February 6th, 2024

AOL and the multiverse of sadness

Warning: this post is not thoughtful. It is not polished. It is more than slightly unhinged and may or may not make a point.

Do you ever wonder what it would be like if AOL had won? Instead of falling into obscurity, what if the first big tech company became the Cable TV-like franchise it wanted to be?

Because I think about that a lot. And honestly, fucking hell, man, how would that be worse than what we have now? Like how high is your internet and mobile bill this month?

Anyway. You know, that's what AOL executives wanted to do— turn the Internet into a Disney production studio inside a digital walled garden? 

How awesome would that be? 

Okay, hear me out— if AOL became the Disney of the internet, it still wouldn't have owned the entire internet infrastructure. The internet was too big, and too many companies were foaming at the mouth. And back then, the internet's backbone was effectively owned by the public. 

Today, like five corporations own most of the internet infrastructure. And spoiler, our government just kind of handed it over to them. 

So, then I start to wonder if there's a universe out there where AOL is the de-facto web. And maybe, I don't know, I want to go there. 

Just for a visit...

For a visit 

AOL Here, There, Everywhere, All at Once

In a world... (I'm doing that thing from the thing)

In a world, where Dancing Baby never went viral
So, no one here has heard of a meme?
And dial-up connections never left our homes
It takes how long to download a JPEG here?!
An evil corporation has taken control of the internet
So, let me get this straight. In your universe, AOL killed the World Wide Web in 1993. And now you guys don't have Wikipedia?

You mean like AOLipedia?

And now, it's hungry for new worlds to conquer.
I know I just met you and all, but moving to Mars for "shareholder value” is fucking crazy, Margot.
One man
How did I even get here?
One scientist
So, in your universe, WWW became the standard after TCP/IP won the Protocol Wars. Does your world use HTTP?
Are our only hope to save the World Wide Multiverse
I literally don't know what any of those initials mean, and I feel like you're purposely trying to confuse me.
Coming this fall
You guys at least have email, right?
Cut to black. Loud screeching sounds slice through the darkness like banshees in the night. The occasional glitch flickers across the screen. And then, silence.


OMINOUS VOICE: "You've Got Mail."

DUN DUNNN (this is the epic score playing) DUH DUH DUH DUHHHH. 

Ok, so now, pretend like the camera is panning across a red, desolate plain. Metadata in monospaced font clicks at the corner of your screen.

Year: 2024
Location: Sec 239-K, Mars

And then–

Okay fine. I admit it. This universe would suck. And, I don't have a good reason why this thinkpiece occurs on Mars. I'm pretty sure this doesn't even qualify as a thinkpiece.

I just- ok. Everyone shut up for a second. I'm trying to make a point, here. I promise I won't jump the shark.

Let's continue, please.

Margot kicks off her gravity boots and then summons her glowing orb to read her email. The first message is from Lunar President Edgar Alan Poe GPT. 


Fine, whatever, abandon script. 


When you think about how the internet formed in the part of the world that values property ownership above all else, you realize how remarkable it all is. A series of unlikely events spanning decades gave us the World Wide Web, which nobody owns. Except, corporations own the internet, which negates the whole "open web" thing, doesn't it?

There's this narrative in tech circles that openness won, and the web is for everyone. To that, I say, have you spoken with Detroit? Who pays your internet bill? Your maid? Because my bill is high as hell. I can barely afford it. 

You see, the World Wide Web is “open” in the same sense that the ocean is open on a private beach— we can't surf freely if gatekeepers control the access points.

Some may say it's entitled to imply that I, we, have a right to community internet access. But to that, I say, "Who paid for the pipes, you dork?" We did. Our tax dollars paid for the modern internet infrastructure, and then ol' Billy Clinton gave it to the corporations in '96. 

So, in a way, if AOL had won and become the internet franchise it wanted to be, we may've saved the rest of the internet for ourselves. Because in such a universe, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 would not have passed the House. Corporations would not have looted public infrastructure. And we wouldn't be dancing for digital roses on live feeds thirty years later. 

Of course, we'd still use dial-up internet to log into chat rooms, so I don't know. Maybe the problem is that the internet was never meant to be commodified. Not in this or any universe. 

PS- shout out to The History of The Web Blog and the wonderful post AOL Pretends to be the Internet. It unfortunately inspired this post.