tape, don't rip the tape, we can never get another tape." Data went to the big reel to reel tapes that one normally associates with men with muttonchop sideburns wearing checkered pants, and the old-timers would regale us youngsters with stories about wire wrapping custom "core memory". (Did you ever hear the term "core dump" when an application crashes and generates a report including the memory contents? That's because memory used to be made of wire wrapped magnets called "ferrite core". The name stuck even though we all use silicon these days.) Eventually the experiment got a PDP-11 that could reboot from an address toggled in by front panel switches, but I bet that if I went out to the old experimental hall today, that paper tape would still be there, locked in its desk drawer. However, I think the PDP-11 was turned into a wine rack long ago.

    Dare I ask: what is an acoustic coupler? Do you mean that you hooked the mojo up to the phone with a speaker aimed at the receiver, like Commissioner Gordon relaying messages for Batman over the hotline in his office from another phone? At six minutes a page I hope your arms didn't get tired. I have visions of an annual contest among Tuvan throat singers to see who could come up with the best looking fax while throat singing into a mojo line…

  • Dexter Westbrook

    Geez, I haven't thought of my old Delphi account for a long time.

    A fair number of folks, journalist friends of mine, did get Delphi accounts when Murdoch bought into the company. They didn't like Murdoch, but they respected his business judgment.

  • Louis

    Dell-hell? A-O-helL? What's next, McDonhelld's? Whell*Mart? Hellevi's 501 Jeans? Hell-o Kitty?

    Jeff is one white bread american. I'd love to know what tracks are on your iPod. Sorry, I mean iPhellod.

  • Hans Mast,

    No thanks, I'll save for my MacMini. I don't care for pyramid schemes.


    Ever work with a Commodore 64?

  • I love this story about a woman trying to cancel her dead sister in law's AOL account. It begins:

    My SIL has used AOL for years and for years has had the same credit card automatically billed every month for the service.

    After spending 15 minutes attempting to get a Customer Service number for AOL, I finally managed to get through the automated phone system and reached Ken, who was happy to assist me from his cubby in New Delhi.

    I explained to Ken that my SIL had passed away and that I was authorized by the Executor of the estate to cancel her AOL service. Ken gasped, was silent for a moment and said, “She was executed?”

    And on point:

    "Jeff, if you think the era of closed subscription services is over, I urge you to reread the Brand X decision at the FCC and the Supreme Court, and consider its implications. Brand X will allow a cable broadband provider to discriminate among websites its users can access. If the cable company providing broadband doesn’t like the message BuzzMachine is putting out, it can block its customers from accessing it. "

    This worries me, too. I'm very concerned that ISPs will turn into cable channels, and sites sign up with ISPs. Not with that ISP? No site.

  • Lonnie G. Kohn

    I recntly took advantage of the SBC/Yahoo DSL off price offer. Imagine my suprise when I found that the SBC news server was very selective about which newsgroups I was to be allowed to access.

    Somebody a SBC/Yahoo has decided that multimedia was bad for my eyesight and the WAREZ sites were either illegal or immoral or possible both.

    If this is an example of BRAND X, we need to get it repealed.

  • I keep wanting to do the exact same thing every few weeks, but something stops me every time…a hope against hope, that some day soon, they'll launch a web-based offering that is going to be so cool, that I'm going to want my equivalent of back…and I won't get it if I cancel.

    That namespace jail and some remaining emotions still hold back…but I too will do what you did today.

    Congratulations for leading the way :)

  • Stephen Borchert

    An acoustic coupler was just like the scene from the Batman TV show that you described, but the phone call would be answered by the carrier whistle (that you now may hear briefly when sending a fax). You would then put the telephone handset in the rubber cups and manually flip a switch on the modem to connect. If you were using a teletype, characters would begin to type on the paper…

  • Nice piece Jeff! I go back that far too. People should know what it was like before cell phones and iPods.

  • CharlesWT

    The first computer I programmed and operated was an IBM 360 Model 20. Beat that. :)

  • dick


    I got you beat by a long shot. The first few computers I programmed were an IBM 1401, a Univac 1004, an IBM 7080, and IBM 7090; I wired boards for an IBM 407, IBM 83. I programmed in SPS, then converted to Autocoder on the IBM 1401. I can remember progamming RAMAC where you had to derive the disk address and also programming the computer drum storage device. I can remember programming a RCA Spectra 70. I can remember programming an IBM 360 Model 20 where we actually entered the program through the dials. I can remember patching programs by adding punched cards to decks of punch cards. I go back to 1962 and my old boss, who lives in River Edge, goes back to 1958 in the computer field. I once even had a boss who programmed in machine language where she wrote the same program in upper core and lower core and flipped from one to the other while the IO was going on so she could speed up the process. Programming was fun in those days. We had to figure out how to do all the stuff that the computer does automatically now and we had to do it all ourselves and still save storage and time. It was fascinating rather than just automatic and boring as it is now.

  • Eh. I’ve had an AOL address for 11? 10? years now, and it’s where people know to find me. I own a URL but still just point it at my AOL site. Sure, the “community” features of AOL are worthless to me, but the 10 bucks a month is worth it to me to be able to keep the email address that all my friends and family already know.

    If AOL fails completely, my plan of being lazy and never changing fails, too.

  • Hess Johannson

    I think everyone who is worth their perverbial salt should follow suit and eliminate the frivalous spim spam!

  • AOHell Sucks.
    They are the scourge of the internet.

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  • peter

    I used aohell free for 1 year with my gateway PC. When I went to quit they really persisted on keeping me offering me 2 more free months, etc. I declined the offer. AOL software really bogs down a PC and it was a pleasure to uninstall it. I then started getting aol mails and one of them was about aol travel which you had to send back to them. I never sent it in, I threw out all copies. Then, to my surprise, I got a statement on my Visa card that I had joined AOL Travel. I immeditely called Visa and cancelled that. Then I call AOL and sked why they gave out my visa number. They had no answer…..go figure!

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  • Rebel Avenger

    Well there is one other thing I noticed about AOL now that it is free.
    There are more Democrats using it.

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