Monday, February 7, 2011

AOL -- The Zombie Cinderella

It's fun to mock the once-mighty. Kick 'em while down. Keep their face in the muck. Let 'em up just enough to breathe, just long enough so they can hear your derision.

We lift our chins and twist our lips as righteous superiority rages through us.

Yesterday, the news that AOL is buying The Huffington Post hit Twitter and Facebook. The flagellation started instantly. Mockery abounded. Funerals for HuffPo are already being planned. NYC media leapt away from their city darling as though zombies are feasting on its brains.

It's a shame really.

I know, I know. Y2K gifted AOL with the Meningitis Touch rather than the Midas Touch. Believe me, I do know. I used to work for what was then known as America On-Line...then AOL Time Warner... then Time Warner. That means I was there for the boom, the bust, and the spanking. I firmly agree that the rise and fall of AOL is a spectacular case-study in how American ego can destroy a company, both domestically and globally.


Recall this week's brouhaha with Bryant Gumble and Katie Couric asking "What is the Internet" from 1994? For the vast majority of US households, AOL answered that question. AOL was a major vehicle for turning something only geeks and GIs used into a utility on par with electricity and water. Yeah, yeah, I know. The glory days. It started off as Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream and languishes in Ellen Burstyn's character track, dreaming of winning the All-Media Game Show. Hindsight shines a trashy neon light on its downward slide. AOL's ingenuity and community made it the internet princess, but it got tumbled by the endless parade of CEOs and personal agendas.

by ~LaTaupinette

AOL was the sparkly pump in which every transient executive rammed their fat hairy foot.

AOL is trying for their Cinderella come-back. They've been the beloved child. Now they're Aschenputtel slaving under the cruel demands of the step-monsters. I'm rooting for them. Truly. More specifically I'm rooting for all mice and birds helping Cinderella survive her chores. The little guys you never see, but who roll out of bed in the morning wanting their products, their plans, their personal investments to be recognized and lauded.

Not derided by those who are only now attempting 
what AOL did over a decade ago.

In my new little corner of the publishing world, a fairly well respected literary-agent-turned-business-development-wonk put out the call for a Biz Dev Minion. She mocked the applicants who had an "" e-mail address. "If you want to be in a technology business, you can't apply with that attached to your e-mail address." She went on to say it's embarrassing. How any association with AOL spoke of how little the applicant actually knew about the internet.

I had to walk away.

AOL may be many things, but it is not now nor has it ever been a technology buffoon. Its pop-history legacy may be the mass-marketing inundation of installation CDs in a time of narrowband connectivity. It may have fallen out of technorati lurve because it became the very definition of mainstream by choosing to market to Mom and Dad instead of the webbies that gave it shape. It may have lost its community when it followed the capitalistic path of revenue over people.

It has never been bereft of technological innovation.

AOL's greatest flaw has long been its inability to properly market its vast offerings, mostly because it suffers an identity crisis. They want to be Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and WSJ all rolled in to one. They want to be "A Media Conglomerate." Clearly the implosion of AOL Time Warner hasn't deterred them from this. Unfortunately, in the public eye, they need to pick one direction and go for it. Are they a technology company or a content company? If they can't make up their mind, they can't expect the public to do it for them.

Bad marketing does not equate to bad technology.

I respect the AOL legacy, the entirety of it. I'm not blind to the failures, but I know architects who designed systems to support millions of simultaneous users deserve props. I know developers and QA teams who invented what is now the ubiquitous Instant Message should be lauded in history. I know the privacy, safety, and government relation teams who navigated bringing a communications service to a communist country value dodging that bullet mere days before it was set to launch. I know marketing and ad teams who had to put a value on social interaction have the right to laugh their asses off at 2010's The Social Network.

Do I think the acquisition of Huffington is going to restore AOL to its glory? No, but I wish them all the best. Here's to hoping that Arianna Huffington comes with a magic wand, but I'll keep my glass slippers just in case there is a zombie attack.


  1. Great food for thought--and I'll be watching what happens with interest! Thank you!

  2. You got it! Sometimes being the most recognizable brand isn't the way to claim new audiences (or reclaim those who feel they have "graduated" from a former target audience).