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Fast Forward: AOL, Love it or leave it [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs

Fast Forward / Business section

The Washington Post


In a point-counterpoint piece that ran in the Feb. 25, 2000 Business section of The Post were two points of view on AOL, just as it was starting to fall out of favor with the masses. Hope Gibbs provided the insight into the down-side of an AOL account, while fellow reporter Bob Massey offered the slightly rosier point of view in his article, “Why AOL? Name Recognition.” Illustrations, by Dave Sullivan, provided additional comic relief.

MY FRIEND JOHN TOLD ME a few weeks ago that he had just signed up for America Online. I was not too supportive: “Don’t you know most people hate AOL?”

Yes, he knew. In fact, he really wanted broadband cable access-but his cable company wasn’t going to connect his neighborhood for another three months. “I had about a dozen of those 100-hours-free disks from AOL piling up in my desk drawer,” he explained. “While I am waiting for broadband, I figured I’d try one. It’s free, after all. How bad can it be?”

I knew what he was thinking. I felt the same way in 1995 when I received free marketing marvel in the mail—and I too tried the service for a while. I actually liked it. The cool talking mailbox and some other friendly features were fun. Yes, trudging online with an old Macintosh Classic 11, “armed” with a 40-megabyte hard drive and four megs of memory, was annoying. But my friends and colleagues had my e-mail address. It seemed enough to keep me surfing along. Plus, I figured if I wanted to get onto the Internet what I needed was a new computer, not a new service provider.

But then my husband gave me his Power Mac, and soon I was surfing away. My AOL access crashed the system a lot, but I was jazzed simply to get on the Web.

Then seemingly overnight, the quantity of junk e-mail I got tripled, and I seemingly wound up on every X-rated mailing list in cyberspace. So I tried calling AOL, to ask what was up. The polite associate suggested I forwarded all that spam right back to the sender. I did. It didn’t help.

In the days that followed, more offerings to view naked ladies and my enthusiasm for AOL began to wane. It really irked me to click through two dozen junk messages only to find two correspondences worth reading.

It was a financial issue: Remember, before December 1996, AOL charged by the minute, not the month, so I was pretty rigid about getting online and off as fast as possible. I kept my membership, though. After all, even more people had my AOL e-mail address by now. But when AOL began allowing boxes of advertisements to pop up before I could even access the
main screen, I could take it no more. I had switched to AOL’s $19.95 unlimited-access plan, but my time was still limited.

And I had a toddler competing for my attention. All I wanted to do was check my e-mail. (AOL does let you turn off these pop-ups, but the company ought to have the manners to know that they’re annoying instead of making the customer click through a series of screens to opt out of its marketing efforts.)

Drat you, AOL, I thought as I called to cancel my membership. I grabbed an Earthlink software package and signed up that day, sending one last “I’m moving!” e-mail from my AOL account to my database of contacts.

I am happy to report that I have been a satisfied Earthlink customer ever since. And I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m wrong. After all, AOL still has 21 million customers.

But only last week I sent an attached document to my friend Barry, an editor at Global Business magazine, who has his entire magazine staff signed up with AOL. He phoned soon after, ranting something about a MIME format and an uncooperative WinZip program, and asked me to resend the document. “I have the hardest time downloading files on AOL,” he said. “I have got to get a new service provider.”

As for John, he says he’s ready for those 100 free hours to end: “I had to log on three or four times just this morning because I kept getting bumped off.”

I gave them both the URL to sign up for Earthlink.


More First Person Essays Articles

"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.