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AOL And I Move On (Op-Ed)

August 13, 2008

AOL and I move on

BY ELIZABETH WILLSE for the Star-Ledger

8/9/08

970 Words

I was 15 when Steve Case caught me making out next to Billy Joel’s piano at the Hard Rock Café in New York. It was 1994, and the even younger America Online was throwing a welcome party for its new members, who numbered in the tens of thousands, not millions.

My father had doubts about this online stuff, so as he dropped me off, he asked Case, the company’s CEO, to keep an eye on me and my boyfriend. When Case, himself only 36, caught me mid-clinch, he scowled at me over his glasses. I blushed. I revisited that awkward mo ment last week as I read that Time Warner, which joined with AOL in one of the most ill-advised corporate makeout sessions of all time, was preparing to spit out what was left of the dial-up online business. AOL had become a big, ungainly problem, no longer the small sanctuary it once was for a shy, uncertain teenager.

I remember the first modem Dad brought home. It was the size of a geometry textbook, 2400 baud and wired to a MacPlus with a black and white screen not much bigger than my hand. The modem screeched and wailed and connected to the phone line so slowly you could go make yourself chocolate milk and come back before you were signed on.

At my all-girl Catholic high school, I was a nervous, nerdy kid. I didn’t love dances, wore makeup only when prodded, and felt lost between the “popular” clique and the grinds driven to maintain a 4.0. But at home, when the modem connected, so did I.

I remember the AOL chat rooms as a sort of small town where it was just fine to be a teenager. It didn’t matter how clumsy I was, what I was wearing, whether I could dance, whether I blushed too easily, so long as I could think fast and express my self with some imagination (and type like a demon, which I learned to do within weeks).

I liked the challenge of choos ing a screen name so perfectly individual it didn’t need numbers appended to it. My first screen name was IguanaB — a play on “I wanna be” someone else, and “Lizard,” itself a nickname for “Elizabeth.” Some of the first connections I sought out were simply screen names that intrigued me.

“Looking for other teenage writers,” said a posting from someone named CoffeeMug on AOL’s message board. I e-mailed CoffeeMug, and we talked about our shared interest in writing poetry and fiction. He was in Dallas, and I was in New York, and we became fast friends. We studied for the Advanced Placement exam in American history over the phone. We watched “Friends,” and “ER” together while online. We laughed as we crafted inside jokes; one involved Oprah, a camel and a sweet po tato — I can’t remember the punchline, if there was one.

CoffeeMug became Muggy to me. He and I ran a writers’ group for other high school students. It met in a chat room on Sunday nights. We organized topics, such as how to juggle story ideas and mountains of homework. The guy who showed up with the screen name “TomClancy” may or may not have been the man himself. He certainly monopolized the discussion like he was famous. The kids meeting for the chat were much better behaved.

Muggy’s real first name was Evans. Two years into our friend ship, he came to New York. We spent an awkward first hour at a local coffee shop, far less talkative than in our hours of typed conversations. After a few minutes, I found myself tapping my fingers on the marble countertop, mimicking keys. The talk came more easily then.

I was tying up our single phone line for hours, so my parents had a second one installed. I remember a conversation I wasn’t supposed to overhear. The pay-by-the-hour AOL tab had climbed into the hundreds of dol lars, and Dad brandished the bill. “What’s this?” he asked. “It’s cheaper than therapy,” Mom re torted.

When I went off to college and moved into a dorm room with free Internet, I decided to leave AOL behind. I had the sense AOL, then with 6 million subscribers, wouldn’t miss me (al though it bombarded me with “Try AOL Free!” CDs so often I used them as coasters for coffee mugs).

But I’d return to AOL on school breaks. My parents’ an cient Mac felt dowdy and slow, as strange as sleeping in my childhood bedroom. My parallel online universe felt like an old neighborhood where everything had changed. The chat rooms I used to visit ran more rampant with “Age/sex checks!” than with clever repartee. The screen names all seemed to have numbers attached. My brave, earnest corner of cyberspace had changed.

As had I. I had become more comfortable in my own skin, still relishing conversations that ran long into the night, but now with people I could actually see, without a computer keyboard in front of me.

Steve Case, my onetime chaperone, has long since left AOL. The company’s phone-line business still has more than 8 million subscribers, but none of my friends are among them. These days, broadband is the way to go — no more screeching modems for us.

But we are still online, my friends and I, talking these days about work stress, and love and travel plans, not angst-filled teenage writing. And when I talk to Evans, I still call him Muggy, just as I did when AOL was as young as we were.

Elizabeth Willse is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. chrislombardi permalink
    August 16, 2008 12:24 pm

    Too bad there’s no Pulitzer for the Best Lede Ever. You’d have it cold.

  2. Kaffee permalink
    August 19, 2008 9:19 am

    Chris emailed your story to me; I love it. Made me jealous I only had Univac when I was a teen:).

  3. September 8, 2008 12:10 pm

    Really your story is so good. But every human being have their own way. But the thought of the story is cool……

    good start keep writing.

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