The theatrical effort to revive America Online is not just a business soap opera but one of those great, almost poignant instances of the culture going one way and a heroic, albeit oddly out-of-it, ragtag group thinking it can hold fast against the tide.
Here's the real rub: AOL's fundamental business -- which has always been a level or two down from the family-oriented opening screen -- is dirty talk. But now there are better places to talk dirty.
The big attraction of AOL through all of its growth years has been not just ease but easy prurience. Its real selling point was that you could buy something perfectly respectable and get something very dirty -- it was the ultimate brown paper bag. In fact, the more respectable it got -- building up a critical mass of American families (women too!) -- the dirtier, and more compelling, it became.
But in a turn of vast social consequence, seeking sex on the Internet has become no longer weird or shameful behavior. Across the Internet, dirty talk has become a progressively more developed social form -- even a social norm. In fact, it is quite possible that everybody of a certain demographic profile who is dissatisfied with his or her current romantic prospects is experimenting with meeting someone online.
Here's my evidence:
John Podhoretz, the very conservative and highly un-with-it columnist and former editorial-page editor at the New York Post, much interested in family values and opposed to anything that suggests moral relativity, met a woman on matchmaker.com and married her. (The site where a couple meets is becoming an element of respectable wedding and engagement announcements.)
What's more, the matchmaking business is growing in a way, and producing profits of a sort, not seen since the advent of eBay (among the largest dating businesses is Barry Diller's match.com).
Then, too, in my personal focus group of thirtysomething single people, everybody is talking about meeting someone online (nerve.com for arty people; Jdate.com for Jews; match.com for Wall Street back-office types) and having more sex than ever before (when you visit another city, you set up some dates before you arrive -- like booking a hotel).
And logically, why wouldn't every lonely heart try a dating site?
Given the reach and the efficiency of Web dating, there would be only two things reasonably holding you back here: embarrassment and technical difficulties. But if John Podhoretz is doing it, the embarrassment factor is obviously dwindling -- it's a perfectly decent, unremarkable, squaresville thing to do. And with dating sites throwing off lots of cash (the more you want to know about a possible date, the more you pay, seems to be the basic model), the technology for online courtship rituals -- searching, profiling, chatting, photo uploading -- has become really nifty.
There's the safety factor, too -- which is a numbers game. The more normal people who are doing this means the lower your chances of meeting a monster at the Bennigan's in your neighborhood.
In contrast to the new, slick, and easy-to-use hookup sites, AOL has started to look like a bus station.
AOL succeeded in creating a simple, orderly, largely text-based chat client -- the first to work effortlessly. Next, AOL developed the Instant Message (IM), through which you could talk directly to anyone else online; then it offered a searchable database of fellow chatters that grew to vast proportions (any interest or kink was immediately searchable); and in 1996, it introduced the Buddy List, through which you could monitor the comings and goings of anyone who interested you (or whose kink interested you). This simple technology -- nontechnical people really couldn't chat anywhere else online -- was the engine of AOL's wild growth. And finally, AOL extended its chat range with the AIM applet, which could be used from outside the walls of AOL to chat with other AOLers (and other AIMsters).
Then AOL rested.
Certainly, it could afford to. Not only did AOL have better technology, it had what nobody could reproduce without great luck and limitless money, which was a critical-mass audience -- chat doesn't work unless, at every moment of the day, you have loads of chatters. Across the Internet, there were lonely chat rooms (where the chat function didn't really work, anyway) and, at AOL, rowdy and randy crowds ("Are you hot?" "Yeah! What are you wearing?").
Meanwhile, the AOL guys were refining their story. A great American brand could not appear to be in the sex business. So what AOL focused on was getting the dirty-talk audience to buy things. From sex to commerce was the conversion it was attempting (this is the conversion that cable television managed with infomercials in the mid-eighties). Certainly, Time Warner believed in conversion (the people at AOL used the word community as a euphemism, but the people at Time Warner used the word for real -- as though imagining little shops and churches and schools).
The result of this confusion or obfuscation about what AOL really does, as well as the ensuing cutbacks, recriminations, and dismissals that came with the AOL TW merger, meant that development in most areas at AOL stopped -- for two years, virtually nothing! -- just at the time when easy-to-use chat was breaking out all over the Web.
Everybody with any speed is locating and targeting and qualifying possible mates with great ease in well-designed, mall-like settings, while back at AOL, it's still a creepy, anonymous, low-class world (AOL's weird censorship policies, in an increasingly tolerant world, somehow seem to add an extra measure of tawdriness). Or, in a high-speed world, you and your friends are merely using the AIM applet, effectively cutting AOL out of the transaction.
It's a demographic nightmare: If you are still signing on to AOL to chat, there is, ipso facto, something wrong with you.