Most people threw out all those "50 Hours Free!" CD-ROMs that were everywhere in the 90s, but a select few collectors made it their mission to hoard hundreds or thousands of the discs.
The discs came like a swarm of locusts, burrowing into post boxes and sliding through mail slots. They popped out of cereal boxes and appeared on meal trays during airline flights. They fell out of magazines and Happy Meals. They were stocked at the checkout counters of Best Buy, near the popcorn at Blockbuster, on bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. The ubiquity of AOL discs—those free marketing materials sent by America Online in the 90s to entice people to sign up for internet service—could be likened to world domination.
But they were also annoying. If you didn't end up using your "50 Hours Free!," the discs would likely end up in the trash. A satirical newspaper in California, The Larely Beagle, once published a faux report about how there were so many unused AOL trials in landfills that it was contaminating the nation's drinking water.
It bothered Brian Larkin, then a 20-something in Los Angeles, to see his roommates repeatedly throwing the CDs into the garbage. So he started collecting them in a bin to recycle later. But he never got around to it, and when he moved, he found the bin, now piled high with the shiny discs, and had a revelation: They were beautiful.
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Larkin, who now has well over 2,000 AOL discs in his possession, thought he was the only one collecting these things. Soon, he realized there was a small, but tenacious, community of AOL disc collectors.
There was Lydia Sloan Cline, who Larkin found through her now-defunct Geocities site called Lydia's AOL Disk Collection. Then there was Sparky Haufle, who ran an Anglefire website and wrote the complete collector's guide, AOL CD Collecting: The New High-tech Version of Baseball Card Collecting. There was Jim McKenna and John Lieberman, who collected the discs for the express purpose of dumping them back at AOL's headquarters. And there was Bustam Halim, who according to Wired is nicknamed "the Leader."
Of the bunch, Sloan Cline is arguably the most prolific collector. By her estimates, she has over 4,000 unique AOL discs stored in the basement of her home in Kansas. Every CD in her collection is different: There are discs in every color, ones in plastic cases or shrink-wrap packaging, ones promising various hours on the free trial. Versions one through three came on floppy disk, and some of the early ones came in metal tins—Sloan Cline has those kinds, too. There were also branded AOL discs, like her prized Marvel Spider-Man disc, and foreign AOL discs, which she got from her friends in Canada and Argentina.
"I probably have one of the most extensive collections—well, me and Bustam," she said.
Halim, whose collection runs at least 3,000 discs, started collecting in 1999 "because they were free," and he liked the idea of a hobby that didn't require spending any money. Unlike other collectors, who've been known to shell out upwards of $100 on an ultra-rare CD, Halim claims he's never paid more than a few bucks for a disc. Instead, he'd make frequent trips to the swap meet in Oakland, where there was a section devoted to "all kinds of computer-related junk." There, he'd sometimes find a really rare AOL disc for $1—better than anything he could find on eBay, and for a fraction of the price.
Each morning, Halim says he'd spend about an hour admiring his collection, organizing the discs by their serial numbers, and updating his website, cdcult.com. Then he'd head into his job at a tech company, where all of his coworkers knew about his collecting obsession because he'd asked them to give him their AOL CDs. For the most part, they did, since he was basically "asking for this junk mail." His favorite CD is one that an employee snagged at a computer convention in Japan. It's a plain-looking disc, with very little art on the packaging, but it's rare—no one who wasn't at the convention has a copy.
"I probably had, at one point, at least 20,000 CDs," Halim said, mainly from the donations from his coworkers. "I threw away a lot of them because there were copies."
AOL disc collecting isn't about quantity—it's about diversity. There were AOL discs in every color; discs in all kinds of designs; branded discs (Larkin's favorite CD is one from a Frisbee partnership); ones in weird packaging, like a one-time disc design that came in a plastic purse. Unique designs were determined by subtle differences in the color, design, and text. Two discs might look alike, except one promises "500 hours free!" and the other only offers "200 hours free!" Within one "substyle"—the gold edition, for example—there might be 15 variations in the text. Those all count as unique designs, which can also be catalogued by the serial numbers on the discs.
"There were hundreds of designs, and about 20 percent of them were rare ones," says Sloan Cline. "Those are what we fought over."
It's not that AOL collecting was competitive, per se—just that, when there are only a handful of people who care about your hobby, every small victory or failure is amplified. Halim and Sloan Cline both have tin-packaged AOL CDs in their collections, but Sloan Cline's is still in the original wrapping—something that Halim resents. When, in 2002, AOL invited Sloan Cline and her family to a party in New York for the launch of AOL Version 8, Halim fumed with jealousy. "I hated her for that," he said. "I was so jealous."
(For her part, Sloan Cline said the party was a blast. "They were so thrilled that someone was collecting their discs instead of shooting bullet holes through them that they invited us.")
There's no record of how many different styles of AOL discs were distributed, but Jan Brant, AOL's former chief marketing officer, estimates that the number is in the thousands. On a Quora thread, Brant said the marketing campaign cost more than $300 million, but it was worth it: "We were logging in new subscribers at the rate of one every six seconds."
It's this ubiquity, the annoying success of their campaign, that makes AOL CDs important to remember, according to Jason Scott, a digital historian with the Internet Archive. "They were, at one time, half of all the CDs produced in the US," Scott explains. "So the story of AOL discs is part of the story of software, and it's important for me to get them."
There's already a small collection of discs catalogued at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, but Scott wants his own. In May, he put out his own request to amass old AOL CDs on behalf of the Internet Archive. The discs are interesting, he says, because their evolution traces a history of the internet. The oldest discs promised access to a virgin internet, but the newer ones said things like "Come back!" As peoples' relationship to the internet changed, so did AOL discs.
Scott has amassed about 300 CDs so far, all via donation. "For a collector, there's often an issue where like, they only made 20 Beanie Babies with this one signature, so now each of those is worth a ridiculous amount. AOL collecting isn't like that," he explains, "There's no value in that market."
Earlier this year, Verizon acquired AOL for $4.4 billion. It signals the official end of an era, when AOL wasn't just a gateway to the internet—it was the internet. This kind of end to the AOL story make collectors all the more sentimental about their discs, like precious artifacts in a technologically-advanced world.
Collecting is based on nostalgia: People collect Pez dispensers and stamps and tin lunchboxes not because they're inherently valuable or interesting, but because they remind people of a time in their life. That's why Sloan Cline has kept her collection, which today sits filed away in wire CD racks in her basement, mostly in their original packaging.
"I really believe that maybe ten years, 15 years from now, people who remembered [AOL discs] from fifth grade or had their first interent experience with it, they're gonna look back and say, 'I remember that!' and I really believe that these discs will be worth something," she said.
Larkin doesn't think the discs will ever be worth anything, and neither does Halim. But neither of them are ready to give up the collections. It's worth something to them.
Sometimes Halim will just sit and stare at the discs, with their geometric designs, and pass hours that way. "It's hard to explain," he said, "but they're just so beautiful to me."
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