Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Long, Rambling Post About AOL

This weekend I tossed out a lot of AOL related crap.

Things I kept:

* coffee mug with my screen name (RebLiv) -- when hot liquid is poured, the computer screen displays AOL 2.0
* desk tag
* crystal AOL triangle
* AOL Varsity-style jacket (size XL, I was gonna order a medium, but a co-worker suggested I get it "big" -- in hindsight, that was a favor, if it had fit, I might have worn it)

Things I still had and tossed:

* teabags I kept in my desk (I left in December 1997, you do the math)
* a prosperity rune necklace (hope I didn't jinx myself)
* AOL disks (I fear my grandchildren will still be finding them when they clean my house after I die)

The thing about working for AOL in the mid-90's, or at least how I recall those days, is that the "now you have it, now you don't" experience harmed certain people. Some worse than others and yeah, you can say what a bunch of jackasses they were with their money and their expectations (and yeah, I can add tales of acquaintances and friends to that fodder). One of the reasons was that most of these folks were young, clueless about the stock market, economy, business, etc. Cycles, bubbles, I don't recall ever hearing any of those words when I was at AOL. It's not like there were many people there over 50 to make the connection to their parent's time during the depression, or people over 40, or many over 35. Not that we would have listened to any of those old people anyhow.

I was 21, fresh out of college got a job making $11 dollars/hour (which seemed like good money coming from Pittsburgh, although it didn't go far in Northern Virginia). They mentioned something about 200 stock options that made absolutely no sense and I tuned out that part of the HR presentation, as I did when they talked about a 401-what? and health insurance and all the rest of that stuff. All I cared about was that Chris and my combined salaries were over 26k so we could get the apartment we wanted. If they would have said: "you can trade those options for an extra 50 cents an hour," I would have leaped for those pennies.

By 1995 and 1996, I came to learn a lot about stock options -- but what I want to write about isn't the money and debauchery and mismanagement. Everyone's heard those stories and it's difficult to garner much sympathy, youth and folly aside. I was close to a number of Internet millionaires and don't have much sympathy. I'm not one of them. I was close. Really, really close, like six months close. But I chose to leave at the end of 1997 and start an MFA program in 1998. I left with money, a lot for a 25 year old and there's still some to start No Tell Books and go towards college for Gideon. If I stayed six months longer I would have cleared somewhere in the park of 2 to 6 million dollars. I don't know exactly, I couldn't bear doing the math to figure out exactly how much. What started out as bitterness has long changed to gratefulness -- thank god I didn't get all that money. There's no reason to believe I wouldn't have gone bat shit like the rest.

I don't claim that at the time I knew anything about an Internet bubble. But let me tell you what my smarty-pants, immature, mouthy, cranky, I-scoff-at-your-MBA, mid-20 something self did know and was always bitching about (which earned my reputation as a negative nelly):

If you're going to charge people $19.95, you have to actually offer them something, an added value to what they can already get for free. They didn't need us to link to what was on the web -- most people can use a free search engine just fine.

If you're going to write copy that promises something wonderful behind behind that button, it has to be there -- else it's a trick and people only fall for that a of couple times.

When I started there, it was all about the art -- trying to come up with new and interesting technologies, offering unique services, partnering with providers who offered compelling and/or useful content. As far as online content went, there were some pretty wonderful flops and mishaps. I spents months working on a student handbook for the 1996 election, what a labor of love, what a comprehensive resource! What a disaster! I thought kids across the country would be writing papers on presidents and the electoral college. Oh well, it was really well organized. It probably could have landed me a job at PBS.

The Cool Team (yes, there was a group officially named "The Cool Team") put together an area celebrating the Pope's visit to America -- and it had (gulp) sound, church bells! It was beautiful.

There was a weekly online comic strip that took 45 minutes to download over a 14.4 modem. That wasn't particularly popular either. Go figure.

It was a horrible business model. We weren't making any money and couldn't go on like that much longer.

So they recruited business folks to fix us. There was the Federal Express executive who only lasted a couple months after he suggested an employee dress code (fuck dat!). He also said something about us being in serious financial trouble, but who could get past the idea of not being able to wear shorts to work? Off with the geezer's head. Then there was the guy that created MTV and saved Century21. He had a socialite ex-wife who was in some mountain climbing scandal where climbing instructors died lugging her expresso maker down Everest. She forgot to thank them when they dragged her ass to safety or something like that. I forget the details -- there's a book about it. Anyhow, that guy was all about slick advertising and these New York types descended upon us with their sneers. Those folks sure knew how to shine a turd. I worked in a field of sparkling turds. It stunk.

That's when I became not so pleasant to work with. I was the queen of "that's dumb, why would you want to do that?" I didn't have the maturity and wisdom to sit in those meetings and act like somebody just sprayed Channel 5. See, since this was my first "real" job those first couple of years developed my expectation that my job was supposed to be fun and fulfilling and creative. I took it all way too seriously, when I should have realized it was just a job and in comparison to most jobs, it was pretty damn good.

That's when I started crying every evening on my way home (as opposed to crying on my way to work when I first started).

Looking back, I truly enjoyed my experience during 1995 and 1996 (my two non-crying years), before people got crazy rich, before we had to grow up and consider the bottom line and profit. Not because it's fun to be irresponsible (well, sometimes it is), but the early focus was on something I could get behind and work. It wasn't poetry, but I was creating things and it felt good. Feeling good doesn't attract the investors.

But that doesn't mean I don't want to feel good about what I create. It just means I don't want to have to answer to investors or boards or those with interests that conflict with my own -- not when it comes to my "art" -- whatever that may be.

Thank god there's no money to be had in poetry.

I think I read earlier this week that AOL is considering offering its service for free. They should have listened to the grumpy girl mumbling in her cubicle, she might have been wearing overalls (oh the shame) -- but she was an online content programmer for the people!


At 9:19 AM, Blogger Sam of the ten thousand things said...

What a strong read to find this morning. Thanks for posting Reb.

At 10:04 AM, Blogger Helen Losse said...

Wow, Reb. What a window into who you really are!

At 2:08 PM, Blogger shann said...

makes me like you even more- as one curmudgeon to another-

and at least you had enough sense to get a little money out of it

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

I have a lot of friends who followed the same crazy path through gee-whiz technology over the last 10 years...most have moved on to something else, now. It's a big field for the burning up of revenue and the burning out of ideals. I think you had a pretty understandable attitude throughout.

Years from now, when they write the history textbooks, this will be our Ford/invention of the car period. Atleast you'll have the authority of someone who was on the assembly line. Or maybe someone behind the wheel as they tried to coax the Model-T off the diving board and into the little cup of water. = )

At 6:26 PM, Blogger Montgomery Maxton said...

"Parts" of their service for free. AOL and that fine print. $.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Reb said...

I'm glad to know there are still folks there who know about to create some buzz about their shiny little turds.

At 12:28 AM, Blogger Amanda Auchter said...

You post makes me miss the 90s. Sigh. About that AOL jacket. . .and the overalls!

At 3:06 PM, Blogger Jimmy said...

Can I borrow fifty bucks? I'll pay you back, like, real soon.

At 3:38 PM, Blogger Sr. Bou said...

I have a vivid memory of visiting your house, I think just after you left AOL and meeting a lot of your ex-coleagues from work. All that money had made them check out of hotel reality, I knew exactly at that moment that mose of them were going to be broke and miserable, but, like you said they didn't want anything to hear about stock valuation, profits or anything of the sort. I vividly remember one person telling me how it was impossible to get a decent couch for less than 3000 dollars. That comment stuck. I also heard all the other ways they were spending money. Coming from my background I heard the sums they got and how they were spending it, and I knew they were going to be broke. 1 million or 2 million doesn't last a lifetime if you are spending money like a drunken sailor. You got out at the right moment. I kept being asked at the time about the AOL stock price, I think you did too, and I did say that it was impossible for the stock to remain that high when they made NO profit. So you took a smaller profit and made a happy life for yourself, now what the hell is wrong with that? I thought the decision you made at the time was great, so you passed up more money, so what?!

A lesson that I learned over the years is that nobody get's killed taking a series of small profits. The way to get murdered is trying to score everything in one shot.

At 6:12 AM, Blogger wrekehavoc said...

i still have my jacket. unworn. i wonder if i can sell it on Ebay ;-)


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