Last night I finally pulled the plug on our old AOL account. It had served us well for over twelve years, but it was time to part company. When we got DSL in our current house about six years ago we had scaled back to just the bare minimum AOL service, just in case of emergency or if we found ourselves in a hotel without Internet access. Now I’m not sure we even own a computer with a modem to even access the service, so it just didn’t make sense anymore. With Blackberries and smart phones, we can have access even when wifi isn’t available. I plan to take what we’re saving in monthly fees for AOL and use them for expanded web access plans on our phones.
To be honest, I had completely forgotten that we still had an AOL account. That’s how little I had paid attention to it. AOL certainly didn’t make it easy to find a way to cancel the service. With the dial-up interface no longer an option, and I had to go to their website and spend some time searching, but I finally found it. As I pulled the plug on the service last night, I began to reflect on my online history, not just with AOL, but with other service I have used.
Like many home consumers, AOL was our portal to the Internet for many years. However, I’ve been an online junkie even long before then. I got my first e-mail account back in 1984 through MCI Mail. A special offer accompanied my purchase of a 300 baud modem for my Commodore 64. Back then, though, no one else I knew had e-mail, so I let the service drop. I was communicating more through text-based BBS systems such as Blackbeard’s Tavern, a locally-hosted BBS. The challenge was to find viable free BBS systems with enough ports to allow access on a local call.
When I graduated to PC-based systems I used Greenville County’s Gremlin system, a dial-up service sponsored by the county library. There was a text-based BBS system, but you could also browse the fledgling Internet via Lynx, a precursor to today’s browsers. In today’s globally connected world it’s hard to describe the thrill of seeing the phrase “Welcome to CERN” pop up on the screen and know that you had just connected your computer to a server on the other side of the world in Switzerland.
In the early 1990’s I started playing around on the Unix systems at Furman and a brand new way to access the Internet call the World Wide Web. Mosaic was the browser developed to take advantage of this new hypertext transfer protocol (http). The Exploratorium in San Francisco and the Smithsonian Institute were two of the first organizations to host a full-blown web presence, and I spent hours exploring their resources.
By this time Windows 3.1 was available and I had upgraded our home computer to something that would run this new graphical interface. Netscape had replaced Mosaic, and had come out with a version for Windows. To complete the system, Lon Knight granted me dial-up access to a Unix box he used for research at Furman. I could use this only as long as Lon’s collaborator didn’t have to remote into the system, but it did give me home access to the World Wide Web and a permanent e-mail address for the first time.
Fascinated with this new WWW, I continued to use my Furman connection as well as the library’s Gremlin system and taught myself rudimentary web design and HTML. I got a temporary consulting gig with Furman’s IS department to help design web pages, which landed me a regular Furman e-mail account and remote access, not just the access through Lon’s computer.
So here we are now in the mid-90’s. I’m teaching and using my Furman connections in my classroom, as well as learning more about web design. Home access systems are starting to come into their own. Prodigy, CompuServe, and AOL had already been around for awhile, but they tended to be insular systems. These dial-up companies offered access to the emerging WWW, but at a premium cost. They preferred that you remain in their own little world. Local ISP’s began offering basic dial-up access to the web, so other hosting systems such as AOL begain offering unlimited package plans with full Internet access in order to compete. This started to move the general populace to a common Internet experience – the World Wide Web.
It was about this time that we decided to sign up for AOL. I hated the interface and AOL browser, but I knew I could connect, then minimize it and use Netscape. We liked the fact that AOL was available nation-wide while we were travelling, unlike the local ISP’s. More importantly, and AOL account provided me with a whopping 2 MB of web hosting for each screen name. In 1995 I set up my first personal web page, as well as pages for our school and my church.
In 1996 the K-12 Initiative brought broadband connections to the schools and libraries of South Carolina. As part of the non-compete agreement, Greenville Library had to dismantle its own free Gremlin system. More importantly, it meant that for the first time I had a fast Internet connection in my classroom. AOL still played a large roll at home, but that roll was diminishing as we found quicker, more reliable connections.
Fast forward a few years. In 1998 I took the job with District Five Schools, and by this time increasingly faster Internet connections for schools were common state-wide. A couple of years later moved into our house and decided to go with DSL. We scaled AOL back to its most basic, cheapest monthly service just for when we were traveling. And so it has remained until now.
As a family we haven’t completely left AOL. Laura’s mom still uses it on the remote island where she lives, although broadband is now making its way out there. While we discontinued our dial-up access, I was able to keep my old AOL e-mail address. Why, I don’t know. I haven’t checked it in eons and it doesn’t seem to do anything but catch spam anymore. I guess probably for the same reason that I still have a functioning Commodore 64 computer in my attic with a 300 baud modem. Sometimes it’s hard to turn loose.