A revealing look at one of the great oxymorons in cyberspace.
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November 27, 1996|
A flashing banner near the top of the America Online home page on the Web reads, "The future. Now available on AOL."1 Not far below it is an image of a television set that links to a "program guide" promoting, among other things, a "Great New Fall Lineup" of features found exclusively on the AOL network -- from The Late Show Online to a "made-for-online dramatic series" from TV-mogul Brandon Tartikoff. You'd be forgiven for momentarily forgetting just which medium you're in. (For those tuning in late, America Online is the world's largest online service -- a network separate from, but offering its subscribers access to, the Internet. You can get out to the Web via AOL, but you can't get into AOL without AOL's software and a membership account.)
Now that AOL is positioning itself to compete with other Internet service providers -- offering members a flat rate of $19.95 per month for unlimited use of the Internet -- a natural place to look for clues about the company's new direction is its Web site. Will AOL start developing content just for the Web, as Microsoft and others are doing? Or will AOL continue building its own parallel (and proprietary) online universe, with "programming" similar to that of a television network?
To judge by AOL's Web site, it appears that the company's aversion to the Web extends right on out to the Web itself. The site's design and overall presentation add up to a state-of-the-art sales pitch intended to lure people off the Web and into AOL's self-contained and advertiser-friendly cyberspace, where user demographics can be captured far more efficiently and accurately than on the Web. The effect is ironic. As The New York Times reported recently, AOL is now the "gateway," or on-ramp to the Internet, for more than 35 percent of Web traffic during prime-time evening hours. And yet AOL's Web site is an exit sign pointing to an off-ramp that leads straight into the combination cybermall and interactive-TV network that the service is becoming.
You can almost hear the announcer's voice reading the subtext of the AOL Web site's promotional copy: Tired of browsing the Web? Perplexed and overwhelmed by the chaos of unfiltered, un-homogenized, un-focus-group-tested, un-V-chip-protected Web sites? Look no further, because the future is here: an anti-Web site that offers a sure escape route from the messy, confusing, infinite Web space of the present -- an irresistible package of pop culture, plus a whole new culture in the making, all pre-processed and warning-labeled by your most trusted mass-media Big Brothers. World-Wide-Web-weary wanderer, come home to TimeWarner and ABC, Disney and MTV, ease back into your thought-free comfort zone and say, "Good morning America Online!"
The infectious theme to the 1960s cartoon "The Jetsons" plays throughout current TV advertisements for America Online. It is one of the most ingenious yet disharmonious convergences of message (the future is now available on America Online) and medium (television advertising) on the airwaves today. If you're wondering what will become of the brave new world that is the present on the Web -- a potential mass medium that neither Hollywood nor Madison Ave. has found a way to dominate -- have a look at www.aol.com, and see if you can resist the call to go back to the future.
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.