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The Ruins of AOL

Published 2015-06-12

America Online: National provider of free frisbees and coasters since 1990-something. It's still around. You can still pop in an AOL disk and log on like it is 1990-something. Of course doing that would be an awful idea. Trying to do that would be like exploring ancient ruins. Half of it is gone and what's left is in a serious state of disarray.

I like ancient ruins. Let's go exploring.

AOL 4.0 login screen

We'll start our journey on Windows with AOL 4.0. The reason I'm even pointing this out is that every operating system and AOL version takes you to what is essentially an entirely different AOL. You can't just explore one. You have to explore them all. I'd start at AOL 3.0, but when logging on it informs me that the support for this version has been discontinued. Not that it ever worked to begin with, but it's still a bummer.

If you want to follow along, find a copy of AOL 4.0. If you threw out or mutilated all your AOL disks (can't blame you) you can get a copy at OldVersion. While it does run on Windows 7 (and probably 8/10 as well), it's the last thing I'd recommend. AOL's known to be a bit invasive during installation. Run it in a Windows 95/98 VM if you can. You'll also need an AOL account. You don't have to pay for it; just sign up for an email on their site and that'll work just fine. Make sure you also have your connection set up to use LAN. You do not need a dial-up modem.

Anyhow, when logging in, a rather ominous message appears.

AOL Desktop notice

That's why I'm doing this now, by the way. Wanted to showcase what I can while I still could. Once that is dismissed, you see the Welcome screen.

Welcome Screen showing obsolete news and snowy weather in June.

It's a tad dated. "L.A. Ink" being a popular search dates this from somewhere between 2007 and 2011. Everything else is too generic to pull a date from, however it's probably safe to say that a vest on a skin-colored t-shirt with jeans is no longer the "latest fashion trend." The weather is from ages ago too. It (just from switching around cities) seems to be from a winter month. That's all I know.

In case you were curious, none of the links work. They all either try to open up websites or load up "missing records". And, for some reason that is beyond me, whatever Internet Explorer hook this uses only supports HTTPS. I don't even know how that's possible.

The email still works. In fact AOL has this annoying habit of sending you emails every time you log in about some PC cleaning service, so I got to hear it triumphantly exclaim "You've Got Mail!". I think you can send email too, but it's not something I've tried.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much all that works. Everything either loads a webpage or causes an error. The only exceptions are the "Kids Only" section, which just begs the user to upgrade their AOL version, and the "Teen" section, with is a redirect to the website It still exists, although it just redirects to some celebrity gossip page where the latest news includes semi-famous people using tampons as earrings. To be fair, I was expecting worse.

Kids Only section, urging upgrade. Teen section, showing link to ''

The chatrooms don't work either. They demand age verification, which is accomplished by the roundabout method of taking a credit card, charging a dollar from it, and then refunding that dollar. At least they're serious about child safety? I'd have preferred a method that doesn't involve my credit card, though.

Credit Card webpage.

So yeah. Windows offers nothing to us. That's a shame. But you know what I said earlier about other operating systems having essentially entirely different AOL? Let's try that. Let's emulate a 68k Macintosh running System 7.

AOL 3.0i Folder. Is it just me or does the AOL logo resemble the Illuminati eye?

And, just to throw another curveball, we'll be running the British version of AOL 3.0! Why? It was pretty much because it was the first copy of 3.0 I found. The Mac versions are nigh-on impossible to find for some reason. In fact, I couldn't even give you a download link to this version because I can't find it on the internet anymore.

Also, British America Online. That's definitely something to wrap your head around.

Login Screen. Very Vaporwave-style aesthetics.

It has a very, very different aesthetic. More of a dated early-mid 90's sorta look. I'm not sure if this is just the British version or not. What is undeniably different is that instead of the AOL Man welcoming you, you get a British lady. She also exclaims that you've got post instead of mail.

Welcome screen. TOP NEWS STORY: sksks

When you log in, it opens up to this Welcome screen much like the other versions. I'm not entirely sure what the point of this is, but you can read the member services if you care about chatroom etiquette or whatnot. Also, notice the top news story. I'm sure that was an important event in humanity's history.

This is just as dysfunctional as the Windows version. The mail works exactly as it did in Windows. Pretty much everything else fails to load in much the same way it did on Windows. It looks cool, though.

Channels screen. So rad, yo.

There used to be a rather roundabout way of upgrading from this version. You'd go to the Kids section and it would prompt you to install AOL 4.0. And it worked, against all odds. So let's check that out next time. I can guarantee you it'll be infinitely more interesting.

Read the next article: The Beautiful Decay of AOL