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Remember When AOL Wrote a How-to Internet Book?

Yep, it includes Comic Sans

Getty Images
Getty Images

If you are of a certain age, you remember AOL internet. It was, for a brief period in the late ’90s and early aughts, a popular monthly subscription service that allowed you to get online via a noisy dial-up connection. The company first spread its seed with the help of free-trial CDs that you could pop into your computer for a test drive. And if you paid a monthly fee, you were inducted into the AOL universe with an email address, an Instant Messenger account, and the ability to ask someone’s a/s/l in any shady chat room you wanted.

The service connected many family homes to the internet for the first time, and caused an equal number of vicious teen fights over a busy telephone line. But even if you can still hear every note of the company’s catchy “You’ve Got Mail” greeting, you might have completely forgotten about its other contribution to the web: America Online Internet Guides.

I did, until I was lucky enough to find one on a Brooklyn stoop. Your Official America Online Internet Guide, 3rd Edition to be exact. Written by a George Washington University instructor named David Peal, the book spends chapter after chapter defining the basics of the internet and how to best use it with the help of AOL products. Published in partnership with the same company that printed the iconic Internet for Dummies how-to franchise that was popular in the late ’90s, the book represents an ironic side business in print that digital companies like AOL, Netscape, Hewlett-Packard, and Novell invested in when the public was still learning how to use the internet.

As the Internet Guide’s introductory page explains, “AOL Press was formed as a part of the AOL family to create a complete series of official references for using America Online as well as the entire Internet — all designed to help you enjoy a fun, easy, and rewarding online experience.” It seems that even the CEOs of some of the most powerful digital companies at the time weren’t ready to view the internet as an infallible encyclopedia. People were still buying hard-copy guidebooks to understand what essentially became a giant, all-encompassing guidebook. (And people like Hillary Clinton were reading them.)

Today, the idea of needing a paper guide to log on to the internet is hard to comprehend. And flipping through the copy, I found, is much like embarking on an Indiana Jones–esque quest to understand a lost society, pointedly marked by the mention of dusty internet entities like Netscape, Internet Phone, and Net Nanny. And no history of such an anthropological treasure is complete without a short journey through the pages that our ancestors earnestly turned.

Most wildly dated sentence: “The most recent versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator can handle all the latest multimedia razzle-dazzle.”

Thing that would probably cause society to collapse if it were still true: “You’re much more likely to be able to find a person’s phone number and street address than you are his or her e-mail address; phone numbers and addresses are freely published in phone books, while e-mail addresses aren’t. In general, the e-mail address will only show up if the person you’re looking for has taken the trouble to provide it to Netscape for publication in the People Finder database.”

Most regrettable sentence written about email: “While it’s true that e-mail lacks the personality of a letter, the online culture has generated a wide range of ways to express feelings, show off wit, and enhance your message with photos, colors, and other effects.”

Least impressive humblebrag: “In AOL 5.0 you can keep up to 1,000 messages in your New and Old mailboxes — a great many more than you could before.”

Most prescient advice for the communications office of every politician: “People get so much mail these days that unless your Subject Line is specific and concrete, and clearly from you, your recipient(s) might delete it without bothering to open it.”

Actual best advice: “In past editions of this book, I have volunteered lots of tips about how not to ruffle feathers, make yourself clear, demonstrate respect, and in general show what a nice person you are. Since then I’ve become more aware of the many purposes e-mail serve just short of the fully developed thought. In some messages, a single word (yes) or simple number (for example, a fax number or zip code) can be perfectly sufficient and a good use of e-mail. A fully formed message (‘Dear so and so …’) is often not necessary.”

Clearest evidence that emoticons weren’t good enough: “A smiley is a bit of text that represents a facial expression when you tilt your head to the left. These Smileys, and many more, can be found at Mail Extras; click Smileys.”

Closest thing to contemporary art:

Why my mom has always signed off Gchat with “TTFN”:

“Not included in Mail Extras is another form of online expressiveness called emoticons, short abbreviations that stand for common expressions. Here are some emoticons you might see:

  • BRB: Be Right Back
  • BTW: By The Way
  • GMTA: Great Minds Think Alike
  • LOL: Laughing Out Loud
  • OMG: Oh My GOSH [fill in the expletive of choice]!
  • OTF: On the Floor (laughing)
  • ROFLWTIME: Rolling on the Floor with Tears in My Eyes
  • TTFN: Ta-Ta for Now!
  • TTYL: Talk to You Later”

Why the internet was bad at the time: “Greeting cards are the latest thing on the Net.”

Most enduring question posed by the author: “What do you do when people treat your mailbox as a garbage can?”