We Miss the 90s: America Online

Remember the days when your mailbox overflowed with AOL CDs with free hour offers?

In this regular column, Justin Rozzero and Jen Engle exchange emails reminiscing about the greatest decade in history: the 1990s. Justin & Jen have been friends since 1997 and have been trading emails and instant messages about 90s nostalgia since the day they met. Now, they take it public. If you have suggestions for future topics, please email us at the addresses below!

Justin: OK Jen…let’s kick this off right. First topic is AOL.

How old were you when you first got online? Was your mind blown? Did you fight with your brother over the phone line? How crazy was it that we had to battle over landlines? Did you visit random chat rooms and fuck with people or was that just Flanagan, Richer and I? What a time.

Jen: There was a time when there was nothing more disappointing than not being able to connect to AOL after a million tries, or to finally connect and then your mom would pick up the phone or something and you would immediately be booted off. Except maybe to log on and then not hear “You’ve got mail!”

Pre-AOL popularity, my BFF had access to this local free-net that I’m pretty sure was meant only for teachers. We would log into random chat rooms and make friends and mess with people…who didn’t? Back then talking to random people didn’t seem crazy or dangerous. She would invite them to concerts and the movies with us. They were kids too, it didn’t seem weird.

Fortunately my brother is so much younger than me, we didn’t really fight over the land line. I bought my family’s first computer (a snazzy Gateway) when I started college. By the time my brother cared about it we had a second line installed for it, and then we went the cable route. I remember leaving my AOL IM away message up…that was kind of a precursor to twitter and Facebook statuses. How many times did yours say “eating dinner, BRB”?

Justin: I still have the modem noise seared into my brain. Trying the different open nodes (nodes? servers?) and then the joy when it finally connected. And yes, not having mail was a heart-breaker…and when you did, you couldn’t open the mailbox quickly enough.

Never had access to free-net, but I did dabble in Compuserve just prior to hooking into AOL. I remember it was May 1996 when I first signed on. And it blew my mind. We used to go to the “Friends of Bill W” chat room and be assholes, which in retrospect seems like a pretty evil thing to do.

My sister and I had violent wars fighting over the phone line. Like big time yelling matches and almost coming to blows on occasion. I really think the advent of high speed internet and direct modem lines probably saved a lot of domestic violence arrests at that time. In my defense, she was 12! Who the hell was she talking to? I was in my prime adolescent years. I NEEDED to be online!

I was an away message king…as well as a profile king. I used to carefully craft my witty bio, updating it regularly. Oh …and the surveys? The surveys!

So, three questions…

1) Surveys???
2) Do you remember what plan you had? Did you ever scam the system?
3) Did you ever end up meeting anyone that you chatted with in those days?

Jen: Beeerrrreeepppppppskkkerrrreeeeecchhhhh!!!

That sounds about right. As nostalgic as I am right now, I’m pretty happy I didn’t just have to dial up to get my email.

I think I was more amazed when you could start logging onto different websites and get information. Back then, a site wasn’t always much, maybe a picture and then a long list of text describing the hotel that you were looking for. Sometimes today I come across a really poorly designed site and I wonder how the internet ever caught on. The websites back then were practically useless. Remember Geocities? I randomly just looked them up. Apparently only still in use in Japan.

I wasted hours doing surveys and answering 50 or so questions that no one really cared about. Now, we volunteer the information rather than be asked. People take a picture of their feet or their dinner like we all care what they just ate and whether their shoes are cool. If I really wanted to know what you last ate, I’d send you a survey and it would ask you what you last ate (grapes), what your favorite color was (today I’d say a bluish green, like the ocean) and whether or not you are wearing socks (no).

I remember my computer came with one of those AOL disks that I’m pretty sure everyone got in the mail three times a week. My family was so late to the internet game that we were definitely on some sort of monthly plan. Up until I wasted a lot of money on that Gateway, the only thing I had was a word processor. But it was a cool word processor, it had games (still trying to convince myself).

I never extended an invitation to meet up with anyone that my friend and I chatted with voluntarily.  However, we’d go to shows or to the mall and my friend would have arranged for online people to meet up with us. I wouldn’t know until they were there, and it was probably a good plan on her part because I would have never gone along with it. Actually, I still wouldn’t…

Justin: Yeah I was online for two years before I even went to a web page. Thanks to my hella slow connection, they would never load. It wasn’t until I got to college that my eyes were opened to a world beyond dedicated AOL pages and chat rooms.

Surveys were amazing…and yes the difference between the reactive and proactive sharing of information is a glaring one. Answering a survey seemed way less douchey than letting us know you are working out at Planet Fitness three times a week.

We scammed the system for a while, always using up the free hours given with the disk and then creating a new account using a different credit card to take advantage of more free hours as more disks poured into the mail. That came to a crashing halt when someone hacked my account (yes in 1996!) and changed my passwords. We had to call so AOL could fix it and they caught on to us, and thus the jig was up. From that day on, I was bigsxy34 for good.

I was set to meet a girl I had been talking to and her friends at a high school mixer. As we were circling the dance floor I passed by a group of girls that I was sure was them and um…anyway, yada yada yada, I had my friend go over to their group and tell them I got in trouble and couldn’t attend the dance. Sad times.

What was your main screen name? Do you think the Internet blows up to the mainstream as quickly as it did without AOL? Did AOL fuck up by not adapting with the times? How did they go from dominant to the butt of Old Man Criscuolo jokes in the blink of an eye?

Jen: My screen name was one I still use for a lot today. I’m not all that creative, I guess!

AOL blew up pretty quickly, and they couldn’t keep up once cable modems took over. They didn’t take enough chances, and ended up losing in the end. They definitely paved the way for a lot that is out there now, but whenever I see that someone has an AOL address I laugh a little and wonder if they have to pay for it. MySpace is the AOL of social networking, it’s a joke to everyone now. Justin Timberlake’s investment hasn’t saved it yet.

Look at how quickly Facebook and twitter blew up. By the time you adapt to something new, it’s pretty much obsolete and something else is out there.

Justin: Facebook and Twitter seem so dominant and a part of our culture now that it is hard to imagine them ever getting replaced. They seem as essential as email?

Any other thoughts in general before we wrap up? One last question on my end…If there was one AOL related aspect from that era that you could bring back, what would it be?

Jen: Instagram is getting more and more popular…just the pictures and none of the drama. Although Facebook is popular, it’s getting more popular with an older set, which is not what the inventors originally intended.

I can’t say there’s anything from that era I wish would come back, Google has pretty much voided that need.

Justin: True about Facebook trending older now. I guess that was bound to happen at some point. I think Twitter has major staying power thanks to the instantaneous breaking news and reaction aspect, but time will tell.

If I had to bring one thing back, I wish it could be the sense of excitement of the whole thing. It was a chore to get logged on but the battle sure was worth it when “You’ve Got Mail” rang out or your friend or crush was signed on instant messenger.

Although the gullibility that came with the primitive stages of the internet is not missed. I believed damn near everything I read online for a while there.

Anyway, let’s wrap things up. Nice job. You get to pick the subject for our next trip through time. In the meantime, I have 75 questions left to fill out on this survey.