I Logged Into AOL With a Dial-Up Modem for the First Time in 20 Years
Twenty years ago when I was growing up, I, like everyone else I knew, could only use the Internet by bowing down to AOL’s unbearably long connection time via a dial-up modem. Now, since I'm the guy who complains about the slow Internet on the airplane, I wanted to take a reflective step back, and see what it would be like to use today's Internet at yesterday's speeds. Would it be a fun, nostalgic trip or would I get so impatient I'd throw my laptop out the window? Maybe both? I found out.
It's not easy to get an AOL account in 2015
I’m not one of the 2.1 million Americans who still pays for AOL to give them a dial-up connection to the Internet. The majority of these folks either live in rural areas without easy broadband access (I live in Denver), or are probably just too old to know how much better things can be. Working with the latter theory, I figured my neighbors, who are significantly older than I am (I'm in my 30s, and they are... not), would have one. No dice. But then my other neighbor came through!
So, I signed up for AOL... with the desktop software I downloaded on a broadband connection. How the hell do people on dial-up do this if they don't have Internet yet?
In exchange for my credit card info, I was granted a free month's trial (free trials are still very much a thing, except now that free CD with 10,000 free hours is outdated. The irony!). I got a local access number and plugged in my slick 56.6K USB modem. I was on my way to getting that sweet, sweet Internet from 1995.
Except the modem (which cost $50 at Best Buy) didn't work the first few times I tried it. So I called tech support, and the rep helped me out. “How many people call to get their modem fixed?” I asked for good measure. "A lot of people," he said.
Finally, I logged on
The familiar "You've got mail!" greeting instantly transported me back to 1995. Hearing that then meant I was connected to the rest of the world, or, you know, my friends and randos I met in chat rooms after my parents went to bed. Logging on was exciting -- it was like if I took my parent's car out for a spin past curfew and went to all the places they forbade me from visiting (the rundown Adult's Only store called HJs, mostly), only with much lower stakes. After all, I couldn’t miss my curfew if my computer was only 10ft from my race car bed.
YouTube basically doesn't work
I tried to watch Taylor Swift's "Blank Space," which turned out to be super fitting. After staring at that blank screen for a few minutes, I called AOL tech support to ask why it was so damn slow. The rep patiently explained that many websites, like YouTube and Netflix, require a much faster connection. I guess I won't continue watching that Bojack Horseman episode. Thanks for nothing, 56.6K USB modem!
I opened another tab and tried to go to a different site, not thinking that that would slow down my experience even more. Multi-tabs are a luxury of the broadband user, and each additional absentmindedly opened one was a mistake. My brain wanted 1995 dial-up Internet to operate flawlessly in a 2015 world. But it doesn't work. It will never work. I looked at stuff on my phone to pass the time while it slowly loaded.
I figured reddit would be super fast
Because it's just text! I was wrong. And even though reddit was only founded in 2005, and thus not part of my 1995 Internet experience at all, I was desperate to go on a site that would load in a reasonable amount of time. A minute of waiting felt like 10. Once it did load, I was too impatient to click on any of the links lest I fall on a site that uses Flash, and I didn't want to be at my neighbor's house using his dial-up connection until 2016.
Now, the interminable wait for boobs
To further complete the 1995 flashback, I typed “boobs” directly into the search box, because let's be real: almost everyone uses the Internet to look at naked people. In 2015, using a dial-up connection to look at porn is like a teenager looking at 1950s Playboys. It's dirty, but also so quaint!
I waited for a tantalizing boob shot. How do people who view porn do it on a dial-up connection? Do they just click on a video before they go to work in the morning, and then watch it when they come home eight hours later? Should I just drive to a strip club, wait eight hours for it to open, and then see boobs in person??
It took about two minutes to load.
Chat is actually pretty speedy
Now, other than boobs, the main thing I use the Internet for is to connect with other people and/or read angry and disappointed tweets about articles I write. But since AOL doesn't have chat rooms anymore (I confirmed this with AOL tech support rep, and it was a real bummer), and the last time I used AIM was probably 2012, I found someone to talk to elsewhere online.
I typed "chat" into the AOL search box, and up came a site I'd never heard of before called ChatIB.com. When I logged in, it let me choose who I wanted to talk to one-on-one. I chose a 24 year old girl from Colorado because girls are fun to chat with online.
I complained about being on a dial-up connection. She said it had been a while since she'd been on one. "Do you think you could survive with dial-up Internet?" I asked her.
"No," she said.
X-Files fanfic is the perfect relic from the 1995 Internet
Before I logged off AOL dial-up probably forever, I did one thing specific thing that I would've done in 1995: visit an X-Files fanfic site.
This loaded much faster than reddit for some reason. I landed on an "NC-17 rated" bit of fanfic, which I clicked because I thought it was funny a movie rating was assigned to a webpage of text. But this gay X-Files erotic fiction, wherein Mulder bones a character who IMDB tells me was his nemesis, is art. And has presumably remained untouched here on the Internet for 20 years. I was glad I found this.
I started to adjust to the slow Internet
In the short time of this experiment, my expectations shifted to a 1995 state-of-mind, when fast load times didn't exist. I couldn't cycle through open tabs with ESPN and Facebook and reddit and Thrillist and Twitter like I normally do... and just like Michael Stipe, I felt fine. It was an almost Zen-like feeling. The lack of options was actually kind of soothing, and almost preferable.
That said, it's nice to live in a world where I can see a picture of boobs in, like, five seconds flat.
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Lee Bresloueris a senior writer for Thrillist, and can't wait until Google Fiber is everywhere. Follow him to wishes: @LeeBreslouer.