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 perfectlyrespectable 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 morecompelling, it became.But in a turn of vast social consequence, seeking sex on the Internet has becomeno longer weird or shameful behavior. Across the Internet, dirty talk has become a progressively more developed social form – even a social norm. In fact, itis 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, theembarrassment factor is obviouslydwindling – 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 allover 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 anincreasingly tolerant world, somehow seem to add an extra measure of tawdriness). Or, in a high-speed world, you and your friends are merely using theAIM 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.
Michael Wolff on AOL
You Got NailedAOL Time Warner has pinned its existential crisis on the biggest, baddest fall guy since the dearly departed Jerry Levin – but for Bob Pittman, consummate promoter, the show will simply go on. (July 29, 2002)
The Big FixSuddenly, the turn-of-the-millennium lust for media-world consolidation seems absurd (just ask AOL Time Warner and Vivendi shareholders). (May 13, 2002 )
AOL to WThe boys at AOL Time Warner now face the unenviable task of taming unruly factions and convincing America that this deal is a real winner. Sound familiar? (January 29, 2001)
Happy New MediaThe AOL-Time Warner merger has everyone shell-shocked. Is this as big as it looks, Munich Pact big? (January 24, 2000)
From the beginning of the merger, I thought this was going to be an interesting cultural problem. The AOL guys had always managed to keep the dialectic finely in play – encouraging dirty chat byencouraging family values. Profiles to foster “community” and multiple screen names for family use and parental controls to create clearly marked areas of menace (otherwise, it was hard to find this stuff) served its porn business as well as its family image.But this is not something you would have explained to the Time Warner guys.
I’m pretty sure nobody from AOL ever sat down at a Time Warner boardroom table and spelled out the workings of the autoeroticism business.And count on it, the Time Warner people, those uptight guys, didn’t ask.What’s more, I think the higher-up AOLers suddenly, given the opportunity, didn’t want to be in the sex businessanymore either. They’d all made hundreds of millions – now they wanted tobe respectable. Classically, nobody was minding the store.Now, AOL’s problems are always blamed on the AOL people – they were the flimflammers who got everybody into trouble. And they certainly were the flimflammers – always playing a bit of bait and switch, always cooking the books a bit.
But the Time Warner guys were not only the guys who got duped but the guys who couldn’t even see the real value of what they had: a monopoly on dirty chat. Possibly the greatest growth industry of the age.The AOL problem is in some wayssimilar to the CNN problem.The CNN reason for being became less and less clear after it was taken over by Time Warner. The outsider identity got confused. The scrappy thing suddenly seemed ridiculous. The tone went off.Likewise AOL, which had this canny sense of what Americans wanted to do in the privacy of their own computers, stopped having it.
Stepping into the time machine:In 1994, I was a consulting member of a four-man committee at Time Warner that made two decisions.The first decision was not to buy AOL. Among the considerations was thatAOL was so unique, and its route to success so eccentric, and its understandingof the relationship of technology toculture so quirky, that Time Warner, with its heavy-handed, unquirky literalness, could be counted on, in the estimation of Walter Isaacson, one of the committee members and now the chairman of CNN, “to screw it up.”The second decision was that Time Warner would start a Website of its own which would be built around what everyone considered to be the Time Warner mother lode of irresistible content – it had People magazine! With some prescience, the Time Warner people, who know a thing or two about advertising, correctly surmised that advertising was not going to support the Internet. And so the plan was to sell users Time Warner content. (In my personal defense, I kept talking about what a dirty place AOL was – that the Internet was the porn business. But the feeling seemed to be that, first, I was joking and, second, while new entertainment technologies often started dirty, they soon became much more sanitized and mass-market.) This service, which started in the autumn of 1994 and closed in the spring of 1999, was called Pathfinder and proved two things: Selling Time Warner content on the Internet was pretty much a nonstarter, and the people at Time Warner lacked a certain flair for the Internet. We just don’t get it, they said. Which was the essential reason for merging with AOL.Now, in a fascinating and comic turn of events, AOL has come full circle to an idea that eerily resembles Pathfinder.
Most of the core AOL executives have departed (although Steve Case’s picture has recently returned to the opening screen, exhorting the faithful), leaving the Time Warner people, with all their inhibitions, in charge.It is unlikely that they have spent much time in the Long Island Swingers chat room in the Special Interests chat area, or given much thought to building a business to cater to those special interests – that is, pursuing the business that AOL created and until recently dominated.Instead, the Time Warner guys, in some remarkable demonstration of human and corporate steadfastness, have announced that they are going to save AOL by transforming it into a business that sells Time Warner content. For a premium, you’ll be able to read People online!Forgive me … ROTFL.